Shabbat candles: 5:48 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37
Shabbat ends: 6:46 p.m.
Anyone who reads the Bible is cognizant that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob played a fundamental role in early Jewish history. But what role, if any, did the matriarchs, specifically Sarah and subsequently Rebecca, play?
Sarah was unable to conceive, and she voluntarily shared her husband with her Egyptian maid Hagar so that Abraham could have an heir. This was an extremely risky arrangement, which could ruin any household, and in this case it nearly did. There were tensions from the time Hagar conceived Ishmael, which led her to Hagar running away, only to return and be expelled by Sarah after the birth of Isaac.
It is essential to remember the promises that God made to Abraham were in the general form: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout the generations. … [All] the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” [Gen. 17:7-8].
This pledge became problematic when Isaac was born and the scenario suddenly changed from Abraham not having just one heir but two. That they were sons from two different women added to the tension and ambiguity. The issue was far from settled.
When Sarah perceived Ishmael as mocking, even threatening, to Isaac, she asked Abraham to send Ishmael away [Gen. 21:9]. Abraham didn’t like the idea; he was distraught and reluctant.
It was high noon in the first Jewish household. Who would prevail? Abraham or Sarah?
At this juncture, God is aware that His guidance was essential to breaking this standoff. This time, however, the God is very specific and concise “And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of [Ishmael and Hagar]… [In] all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice, for in Isaac shall thy seed be called…” [Gen. 21:12].
This is a pivotal sentence in the Bible. It reaffirms and finalizes that Sarah’s son, Isaac, not Ishmael, is the true heir and that there will be no commonality between them. Consequently, the true lineage will only branch out through Isaac and his descendents who will inherit and be the beneficiaries of the covenant, tenets, blessings and Promised Land.
This was Sarah’s finest hour.
The narrative makes it abundantly clear that Sarah was a beautiful, obedient, faithful, and supportive wife. She packed up and followed Abraham from country to country all over the region. She played the role of Abraham’s sister when he asked her to protect him in Egypt. She did the cooking and baking to help Abraham be the gracious host while she stayed in the background. She was willing to let Abraham live with Hagar in her own household. But when Sarah is old and finally gives birth to a son, she is not going to shortchange her child. When she believes his future is threatened, she draws the line and takes an intransigent position. Sarah forces a showdown that ultimately necessitates a higher intervention in which the God guarantees that His pledge will forever be bestowed upon Isaac and his descendents.
Let’s fast forward to the second Jewish generation. This time the conflict is between Isaac (favoring Esau) and Rebecca (supporting Jacob). There, too, Rebecca clearly prevailed; Jacob receiving the primary and major blessing while Esau settles for a minor one.
The matriarchs were mostly supportive of their husbands; at times they were passive and just stayed in the background. However, in critical situations the matriarchs were neither passive nor supportive, rather they were independent and, in fact, contrarians. These characteristics helped them triumph in decisive circumstances, and they were major catalysts in defining early Jewish history and beyond. n
Joseph R. Eliav is manager of an accounting department for Slant Fin Corporation, and is a member of the Jericho Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Jericho, L.I.