This week we read the one portion of the Torah that is named after a woman, “Chayei Sarah” – the life of Sarah. Ironically, the parashah, which is named for its opening words, actually tells of her death and burial. Because the preceding story in the Torah concerns the “binding of Isaac”, the rabbinic tradition has connected these two stories. The ancient sages note that when God calls Avraham to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice, there is no mention that Sarah has been informed; rather, “Avraham awakes early in the morning”, apparently without consulting her and heads off with his son, her only child. The two walk off together to the site of the potential offering. Stopped at the last minute from taking the knife to his son’s throat, the Torah relates that Avraham returns to his home in Be’er Sheva. And what of Isaac? The Torah does not say explicitly. And what of Sarah? We hear immediately after, in the opening of this week’s parashah, of her death. Some commentators have speculated that Sarah dies of the fright she has suffered from her son being taken away and offered as a potential sacrifice and that Isaac, traumatised, returns to a meditative life in the field. The beauty of Torah, in its lack of detail, is that it enables us to “fill in the blanks” and draw lessons from the story as told.
One thing we recognise is that by this time in her life, Sarah has been silenced. Another is that Isaac has become withdrawn. These characters remind us, sadly, of a reality that pervades our contemporary society far too much – the silencing of women, the forcing our will on children, and in general, situations that cause women and children to seek shelter. This is not to say that our patriarch of blessed memory, Avraham Avinu, was abusive, but rather, we can see the suffering of women and children far too much to this day. In fact, back in the time of the Torah the prime concern for the underprivileged and oppressed if framed in the commandment “to look after the widow and orphan.” As a society, we need to deal as proactively as possible to eliminate power structures that disadvantage women and children.
This Friday is White Ribbon Day, part of the White Ribbon Campaign, a global movement of men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls. We must consider the violence perpetrated, primarily by men, upon women and children. One out of five children will suffer physical or sexual abuse by the age of 18. One of three women will suffer sexual abuse or assault during their lives. Gender pay gaps and other forms of discrimination continue. This Shabbat, we think about the life of Sarah and the women through the generations whose voice has not been heard, whose equality has not been recognised. Our Torah encourages us to do better, especially considering its opening teaching that “God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God – creating them male and female.” Equality demands of us equality in livelihood, equality in life, equality in safety and well-being.
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins