The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is drawing to a close. Wedged between Tishri, a month packed full of commemorative days and festivals – Rosh Ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret/Simchat Torah – and Kislev, which concludes with the celebration of Chanukkah, Cheshvan seems to be a singularly unremarkable month. Indeed, because it is the only month in the Hebrew calendar on which there are no commemorative days whatsoever, the early rabbis referred to it as Mar Cheshvan – ‘bitter Cheshvan’ – and even to this day, some people continue to call it by that name.
It is a tragic irony that this ‘bitter’ month actually witnessed 75 years ago, on the night of November 9th and 10th 1938, orchestrated and devastating attacks against the Jews of Germany that marked the beginning of the violent persecution of the Jewish people, the first stage of what the Nazis later called ‘the final solution’. Of course, I’m talking about Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’ – so-called because alongside the burning books and buildings and terrorised people assaulted and killed, tons of broken glass from shattered windows. Whenever I think about that night, I always imagine the shards of glass glittering in the light of the full moon of Cheshvan – because the Hebrew date of November 9th and 10th 1938 was actually the 16th day of Cheshvan that year. And so, last weekend, when I saw the full moon in the sky, I remembered Kristallnacht.
Before the month ends, I will also have very personal reasons for recalling the bitter taste of Cheshvan. My mother, Edie Klempner, née Waltzer, died of lung cancer on the 27th day of Cheshvan – corresponding to the night of Sunday, November 3rd 1991. And just as significant for me, she began her final journey the previous day, on Shabbat, when the parashah was Chayyey Sarah – today’s Torah portion. So, each year when we read Chayyey Sarah, I recall my mum.
Thinking of her, a unique personality, intelligent and gifted, who spent most of her adult life looking after her husband and children, has also given the theme of the parashah a particular added resonance for me. It opens with these words – at Genesis chapter 23, verse 1:
Va-yihyu chayyey Sarah, mei’ah v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim; sh’ney chayyey Sarah.
The life of Sarah was 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
Chayyey Sarah – ‘the life of Sarah.’ She lived a long life. What do we know about her? That she went with her husband, when, after his first encounter with the Eternal One, Abram, as he was then called, decided to accept the call of ‘leich-l’cha’, and ‘go – away from his land, from his family, from his father’s house (Genesis 12:1-5); that she consented to her husband passing her off as his sister, when famine in the land of Canaan, forced them to journey down to Egypt (12:10-20); that she went with her husband, once again, when they left Egypt and journeyed back to the southern part of Canaan, to the plane of Jordan, and then on to the Oaks of Mamre in Hebron (Gen. 13). Yes, the Torah tells us that Sarah – known at this time as Sarai – followed Abram/Abraham, wherever he went.
And then, as we continue to read the tale, we discover something particular about Sarai: she cannot bear children. She is a wife, but she is not a mother. And we learn something about her personality: Sarai does not accept her fate as a ‘barren’ woman; rather, she hatches a plan: she asks her husband to have intercourse with her hand-maid, Hagar, so that she may acquire a child in a manner that has become familiar to us as surrogacy. And the Torah relates at Genesis chapter 16: Va-yishma Avram l’kol Sarai – ‘Abram listened to the voice of Sarai’ (:2).
But all does not go according to plan. The surrogacy arrangement transforms the relationship between mistress and servant. Hagar now feels a new power with her child stirring within her; Sarai is jealous of her and treats her harshly. Hagar flees into the wilderness. Then, encountering a messenger of God in the desert, she receives the assurance that the Eternal One has ‘heard’ her affliction, and that she will bear a son named Yishma’el – meaning, ‘God will hear’, (16:11). And so, Hagar returns.
