Much of Sarah’s story is hidden from view. As has happened with many women throughout history, her life was not lived on the public stage. The character of our first mother must be extrapolated from the tales of the Torah. We can begin with the same tenor as the parsha that bears his name.
The above parsha is a parade of period events. Vayera includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which takes place on the world stage, and the War of the Kings, another international incident. These are large, dramatic, and public events. The Akeda, while more intimate, is no less striking and has ramifications that resonate throughout the centuries.
Sarah represents life as it is usually lived. As we read and reflect on great events, the small everyday events of our lives determine their tenor and tone. Most of us learn early that if your work life is good and your home life is bad, your life is bad. But reverse it and things go much better, because home is ultimately where our spirit is troubled or at rest. In the words of Samuel Johnson: “How small, of all that human hearts endure / That part that laws or kings can cause or cure.” Our partners, parents, children, relatives and friends determine the quality of most of our lives.
When the opening of the parsha tells us that Sarah lived “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years,” one way of reading the unusual repetition – years and years and years – is that Sarah held her own character throughout her life. In all the tumult of the world into which she was thrown, she was able to create a home whose solidity would sustain the innovations that she and Abraham were bringing to the world.
The casual reader might object to the description of Sarah as stable or level-headed, because she wanted Abraham to have a child with Hagar and then insisted that they be thrown out of the house.
However, in a life marked by constant travel, hunger, fear (having passed through Abraham’s sister twice), infertility and loneliness that implies being the only couple dedicated to God in a pagan world, even if that was evidence of Sara’s anguish, she would be lost amid the remarkable resistance she displayed. We can add to this the rabbinical observation that Sarah was greater than Abraham in prophecy (Tanhuma, Ex. 1). She knew, as Abraham did not, that only Isaac could carry Israel’s message into the future.
The later story shows that she is right, of course. After Sarah’s death, Abraham had other children, but none of them are transcendent in history. Only Sarah’s son Isaac changes the world. Sarah understood this because she was a mother and looked at the children with different eyes. Remember, the text tells us that Sarah “saw Ishmael” (Genesis 21: 9) just as later the angel must open Hagar’s eyes so that she can see (ibid. 21:19).
Sarah represents the principle of intimacy, of home, of closeness. When God tells Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son, their reactions illustrate different approaches. Abraham says, “Will a 100-year-old man have a son?” (Ibid. 17:17). Sara says, “After I have aged, will I be flexible again?” (Ibid. 18:12). Abraham expresses himself in universals: “a man of 100 years.” Sarah’s response is exquisitely personal: “I have grown old.”
Judaism spread throughout the world because it was nurtured in the family. Our foundation was Sarah, our matriarch, our mother, creator of the Jewish home. ■
The writer is Max Webb, Chief Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.