Should we be surprised that a parasha entitled Hayey Sarah, “the life of Sarah”, in fact opens with the death of Sarah, and encompasses nothing of her life story?
Torah is full of round-about tales and messages. Here is one that is perhaps more significant for being less straightforward. It is about Sarah, and yet not about one person, for it clearly connects to the origins of a people.
To find the beginning of this tale that is “the life of Sarah” we need to go back a few parshiot and chapters in Genesis, when her name is still Sarai. Her spouse Avram, in response to the call to “leave your homeland, your kin, your father’s home,” brings her on the journey, along with his nephew and others.
Contemporary readers, especially those straining to tune in to women’s experiences in Torah, must surely wonder if Sarai had any say in the matter, and what it may have been like to her to uproot herself for the sake of her husband’s call. Ellen Frankel, drawing on traditional rabbinic commentary, other relevant historical data, and her own imagination, constructs this tale, in the voice of Sarah, in her marvelous commentary, The Five Books of Miriam:
What mysteries still surround the story of how our people began! For though the rabbis recount that Abraham left Ur after smashing his father’s stone gods, they fail to tell all the other stories — about my own decision to leave … One night I had the most frightening dream. The tyrant Nimrod appeared to me and foretold the death of my beloved Abraham and his entire family. He declared that he would no longer tolerate Abraham’s preaching about YHVH, who claimed he was mightier than all the gods of Ur.
When I awoke, I told my mother of my dream. My mother then urged me to flee Ur and take with me Abraham, Terah, and those of his family who might wish to join him in his new faith. So I persuaded Abraham to leave. He agreed to do so only after he consulted with his God, who told him: “Whatever Sarai tells you, do as she says.”
Frankel here finds a way to imagine Sarai’s full participation in her own destiny, even incorporating a thread from Torah itself (referring to the message Abraham receives from God about heeding Sarah’s voice, in Genesis 21:12).
Contemporary women’s midrash — through story, song and poetry — has attempted to fill in some of these blanks about Sarah and other women characters in Torah. But it is vitally important to note that this is hardly the first generation to do so, though the perspective of today’s seekers may be utterly distinct from those of yore. While it remains challenging to discern women’s voices or threads of Jewish women’s lives in talmudic through pre-modern commentary, those voices are there and they are strong.
The rabbis of the Talmud, and their medieval “spokesperson” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki — better known as Rashi — included a critical collection of stories about Sarah in their commentaries and midrash: a thread that has been called the “Sarah tradition” by contemporary scholar Savina Teubal. Judging by all of the marvelous midrashim he incorporates in his biblical commentary about Sarah, he would probably have no trouble with sharing Teubal’s framing of this material.
Among my favorite midrashim that Rashi brings are two versions of the same image: that Sarah was able to nurse countless infants, particularly because the women of the community suspected her and Abraham — aged as they were — of adopting an orphan and passing him of as their own son! Rashi connects these stories to what he calls “the double blessing” that Sarah receives from God in Genesis 17:16, when God speaks of Sarah to Abraham, saying: “I will bless her and give you a son from her; I will bless her so that she becomes nations — kings of peoples shall come from her!”
Here Sarah’s motherhood and her place at the head of a nation are clearly linked. She holds a place of significance in the rabbinic imagination. The talmudic commentators and Rashi are not shy about crafting and relating numerous stories that show Sarah as an authority figure in her own right. It is not so odd then, that this parsha, beginning with her death, should be named for her life; she lives through the nation she mothered.