The Silence of Sarai - Parashat Lekh-L'kha 5778




After several weeks of setting the scene, in today’s Torah portion we finally meet the first of our avot, our fathers – Avram, soon-to-be-named Avraham. We see Avram uproot his life and follow God’s call into the wilderness; we get to see him cultivate this intense and intimate relationship with God, filled with hopes and promises and conversations under the stars. It’s something of an epic romance. But there’s someone who is conspicuously absent from much of this intimacy, someone for whom every hope and promise is terribly relevant – Avram’s wife, Sarai.

You’ve probably read this week’s parasha following the main character, Avram, as the text encourages you to do. I’d like to pull back for a moment and tell Sarai’s story. This is what happened in this week’s parasha for Sarai: first, her husband was called to uproot his life and head out into the wilderness, and so Sarai went with him. Whatever her reasons were, they were not recorded.


The next we hear from her, Sarai’s husband tells her that she is so beautiful that the Egyptians will kidnap her and murder him, so they should tell the Egyptians that they are siblings. There’s no dialogue here for Sarai, so again, we don’t know her motivations – we just know that the Egyptians are led to believe that they are brother and sister. It’s… half a solution. The Egyptians do kidnap Sarai, but they don’t murder Avram, so that’s a success of a sort. Sarai is then taken to the house of Pharaoh, and God afflicts Pharaoh on Sarai’s behalf, until Pharaoh gives Sarai back to Avram. And all of this occurs without Sarai having said a single word. And by the way, Avram has learnt so little from this adventure that he’s going to make the same mistake again in next week’s parasha!

The next time we meet our heroine is the first time she speaks in the Torah. Sarai is distressed by her lack of a child, and offers her handmaid Hagar so that Avram can have a child with her. Hagar does not appear to have a say in the matter. Hagar becomes pregnant, and Sarai becomes distressed and kicks her out of the camp. We can presume that there was some kind of conversation upon Hagar’s return, but again, this is not recorded.

Lastly, Sarai is renamed to Sarah by God, in a conversation in which she is not present. And that is Parashat Lekh-L’kha according to the very first of our matriarchs. It’s not a very happy story. In fact, it’s not much of a story at all.

Sarai’s silence through this parasha has been particularly difficult for me to sit with in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. For any of you who may have missed it, almost two weeks ago a woman started a viral campaign online by writing this: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ For a few days, my Facebook feed was filled with simple ‘Me Too’ posts. Some of my friends were even brave enough to share stories. Chances are good that your Facebook feed went through something similar. If you had asked me two weeks ago how many of my female friends had been through that, I would have said ‘most of them’ without hesitation. However, I soon realised that as well as I knew that intellectually, I still reacted deeply to each post. I still thought ‘oh God, not you, too’ every time. It wasn’t surprising to me. But it was profoundly saddening. It was saddening not just to have to face a fact that I already knew, but to realise how many of us just stay silent about these experiences, because we think of them as normal. For anyone in the room who truly did not know the ‘magnitude of the problem’ before the campaign – it was hard to hear even though I already knew, so I cannot imagine how hard it may have been to learn.

It was difficult for me to read Parashat Lekh-L’kha this week, because I kept thinking about Sarai’s ‘MeToo’ story. I kept thinking about how Avram expects this to happen to the extent that he works out a plan to protect himself, and yet does nothing to protect his wife. And in the wider scope of the parasha, we know so little about Sarai. We don’t even know if she had a sense of the Divine when she followed her husband into the wilderness, because whatever her thoughts and feelings were, they were not preserved.

There are two things, however, that I think can be learnt from the story of Sarai in Parashat Lekh-L’kha. The first is this: women have not always been silent. Sarai will not even remain silent – next week, we’ll see more of her, including a developing relationship with the Divine. It’s easy to fall into the emotional trap of assuming that until our foremothers fought for the vote, women were simply subservient, that they had nothing to say, and that we cannot learn from them. It’s easy, and it’s not true.  

I would like to take a moment to tell you one of my favourite stories of women in history – the story of a book called ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. This is a piece of wonderfully heretical Catholic theology written in the year 1395 by a woman called Julian of Norwich. It is the first book written by a woman in the English language, and it is an incredible, beautiful piece of literature which was completely at odds with the Catholic theology of its day. And it was profoundly feminine. Julian wrote about Jesus: the Mother who birthed the world, and seems to reject Hell as a reality. She says that God is incapable of anger, because God is only goodness. For a Church which was ruling largely through fear of damnation, this was a dangerous theology. And it was written in English, the language of the people – who the Church did not necessarily want to empower with religious thought.

There’s only one reason that Julian’s writings survived, and that was that other women refused to give it up. Her manuscripts were kept safe by groups of young nuns, under the nose of the Church and without their permission. Her book survived not only the Church, but also the Protestant Revolution in England – when her nuns fled to France and took it with them – and then it survived the French Revolution, too. It’s really quite bizarre and unlikely that we’re still able to read Julian’s writings today. Her book then goes missing from history for generations, before being found in the 19th Century in a private collection donated to the British Library – filed, in all places, under ‘Witchcraft’.

We know from Julian of Norwich and the nuns who treasured her work that women have been doing theology for a long time. Women have been thinking about God and the world, and we are fortunate enough that some of that has survived. So I want to encourage you not to look at Sarai’s silence this week and assume that there’s nothing to learn from her. There’s still more to her story, and more to be discovered through interpretation.  

The second thing that I think we can learn from Sarai’s Lekh-L’kha story is this: Avram does not act to protect his wife. But God does. God steps in to protect Sarai when her husband fails her. Our rabbis teach that we are supposed to emulate God, and learn how to act from God’s actions. I think that what we learn here is that we have a duty to protect each other.

We may not be able to change the past, but we can change the present. And we are. The power of #MeToo was that we gave voice to an age-old injustice. We spoke into the silence. And now we have the opportunity to decide whether we’re going back to the status-quo, or whether we’re ready to stop treating harassment and assault as if they are normal parts of life. I, for one, think that we owe it to Sarai to reject the silence. I think we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the generations which will come after us.

I don’t know that we can fix the world by speech alone. But we certainly cannot heal the injustices of our society if we are not willing to speak about them.

Thank you. Shabbat shalom. And yes, #MeToo.


 

Comments

  1. I love the reference to Julian of Norwich, I have read some of her work, and also visited the little church in which she emprisoned herself. Sadly part of the church and her cell were destroyed by bombing in WW2. However there is a separate shrine built on the site of the old cell, and it is a place of tranquility and calm. It would have been amazing to see the original, and the small window into which locals passed food and asked for prayers and meditations. The Nuns still live close by in a house and are the Nuns of All Hallows' formerly of Ditchingham. They help anyone in need and offer Christian and spiritual advice. So inspite of Julian of Norwich no longer being alive their is still the advice of the Nuns, female advice from Female voices. Not far from the Church of St Juliam is a former School now housing The Sue Lambert Trust, a charity devoted to counselling and care of victims of childhood Sexual Abuse, set up by a Woman, so in this little area of Norwich the voice of Women rings out loud over the ages. And I know such a service exists, because unfortunately # Me too.

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