But that is not the end of the matter. In a further encounter with the Eternal One, related at Genesis chapter 17, Abram is renamed Abraham and learns, not only that God is making a covenant with him and his descendants (17:4-8), but that Sarai, too, renamed Sarah – both, acquiring the consonant, ‘Hey’, in their names, a sign of the Divine presence – will bear a son. Further, the covenant will be transmitted through Sarah’s son, Isaac, not through Hagar’s son, Ishmael, who is to be the heir of another Divine promise (17:15-21).
All of this is related in parashat Leich L’cha – the first Torah portion in which Abraham and Sarah appear. And the story continues in the next parashah, Va-yeira, at Genesis chapter 18: As Abraham sits at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day, he encounters three strangers, and is swift to offer them hospitality (18:1-9). The strangers ask, A’yeih Sarah – ‘Where is Sarah?’ (18:9). It’s a simple question – but also an odd question: where would Sarah be? She is in the tent, where she belongs, and at that moment following Abraham’s directions to make some cakes as quickly as possible for the unexpected guests (18:6). But she’s not just going about her wifely duties. She is listening to the conversation. And when she hears that she is going to have a son, she laughs – which is how Isaac gets his name: Yitzchak – ‘he will laugh’.
Sarah laughs in disbelief, but then, we learn in Genesis chapter 21 that after Isaac has been born and weaned, her joy is overcome by fear when she sees the son of her servant, playing with her son. And so, she tells Abraham: ‘Cast out this bond woman and her son, for the son of this bond woman shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac’ (21:10). Abraham is, naturally, very distressed, but God tells him: ‘in all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac shall descendants be called for you’ (21:11-12). Sh’ma b’kolah – ‘Listen to her voice.’ At the beginning of the tale of Sarah’s infertility, Abraham listened to Sarah of his own accord; now he is being told he must listen to her.
So, Hagar and Ishmael are cast out. There is no reference to Sarah in chapter 22 that follows, when we read that God ‘tested’ Abraham and told him to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Indeed, we don’t encounter Sarah again until this week’s portion, Chayyey Sarah, which opens with her death – thirty-seven years after she gave birth to Isaac, and, in narrative terms, immediately after the tale of that terrible test.
I have related Sarah’s story in a little detail in order to clarify exactly what it means for a woman to be defined as a wife and a mother. As a wife, Sarah went with her husband, wherever he went; as a mother, her task was to ensure that her precious son received his inheritance. She had no other purpose.
So: Sarah the wife and mother. Then, having buried Sarah in the cave of Machpeilah, aware that he is nearing the end of his life, as we read in chapter 24, Abraham sends his servant on a mission back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. And so, today’s portion introduces us to another prospective wife and mother: Rebekah. But there is a crucial difference: Isaac isn’t Abraham. From the outset, as he steps out and leaves all that he knows behind him, Abraham is someone who takes the initiative. Isaac is a much more passive character and his ‘laugh’ of a name seems a rather ironic joke at his expense. Although the narrative does not tell us this directly, we sense the impact of Isaac’s near-death experience and the terrifying ordeal of his binding on the altar, in the way that the Torah presents Isaac from that moment onwards. And so: he is wandering in the field at sunset, when Rebekah arrives after her epic journey from Haran (24:63), and finds comfort in her for the looss of his mother (24:67). And then later, tragically, as we discover in the next week’s parashah, Tol’dot, oblivious of the Divine plan, Isaac is enamoured by his rugged first-born son, Esau (Gen. 25:28).
Rebekah, by contrast, walks in Abraham’s footsteps – quite literally (Gen. 24:57). Although Isaac entreats God when his wife is barren (25:21), Rebekah goes to enquire directly of God herself, when she experiences the twins struggling together inside her (25:22), and so learns what Isaac never knows, that ‘two nations’ are in her womb, and that ‘the elder shall serve the younger’ (25:23). Yes, Rebekah is an even more forthright character than Sarah, and without her intervention, the youngest son would not have surpassed his older brother. And yet, like Sarah, she has no other purpose in life than to be a wife and a mother.
