Sarah as Our Model

On the high holidays I criticized Sarah for banishing Hagar and Ishmael from her and Abraham’s home.  Today, I want to show a redeeming side of Sarah, praising her by demonstrating her righteousness and good character.

Three verses before the one where Sarah calls for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion; there is an interesting verse מי מלל לאברהם היניקה בנים שרה כי ילדתי בן לזקוניו “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!  Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”[1]  According to the Torah, Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham one hundred when they had Isaac, hence the reference to old age.  While this is biologically impossible from a physical standpoint, perhaps it means that Sarah “mothered” Isaac spiritually, providing him with the moral teaching, the knowledge and the experiences that she had gained from her life.

It is the earlier part of the verse, however, in which I am interested: the notion of Sarah suckling children.  Sarah only had one son, so it should have read “that Sarah would suckle a child.”  Why instead does it say children?

Rashi, the biblical commentator par excellence, was also bothered by the use of the word “children”.  He referenced the following story in the Talmud: “Rabbi Levi said: On the day that Abraham weaned his son Isaac, he made a great banquet, and all the peoples of the world derided him, saying, ‘Have you seen that old man and woman, who brought a foundling from the street, and now claim him as their son! And what is more, they make a great banquet to establish their claim!’ What did our father Abraham do? — He went and invited all the great men of the age, and our mother Sarah invited their wives. Each one brought her child with her, but not her wet-nurse, and a miracle happened unto our mother Sarah, her breasts opened like two fountains, and she suckled them all.”[2]  Even though this is impractical from a physical standpoint, perhaps it is being used to indicate that Sarah was able to spiritually nourish and grow people in the world.

This Midrashic teaching in the Talmud is an explanation for why Sarah is considered the mother of all nations.  As Dr. Joshua Levinson of Hebrew University asserts, “The noblewomen suckle their sons from the same milk as Isaac, thus becoming like sons of one mother.”[3]  It would be quite natural for other women to laugh at Sarah giving birth to a child at ninety, claiming that it was either Hagar’s child, or as in the case of our Talmudic text “a foundling from the street.”  Even Sarah questioned the possibility of having a child, stating אחרי בלותי היתה לי עדנה “Now that I am withered am I to have enjoyment?” [4]  In the end, however, Sarah has the last laugh, nursing the sons of all the other nations. This caused others to stop laughing at her and start believing or supporting her. Sarah named her son Yitzhak, laughter, stating כל השומע יצחק לי “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me,”[5] as opposed to laugh at me.

          It must have taken a special woman for God to provide two powerful miracles: giving birth at age ninety and nursing many nations, especially without the use of anesthetics.  What is most remarkable is that Sarah did not believe that she merited such miracles, feeling that she was past her prime.  God demonstrated that this was not the case and not only could Sarah “give birth” but she could also be a powerful symbol of femininity and an example for all the nations of the world.  This teaches that one is never too old to be a respected leader-on the contrary, one’s age gives her the life experience and wisdom to lead and sustain the community.  Bringing this wisdom to the younger generations, like the wisdom my grandmother brings to me every week with her beautiful insights and poetry, is what nurtures the world and is a miracle in and of itself.

I challenge each of us to follow the example of Sarah, embracing every challenge that comes our way. Even if the task at hand appears to be impossible, or we are having a lot of questions about a decision that we are about to make, I urge us to proceed forward with a “can-do” attitude. For those of us going to Israel during this difficult time, may we look for opportunities for which we can make an impact, be it helping Israelis we encounter who are in need, actively getting to know and build relationships with the other members of our group and bringing what we learn and experience back to New York to strengthen our community. For those not joining us, let us think about what we can do to recharge our batteries and increase our active presence in the Jericho Jewish Center, knowing that our involvement DOES make a difference. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 21:7

[2] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 87a

[3] Joshua Levenson, Current Trends in the Study of Midrash (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006), p. 214.

[4] Genesis 18:12

[5] Genesis 21:6

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