Parashat Vayera: The Trials And Tribulations Of Sarah

Parashat Vayera: The Trials And Tribulations Of Sarah

(Torah Study delivered by Maayan Lev on November 5, 2022)

 

“Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together, today.” These are the words of one of my favorite clergy members in history, albeit a fictional one, from the movie The Princess Bride.

In all seriousness though, this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, best known for the covenant between G!d and Avram, tells us a lot about the marriage between what is traditionally attributed to be the first Jewish couple of all time, Avram and Sarai (better known as Avraham and Sarah, the names they will acquire at the end of the parashah).

Of the 3 patriarchs, 2 of them had famously difficult marriage situations. Isaac and Rebecca seem to be the prototype for quarrelsome couples everywhere, and Jacob, of course, had a very difficult balancing act to play when he had to marry two rival sisters, Rachel and Leah. Though it isn’t discussed as much, Abraham and Sarah also likely had a strained relationship, and it actually started long before Sarah asked Abraham to kick out Hagar and Ishamel. It starts this week, in Lech Lecha.

Avram was 75 years old when he packed up his things and left for Israel, then known as Canaan.[1] Sarah was likely 65.[2]

 

Question to Consider:

How would you feel if your spouse suddenly asked you, with no warning at all, to move to a totally unknown country while you were in your 60’s?

 

I confess I would resist.

Later in this week’s portion, a famine strikes the land, and Avram and Sarai go down to Egypt for the time being. Avram says to his wife Sarai: “I know that you are a beautiful woman. If the Egyptians see you, and think you are my wife, they will kill me and let you live.” And so, Avram said to Sarai, “When we go to Egypt, please tell everyone you are my sister.” And that’s what they did. The Egyptians did indeed notice Sarai’s beauty, and word of her soon reached the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh took her into his house, and took her as his wife. Only when God inflicted Pharaoh with a plague, did Pharaoh realize they were married, and return her to Avram.[3]

 

Questions to Consider:

What might it have been like for Sarah, to have her husband abandon her in a foreign country?

What might have been going through her mind to suddenly be the Pharaoh’s wife?

 

It’s quite likely that this event caused a lot of strife between Avram and Sarai. And if she ever told him, “Don’t you dare do this to me again,” he didn’t exactly listen. Almost the exact same scenario plays itself out again in next week’s Torah portion, when Avraham tells Avimelech that Sarai is his sister. The only significant difference between these two episodes is that unlike the Pharaoh, Avimelech is prevented from sleeping with Sarai because G!d intervenes. But still, Sarai stood by Avram (what choice did she have?).

Towards the end of Lech Lecha, we know that Avram and Sarai were having trouble conceiving, so Sarai tells him that he should go have a child with her maid, Hagar.[4] Hagar, was an Egyptian slave, who seems to be one of the slaves given to Avram by Pharaoh as a gift.[5]

 

Question to Consider:

Knowing this, how do we now view Sarai’s request that Avram should have a child with Hagar?

 

Sarah often gets a lot of flack for forcing Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the house. After all, Ishmael only existed because Sarai authorized it in the first place, so it seems as though she is going back on her word. But when looking at Sarai’s life story carefully (from the moment Avram proposed the trek to Canaan), it’s clear that there’s more to their relationship than meets the eye. She has clearly endured a very stressful marriage.. Maybe she didn’t even want Avram to have a child with Hagar in the first place, despite her words! Imagine what it would have sounded like if her idea about Avrham and Hagar having a child together was stated sarcastically! The Torah cantillation lends itself well to this idea, particularly the etnachta symbol above the final word.

 “בֹּא־נָא֙ אֶל־שִׁפְחָתִ֔י אוּלַ֥י אִבָּנֶ֖ה מִמֶּ֑נָּה

“Consort with my maid; perhaps I will be built up through her.”[6]

This may seem like an improbable way to read things, but the issue of Avram and Sarai struggling to conceive an heir is a sympathetic one, and the natural solution of using Hagar had probably already crossed Avram’s mind. If that was so, there was little Sarai could do to stop him.

If it’s true that Sarai never wanted Hagar to have a child with Avram in the first place, then her order to kick them out of the house is suddenly a lot more understandable. She would no longer seem like a flip-flopper, which is not how I prefer to view her.

When we look at the marriage of Abraham and Sarah, we see two amazing individuals, each worthy of our admiration for different reasons. HaShem would not have chosen to make a covenant with them if they were unworthy. But messy relationships make for great stories!

It’s not uncommon for couples to fight. Even the best marriages have their rocky periods. The final straw for Sarah may have been when Abraham seemed willing to sacrifice Issac.[7] She seems to have died not long after.[8]

There are many lessons that people say Abraham and Sarah are meant to teach us. But the message that often gets undermined when discussing them, is the importance of communication.

It seems like a cliche to say this lately, but we should always communicate; with our partners, with our family members, with our friends, and to a degree, even with our enemies. This is the lesson I take from Abraham and Sarah this Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom.

 

[1] Genesis 12:4.

[2] Deduced from Genesis 17:17.

[3] Genesis 12:10-20.

[4] Genesis 16:1-2.

[5] Genesis 12:16.

[6] Genesis 16:2.

[7] Genesis 22:1-19.

[8] Genesis 23:1-2.

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