I’ve spent some time relating these stories – familiar tales that belong to the prehistory of our people. We are not surprised when we reread them that they are about two women who were, primarily, wives and mothers. So it has been within Jewish life from the beginning. When my mother devoted herself to being a wife and mother during the 50s and 60s, she was simply following in her mother’s footsteps. And although, since the early rabbis made studying the chief occupation of a pious Jewish man, many orthodox Jewish women have worked to support the family, nevertheless, the role of women within Jewish life has been defined in terms of their roles as wives and mothers. Matriarchs, yes: but only in the domestic sphere. The public sphere, in particular, the synagogue in all its dimensions, as a house of study, prayer and meeting, has been exclusively the domain of men – and this is still true in the Orthodox Jewish world today.
So, should we be concerned about this as Liberal Jews? After all, equality is the hallmark of our movement in general, and of our synagogue, in particular: a woman Rabbi, female lay readers and lay leaders, including the current President of the congregation. I’m asking a genuine question. I also know how I would answer it. On November 4th, on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the first day of the month of Kislev, a special anniversary will be taking place in Israel: the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall is a pluralist women’s prayer group that meets each Rosh Chodesh to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a remnant of the Temple.
From the sorrow of Cheshvan to the joy of Kislev, with its remembrance of the victorious struggle of the Maccabees, who succeeded in capturing the Temple from the Assyrian-Greek occupiers, who had desecrated it, and rededicated it to Jewish worship in 164 BCE. Kislev: a fitting month for celebration – and the remnant Temple wall, a fitting location. But the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall is unlikely to be the joyous moment it should be. If previous experiences over the past 25 years of women praying at the Western wall are anything to go by, the first day of the month of Kislev will be a day of courage and struggle, as women, each woman clothed in a tallit, attempt to pray and read from the Seifer Torah, the scroll, in the face of verbal abuse and violent assaults from Orthodox male worshippers. As on previous occasions, there are bound to be arrests – not arrests of the hecklers and protesters, but arrests of the women, who dare to claim the right to be Jewish women on their own terms and not on the terms of a tradition that silences their voices, excludes their presence, and banishes them to the private domain.
So, I will repeat my question: Should we be concerned about this as Liberal Jews? I mentioned that Women of the Wall is a pluralist group of women. Following the leadership of Anat Hoffman, the Director of IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Centre, a progressive project that works for justice and equality in Israel, Women of the Wall includes women from all denominations. The Israeli progressive movement has chosen to work in solidarity with orthodox Jewish women and is also determined to challenge ultra-orthodoxy’s exclusive control of public space in Israel. In my view, it is our responsibility to challenge the hegemony of the ultra-orthodox in all contexts – in Israel and the diaspora. The struggle is as much about the equality of all the different forms of Jewish life as it is about gender equality.
I’m sure we would agree that as Liberal Jews it is appropriate that we should support the cause of religious pluralism in Israel. It is also important that we do not feel complacent about the issue of gender equality just because we seem to have secured equality in our movement and in our synagogue. There is still much work to be done in British society to ensure that young women today and in the future, enjoy equal opportunities, and are not forced to choose between motherhood and a career, or to try to combine both, full-time, at the expense of their health, their well-being and their personal relationships, without men doing their fair share of child-care and housework. And when we examine the underside of Britain, or look beyond these shores to other parts of the world, our responsibility to support the struggle of gender equality becomes even more imperative, as we think of women and girls subjected to segregation, exclusion, enslavement, sexual and physical abuse – and in some cases, murder. Until all people, regardless of gender, have equal rights and equal responsibilities in both the private and public domains of life, both in Britain and across the globe, in all societies and cultures, we cannot speak of gender equality. And so on November 4th – on Rosh Chodesh Kislev – google ‘Women of the Wall’, and use every form of social media at your disposal, to express your support for their struggle – and let us all make a commitment to support women challenging oppression and persecution in every place. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
26th October 2013 – 22nd Cheshvan 5774