Sermon: Hayei Sarah – Women on a Mission

Parashat Hayei Sarah
October 25, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper

It doesn’t happen often … Women being elevated to places of prominence in Torah.  Most of the time, we hear about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses.   Rarely do we hear about the women of our text.  And yet here, our portion this week begins with an acknowledgement of the life of Sarah.   Hayei Sarah, perhaps more than any other portion, directs our attention to the role of the matriarchs – the mothers of Israel – in our history. It begins with the death of Sarah and continues, with the story of the way in which the second matriarch, Rebekah, was chosen to be the wife of Isaac. When you read this portion it becomes obvious that women played an extremely important role in our people’s history.

Of them all, Sarah seems to have been the most important. Indeed Sarah is unique and is granted greater attention and respect in the Scripture than any of the others. Her death and burial are not only recorded, but the exact years of her life are spelled out – “Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to one hundred and twenty-seven years” (Genesis 23:1). The death of none of the other matriarchs is recorded in this way. Only the years of the lives of the patriarchs and other important men are so inscribed.  Her importance is shown by the fact that earlier Abraham is told by God to listen to her advice (Genesis 21:12). She is the only woman in the Bible whose name is changed by God (Genesis 17:15).  The prophet Isaiah mentions her by name in such a way as to equate her with Abraham: “Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth” (51:2). The story of the purchase of a special burial place for her indicates her importance. Sarah’s dedication to Abraham is unquestioned. Her willingness to put herself in danger for his sake is proof of that. She surely shared his values and joined in his adventure.

The story of the second matriarch, which begins in this portion, also emphasizes the respect and love that the Torah considers was due to women. The description of the first meeting of Rebekah with her intended groom, Isaac, is a brief but moving love story – the first love story in the Torah. In fact the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that “Isaac loved her” (Genesis 24:67). The marriage may have been arranged, but it was much more than a business matter.

Rebekah was a strong and determined woman, no less so than Sarah, who also fights for what she understands to be the rights of her beloved son. The story of the servant’s search for a bride for Isaac is instructive of a number of points. It illustrates how important it was that the woman be of good character. She is viewed not merely as an instrument for childbearing and someone to take care of the cooking, but as one who has enormous influence in the household and over the upbringing of a child. We also see in this story that she had certain rights, including the right to say “no” regarding her marriage partner (Genesis 24:57-58).

The problem is that the laws of the Torah, for all their concern with women, still reflect a society in which men dominated and in which women were dependent upon their husbands and not totally independent of them in many ways. Many rabbinic enactments attempted to enhance the rights of women, but were far from granting them equality.

But that is not our message today.  The sometimes troubling misogynistic views of the rabbis were replaced in the 20th century with an overwhelming sense of equality that has carried women to great prominence in the Jewish community.  And while there is still much work to be done, women are filling roles and serving in places that their ancestors only a century ago would never have dreamed.   So much of our Jewish path in the 21st century will be guided by women who, feeling the passion of faith and the spirit of leadership, will seize the future and create it in their image.

As many of you know, Dora and I have two daughters and one son. We often joke that our son, who is the oldest, sold his birthright to his sisters for a pot of stew and willingly listens to them as they guide his life.  I think, more realistically, he jumped out of the way of a speeding train as he saw his sisters gain voice in a world that empowered them strongly.  And as a proud papa, I have watched time and again as that voice, which draws its strength from the power of the matriarchal tradition in our family, builds to a powerful and mighty pitch.   And yes, there are times that I even cower in the corner with my son.   You know, women on a mission.  

Another young voice on a mission is Mahlalah …  a young Pakistani school pupil and education activist.  She is known for her activism for rights to education and for women, especially in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school. In early 2009, at the age of 11, Yousafzai wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls.

In October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning home on a school bus.  The assassination attempt sparked a national and international outpouring of support for Yousafzai. The United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, launched a UN petition in Yousafzai’s name, using the slogan “I am Malala” and demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015.

That slogan, I am Malala, has become a clarion call for women all over the world to raise their voices, and seek justice in this broken world.

The respect shown to women such as Sarah and Rebekah in the Torah is not easy to find.   And while the Torah mentions these two strong willed women in this section, it is not indicative of Judaism’s general attitude toward women.  Women have had a long struggle towards equality within Judaism.   It has not been easy but we are much further along in Reform Judaism than our more traditional counterparts.   We represent equality becoming.  What remains to be done is to build upon the goal of molding a Judaism in which the rights of women will indeed be equal to those of men. And the sooner the better.

Kein Yihi Ratzon … May it be God’s will.