Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Chayei Sarah
We grieve the death of Sarah this week. She lived to be 127 years old. Her biography is a mixed bag. She is the matriarch of matriarchs in the western faith traditions. She is the privileged wife of the wealthiest man in the storyline. Sarah is the jealous lover who got “one-upped” by her maid who gave her husband a child when she could not. She is the shocked mother of a child almost killed by his father. She is the wife given freely to consort sexually with the kings of other countries; as a buffer to save her husband’s life.
We meet her death as this new week’s portion begins. Before I could even digest the text, several different conversations screamed off of the page at me. We know that after the “Binding of Isaac” story, she moved to Kiryat Arba. Abraham is living in Be-er Sheva. Why she moved is anyone’s guess, but we know that she died in her new community, and Abraham came there to bury her. We do not know what Sarah told the local population, as to why she left her husband.
On the one hand, I was impressed that without consternation or condemnation, the community welcomed our patriarch and offered to take care of him in his time of grief. Even if Sarah had shared her reasons for leaving Abraham, the people welcomed the stranger. This act is the hospitality of which our tradition speaks. Maybe not knowing Abraham, they adhered to the imperative to not pick sides without a fair look at all the evidence. Justice is served by not judging people based on only accusations.
I thought again, though, and found myself less generous towards the people. Perhaps they knew who Abraham was. They acknowledged his wealth and power. Maybe they at least suspected something was wrong with Sarah moving there. Why would they be so gracious to this man who had tried to kill his son on a mountain? Perhaps they feared his wrath; he did have a large entourage that could have attacked. Perhaps they supported his abuse? In a male dominated society, men protect men and diminish women. They could look past Sarah’s complaints, dismissing her dignity … simply because she was a woman. Yes, we struggle mightily with gender-based injustice. The highest incidence of spousal abuse is in fundamentalist religious communities.
Perhaps Sarah made no complaint. Abused spouses/victims of violence often never speak out. They are too afraid to speak. They fear condemnation, even while being the victim. They fear condemnation for the violence occasioned upon them. We too often see the victims of rape thrown from fundamentalist communities in shame, as though it was the girls fault for having been violated. We already know of two times in which Abraham gave Sarah to foreign kings (for sex) to save his own life.
On the other hand, maybe Sarah said nothing. Maybe she moved quietly into her new community and only spoke honorably of her now estranged husband. Perhaps the people of Kiryat Arba welcomed Abraham simply because they only knew of his heroism and “relationship” with God. Was she silent because even while needing to hold Abraham accountable for his actions, she understood that it was God compelling him to risk their son Isaac? In this sense, her compassion is exemplary for the way in which we are supposed to care for each other. Irrespective of how her new neighbors might have responded, Sarah may just have wanted “shalom bayit;” peace in what was left of her home.
Torah yields so many different conversations. One fact scenario opens the door for us to see so many possible teachings that still speak relevantly in the 21st century. Torah invites us to engage in meaningful ways, knowing that each person who reads the text can walk away with radically differing understandings, lessons, and morally transformational teachings. It is as if Torah offers our souls what our Reform Movement might call “Audacious Hospitality:” an invitation to nourish our souls from the source of spiritual sustenance. Each of the scenarios above is a correct extrapolation of the text. Some may be more palatable than others, but that would depend on the surrounding world of the reader at the time of engagement. Torah is not just for children; it speaks loudly across generational boundaries. Our study prompts more questions than answers, blessing each student (young or old) with growing insight and, even more importantly, the first steps of the next spiritual journey. Our tradition is not about finding answers. Judaism requires people to study in order to continue our growth. It is time to engage and see the world through new eyes. Pick up a book. Whether it is scripture or scriptural commentary; whether or not it has anything to do with formal religion; open a book, gather a friend, and join in growing the world as you know it. Shabbat Shalom.