In the stories dealing with the first generations of the Israelite ancestors, this week’s Torah portion serves primarily as a transitional narrative between the cycle of Abraham stories and those dealing with Jacob. It begins by noting the death of Sarah and concludes with the account of Abraham’s death. As Sarah passes from the story, she is replaced by Rebecca, the woman whose compassion, lineage, and fidelity identify her as the appropriate wife for Isaac.
The focus on Sarah and the importance attached to securing Rebecca as a wife for Isaac call attention to the significant role played by the matriarchs in the early stories of the Torah. We are accustomed to speaking only of the patriarchs, but when we look closely at the stories of the earliest generations of our ancestors, we often find the actions of the matriarchs, although subtle, are in fact dominant in moving forward the drama of the Covenant.
When Sarah and Abraham remain childless, it is Sarah who takes the initiative and suggests that Abraham conceive a child with her servant Hagar, presumably so the child can have the legal/clan status of inheritance. When Isaac arrives, it is Sarah who recognizes that Ishmael must be displaced in order for Isaac to inherit the Covenant.
In the second generation, it is Rebecca who recognizes that of the twins Esau and Jacob, the eldest, to whom the birthright ought to pass, is not suitable, and he, like Ishmael, must be displaced. Rebecca recognizes in Jacob the qualities that will make him the appropriate link in the chain of the Covenant.
In the third generation, the sisters Leah and Rachel, both wed to Jacob, offer different models of leadership. Leah, who is described as having “weak eyes,” manages to maintain her dignity by seeing clearly that her ability to bear children ensures the continuity of the Covenant.
Rachel, who inherits the role of the barren-to-become-fertile matriarch, understands the need to protect her son Joseph from the envy and enmity of his brothers.
The Torah records promises given by God that are realized only through the struggle of human beings. Having been promised progeny, Abraham and Sarah must first seek alternative routes to procreation, and then manage the complex and painful family dynamics that attend upon the arrival of Isaac. Having been promised the entire Land of Israel, Abraham finds himself forced to negotiate the purchase of even a small burial plot for Sarah in that same land.
The fulfillment of the Covenant promised to Abraham requires human insight that can faithfully direct action and attitude. As we record this week the death of Sarah and of Abraham, we are reminded that from the first generation, the future of the Jewish people has depended on the insight and abilities of the women — as well as the men — on whom the future depended.
Without the determination of Sarah, we might never have reached the second generation. Without the insight of Rebecca, the Covenant might have been passed to Esau, to be auctioned off for a hastily prepared meal. Without the persistence of Leah and the aggressiveness of Rachel, the expansion of the clan of Abraham and Sarah might never have been accomplished.
We are indebted to the patriarchs for the ways in which they bore the burdens and met the challenges inherent in the project on which they embarked. But we are no less indebted to the matriarchs, whose ability to keep the covenantal claims in focus perhaps was the determining factor that assured the future of the project they shared with their husbands — and handed on to us.