Parashat Vayera – 5779


A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayera
by Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

Our matriarch Sarah is held in high esteem. Her kindness in welcoming strangers is a trait she shares with Abraham, and it is said that on the day she gave birth to Isaac many other barren women similarly “were remembered” and also gave birth (Bereishit Rabbah 53:8). Yet the Torah places her in the background rather than at her husband’s side, even with events that directly affect her.Parashat Vayera begins as Abraham welcomes three strangers (messengers of God) who are passing by in the heat of mid-day. Abraham enlists Sarah’s help in preparing food for them, then she remains behind while he goes out to sit with the visitors.  They ask him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” and Abraham replies that she is in the tent (Gen. 18:9). Then they tell him that at this time next year they will return and Sarah will have a son.

The angels ask where Sarah is, but they don’t invite her to join the conversation. The 90-year-old wife of Abraham is left behind as they share this seemingly-impossible news that she will bear a child.

“No one else was in
The room where it happened
The room where it happened
The room where it happened…”*

When this most stunning prediction is revealed, Sara is not invited to be “in the room” – under the tree with Abraham and his guests.  Now these events are set in a culture whose mores differed from our modern western viewpoint: Sarah was considered modest for remaining behind, and it might not have been culturally acceptable for the angels to speak directly to her. This does not discount the enormity of emotion she must have felt as she stood back and listened while her fate was decided.

Infertility is hell. Whether dictated by cultural expectation, personal longing, or the urge to fulfill what one considers to be one’s life purpose, the suffering caused by being unable to procreate runs impossibly deep, and Sarah surely felt this. Being childless in old age must have been such a lonely state.

So there she stood, long past childbearing years, overhearing the news that she would give birth: “And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, after I have become worn out, will I have enjoyment? And also, my master is old” (Gen.18:12).

She might well have laughed — or cried, or collapsed on the ground in the tent behind the strangers. With joy? Hysteria? Disbelief? Understandable, surely. But God hears Sarah laugh and rebukes her (“And Adonai said, why did Sarah laugh?… is anything hidden from Adonai?” Gen. 18:13-14). The message is likely intended to convey God’s omnipotence, but from Sarah’s perspective it must have come across as insensitive and utterly lacking in understanding.

“No one else was in
The room where it happened…
No one really knows how the
Parties get to yessss
The pieces that are sacrificed in
Ev’ry game of chessss…”*

Parashat Vayera ends with the Akeida, the terrible test that Abraham undergoes when he is told to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Sarah is again absent. But imagine if she had been there, as her husband lifted his knife to kill his son? Imagine her calling out, “Abraham, snap out of it! Be a man and put. the. knife. down. You think this God of yours actually wants you to sacrifice your son?” Isaac might have been saved by his mother’s love and common sense. Instead, the angel steps in and spares Isaac’s life. But Sarah is not spared, as tradition has it that she died brokenhearted over this terrible event.

We can honor our first matriarch by acknowledging not only her good qualities but also what she endured. Consider how we might bring Sarah into the room where it’s happening. In reciting the Avot, the first blessing of the Amidah, tradition names the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and some communities have chosen to acknowledge the matriarchs as well by adding their names – following the names of the patriarchs. What if we were to name the women first, starting with Sarah, either out loud or in our hearts:

“Elohei Sarah Elohei Rivka Elohei Rachel v’Elohei Leah
Elohei Avraham Elohei Yitzhak v’Elohei Yaacov….”

We ponder how this might affect our connection with our biblical ancestors and most especially with our first mother.
*From the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, as sung by Aaron Burr who is left out of the room while Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson negotiate America’s future.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.