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Archive for November, 2018

“Where is Abraham?” Sarah wondered.  “For that matter, where is Isaac?  Did the two of them go wandering off somewhere?”  It had been almost three days since she had seen either her son or her husband.  Her last conversation with Abraham had not been pleasant.  After watching Ishmael threaten and abuse her beloved Isaac, she had asked, no demanded that Abraham send the boy and her Egyptian mother away from the camp.  She knew  that Abraham thought she was cruel for demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, but Abraham, typical throughout their over 100 years of being together, had no understanding of her feelings, of her fatigue from the constant demands and strains that he had placed on their relationship.

Life was simple enough when she first met and married Abraham, so many decades ago in the land of Ur.  She was young, naïve, filled with the hopes and dreams of a young woman; marrying into what she though was a fine family.  Abraham’s father, Terach, had been a famous sculpture in the land of the Chaldeans.  People tended to idolize his work.  Abraham, at that point simply known as Avram, was in conflict with his father over going into the family business.  When Sarah, then known as Sarai, had married Abraham, it was clear that this conflict had been ongoing since Abraham’s childhood.  Their argument had even come before King Nimrod, who was a great patron of Terach’s work.  The stridency of Abraham’s arguments in front of Nimrod had resulted in the death of Terach’s youngest son, Haran.  It was the first of a string of family tragedies that Sarah would be forced to endure.

After the death of Haran, Abraham yearned for a son of his own.  Sarah wondered if this might be the result of his guilt over the death of his youngest brother.  Perhaps Abraham felt the need to present Terach with a grandson to replace the son he had lost in Ur.  Perhaps Abraham felt guilty over his role in Haran’s death.  Perhaps Abraham felt the need to teach the next generation differently than his father had taught him.  In any case, it was clear that Abraham wanted a son and he was not happy that Sarah seemed incapable of providing one.  But Abraham was nothing else if not loyal, so other than a few obscure mumblings, Abraham said little and never even thought of leaving Sarah.  She was, after all, the most beautiful woman in all of Ur.

Haran’s death simply began a litany of difficulty for Sarah.  Terach could not bear to remain in Ur, so he decided to leave there and move to the city for which his son had been named, the city of Haran.  To Sarah, this seemed a morbid, unhealthy reminder of her deceased brother in law.  Abraham’s brother Nahor refused to go with Terach, but Abraham, not able to assuage his guilt over Haran’s death through having a son, insisted that he and Sarah go with Terach.  So Sarah was forced to leave the land, the city, the friends, the family she had known all of her life, and travel with her husband to a new land.

There Abraham grew rich.  He was talented in managing livestock and people and soon parlayed this skill into sizable holdings.  He supported his father in Haran, and after a few years Sarah thought that life would settle again into a safe, predictable pattern.  Little did she know.

Abraham had always insisted that it was God, not his own abilities, that had facilitated his wealth.  Now he claimed that the same God was telling him to leave his father’s house in Haran and to go to Canaan.  Abraham claimed that God was going to provide him with significant real estate holdings in Canaan, if he would only get out of his father’s house and move his own family there.  Sarah had mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand she had often wondered why, at age 75, Abraham had felt it necessary to still live with his father.  So she certainly approved of his finally cutting the umbilical cord and leaving his father’s house.  Besides, she was growing tired of the pressure from Terach to produce another heir, as well as the silent criticism when it did not happen.  On the other hand, simply moving to the other side of Haran would have sufficed.  Did they really have to go all the way to Canaan, dragging their substantial holdings, employees, servants and retainers with them?  That was what God demanded, Abraham said.  And so they went.

Abraham had told her that God promised him blessings in Canaan, yet all was not so rosy once they arrived there.  They had not been in their new location long before famine set in, and the whole household had to move into Egypt in order to obtain food.  There, Pharaoh cast his eye on Sarah, and wanted to acquire her for his own court.  Abraham was too afraid to tell Pharaoh that Sarah was already married.  He claimed that Sarah was his sister, and only after Pharaoh’s courtiers brought her to the palace to meet Pharaoh was it revealed that she was indeed Abraham’s wife.  This caused Pharaoh great embarrassment and he told Abraham that he and his household were no longer welcome in Egypt.  So back to Canaan they journeyed once more.

Once there, she begged Abraham to find a spot where they could settle.  No sooner had they begun a new life in an agreeable place, that Lot, Haran’s son for whom Abraham had assumed responsibility, began to quarrel with his uncle over grazing spots for his sheep.  Sarah had always thought that Lot was more trouble than he was worth.  He was a man with no talent other than finding and causing trouble.  Sarah was never sure how much Lot knew about Abraham’s role in his father’s death.  She only knew that Lot took every occasion to find fault with his uncle.  Sarah did admire Abraham’s patience with his nephew, especially in the pasturing dispute.  He simply told Lot that there was plenty of land, and Lot could have first choice of which land he took.  Of course Lot, eager to finally get out from Abraham’s control, chose wrongly.

