Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life —came to 127 years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-2)
With these words, the Torah takes leave of the first matriarch of Jewish tradition, about whom we know little but enough to appreciate her essential attributes and contributions.
We first meet Sarah (then Sarai) in Genesis 11:29-31: “Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai…. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. Terah took his son Abram…and his daughter-in-law Sarai…and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan, but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.”
In the almost off-handed reference to Sarah’s “barrenness,” the Torah signals that her destiny will be consequential. Fertility, normally the ancient evidence of blessing, is withheld in Sarah’s case. As the narrative continues, we (and she!) discover an entirely new level of blessing that derives not from natural fecundity, but from the promises and protection of the covenant to be established with the one God who enters history through his relationship to Abraham and Sarah.
It is also significant that the first time the Torah introduces Sarah, she, like Abraham, is journeying to Canaan. True, they get only to Haran, but this overture, as it were, signals the fulfilled journey to the Promised Land that Abraham and Sarah will undertake under God’s direction. Like Abraham, Sarah will “go forth from [her] native land and from [her] father’s house to the land that I will show you.…” (12:1)
In Genesis 12:5, we learn that when Abraham and Sarah set out for Canaan, they took with them “the persons they had acquired in Haran,” which rabbinic commentators understood this to refer to people who had been “converted” to monotheism, the men by Abraham, the women by Sarah. Again, Sarah emerges as a partner with Abraham in the promulgation of a new faith.
But partnership does not imply parity. In Egypt, Abraham exposes Sarah to sexual conquest by passing her off as his sister, rather than his wife; only God’s intervention deflects the Pharaoh and saves Sarah. (12:10-20)
From that point forward, we read little of collaborative projects undertaken by Abraham and Sarah. Abraham alone traverses Canaan (13:17); he alone leads the battle to recover his kidnapped nephew (14); he alone first hears the promise: “Your very own child shall be your heir.” (15:4)
The goal toward which both Abraham and Sarah are working — the beginning of a new nation, the securing of a new land, the understanding of a new God — is now pursued in confusion and conflict. Sarah offers her handmaid Hagar as a surrogate with whom Abraham can conceive a child who may legally inherit as the son of Abraham and Sarah.
Finally, “The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age.” (21:1-2)
The last mention of Sarah prior to her death is hardly one we would like to remember: Sarah treats Hagar cruelly, demanding that Abraham expel both her and her son Ishmael. “Cast out [Hagar] and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (21:10) Sarah is vindicated, however: “God said to Abraham…do whatever Sarah tells you….” (21:12) It is Sarah who makes the tough choices, who moves the epic of the Jewish people forward, who sees beyond what Abraham can see.
And it is Sarah who accomplishes the first legal holding by Abraham’s family in the land of Canaan. It is her burial plot, purchased by Abraham from Efron the Hittite, that constitutes the first property that will anchor the Promised Land for the descendents of Abraham.
The silent spaces in Sarah’s life cry out for dialogue. What did she say to Abraham when he proposed — not once, but twice! — that she feign being a sister, rather than a wife? What did she say to Abraham — and Isaac! —when they returned from Mount Moriah after the near-sacrifice?
The recovery of the voices of Jewish women throughout the centuries is one of the inspiring and expanding developments of our time. As we learn to listen more carefully to what women said, we also learn to ask more insistently: What were they not allowed to say?
“Sarah’s lifetime…came to 127 years.” But her legacy — and the questions she left us — lives today wherever Jewish men and women seek to restore the missing voices of the generations of matriarchs.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.