Once rid of Lot, Abraham no longer had a young man to occupy his attention, so once again he began to agitate for a son.  Sarah had noticed, to her credit without too much jealousy, that Abraham had taken a fancy to her very attractive handmaiden, Hagar, who had joined Sarah’s retinue in Egypt.  Sarah, at this point well into her 80’s, figured she was beyond envy, and offered her to Abraham to produce a child.  In truth, Sarah figured Abraham was way too old to father a child, so imagine her shock when Hagar turned up pregnant!

While technically the boy, Ishmael, belonged to Sarah and Abraham, Sarah could not escape the feeling that the boy had been fathered by someone other than Abraham.  After all their years of infertility, she just never thought the old coot would really get anywhere with Hagar.  And handmaidens, typical of all employees, just could not be trusted.  So it was a double insult to Sarah that not only did Hagar produce a child, but she began to lord it over Sarah as well.  When she appealed to Abraham to help with the situation, his was a typically male response, “Look, you offered her to me.  If you have a problem with her, then you deal with her.”  So it was up to Sarah to discipline Hagar and put her back in her place.

Even though the family had stopped wandering around Canaan, life with Abraham was never easy for Sarah.  He was always off on some mission.  One time he left to recapture Lot who had been taken captive by enemies of the cities in Canaan.  “Good riddance,” Sarah thought.  Lot had never shown any gratitude to his uncle for all his years of supporting his business and personal failures.  But Abraham had that quality of loyalty, so he went after Lot.  It did not hurt that some of the local nobility’s children had been captured with Lot, and Abraham volunteered to retrieve them.

Even when Abraham was home things were never quiet.  He was always inviting wandering strangers in for a visit.  While she admired his friendly nature with strangers, this hospitality only resulted in more work for her.  Invariably, Abraham liked to show off his success, so he only served the choicest of his flock, and demanded she prepare breads and cakes from their choicest flour.  Abraham’s reputation for good entertainment was known for miles around, but Sarah never heard of any credit given to the hours of cooking and supervising of the staff she did to make him a success.

One time, while Abraham was recovering from some self inflicted wounds, three strangers appeared at his tent entrance.  Naturally Abraham, despite being in pain, jumped up to welcome the strangers, and quickly got Sarah to prepare his very favorite meal, veal stew.  “Somehow it seems wrong to be boiling this calf in its mother’s milk,” thought Sarah.  She resolved that if she ever did have children, this would be one recipe that she would not hand down.  Abraham must have known there was something special about these strangers, because he even had Sarah wash their feet.  Later in the evening she overheard the strangest conversation.  The strangers claimed that Sarah would conceive and bear a son.  Now Sarah, although not a doctor, knew enough about female biology to laugh at the very idea that she could still become pregnant.  Abraham, who seemed to be clueless about such things, chided her for laughing.

To her shock, she did become pregnant!  And they named the little boy Isaac.  All of the nurturing instincts that Sarah had repressed for so long burst forth.  She was able to nurse the child.  She found she was enchanted by motherhood.  She was exceedingly protective of her child.  She hesitated to wean him, even at three years old.  When she did, there was Ishmael, glowering threateningly at her son.  She tried to mention this to Abraham.  She had seen the signs of jealousy in Ishmael from the moment Isaac was born.  Yet Abraham paid her no heed.  He told her he was tired of her constant worrying.  He was tired of her habit of always seeing the negative side of things.  Couldn’t she just be happy that they now had two sons, including one which she had bore?

So when she caught Ishmael abusing Isaac, she had seen enough.  She snapped and gave Abraham an ultimatum, Ishmael and Hagar simply had to go.  This exchange distressed Abraham greatly.  He yelled, he cried, he sulked, he pleaded with the God to whom he always turned when he was in doubt.  And now, Abraham had disappeared.  With Isaac.  With his donkey.  With two other servant lads from their household.

Sarah sent servants to the surrounding communities seeking some word, some sign as to where Abraham and Isaac might be.  When three days had passed a stranger asked to see her.  Servants ushered a tall, handsome but darkly mysterious man into her tent.  His name was Sama’el.  He said he had learned that she was seeking word of a man with a young boy.  “I saw them on top of Mount Moriah,” he told her.  “I saw the man tie up the boy, and place him on top of an altar they must have built.  The man kept muttering, ‘God has seen to the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.’”

At that moment, Sarah saw a summary of her life.  At every turn, there she was, being flexible, enduring criticism, uproot, and hardship.  At every turn there she was trying to be supportive, forgiving, waiting for a moment she could know some peace, some serenity.  Sarah saw her life end with the stranger’s words.  She screamed, clutched her chest, collapsed and died.  The stranger, Sama’el, watched, and to her crumpled heap on the tent floor he said, “By the way, I stopped him from harming the child and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.”

”Vayahi chayei Sarah mei’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, sh’nei chayei Sarah.” So begins this week’s Torah portion, “This was the life of Sarah, one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years – the years of Sarah’s life.”  Midrash teaches that Sarah never lost the innocence of 7, nor the beauty of 20 even as she acquired the wisdom of 100.  It does not say if she was happy.  It does not say if she ever felt fulfilled.  It does not say if she ever, in her long and difficult life, felt at peace.  We only know she died.  Torah then says, “And Abraham mourned for Sarah, and cried over her.”  Sad, how the emotional display of Abraham’s appreciation for Sarah, his life’s companion, came just a little too late.

 

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