“Is Sarah part of the b’rit (the covenant) that God establishes with Abraham?” Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn asks this question in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. As she says: our impulse is to say: “How can you ask such a question? Of course Sarah was part of the covenant.”
It is an assumption that we all make, but if we look at our parsha, Lech L’cha, we see that from the first words, God is speaking to Abraham, or Avram as he was called then.
Vayomer Adonai el Avram, Lech-l’cha — Adonai says to Avram, go!
Using the command form Lech, followed by the repetition of L’cha = go yourself.
Adonai is clear here; the order is for Avram. It’s in the singular.
And then, as if Avram doesn’t get it, Adonai explains in three different ways:
Mayartzicha – from your land
u’mi-mo-lad-ti-cha — from where you were born
u’mi-bait avi-cha — from your father’s house.
so nu? where is the rest of the family?
Let’s back track a bit. At the end of last week’s parasha we hear about the generations after Noah. In the concluding lines, we learn that Terach takes “his son Avram, his grandson Lot, and his daughter in law Sarai,” who was barren, from Ur of the Chaldeans, in modern day Iraq, and they head to Canaan. They make it as far as Haran where Terach dies. It seems they settled there, the Torah uses the word, vayash-voo. We do not hear anything else about the first 75 years of Avram’s life until the moment this parasha begins.
So many questions: Why does God say the land that you were born in, if Avram wasn’t in that land at that time? Why does God say, from your father’s house, implying that this was the house where he grew up? These are contradictions that I am left to ponder. And why is Sarai, the only woman mentioned at the end of Parasha Noah, referred to as barren? Was this her identity? Or just a plot set up?
After God’s order to get out of town, the Eitz Chaim commentary gives a partial answer in the very next lines. As if there is an unwritten — huh?, why?, you gotta be kidding — Adonai says, “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you, I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” That is the bargain. That is the reward. And it is understood that this applies to not just Avram, but all of Avram’s family and followers.
So, Sarai is included. And as for being barren, surely, if Avram is the leader, he cannot have a great nation if his wife does not bear any children. And perhaps, it was important for any child of Avram to be born AFTER Avram received God’s offer, AFTER Avram and Sarai begin their journey, AFTER he fights a few battles, and AFTER he under goes ritual circumcision, brit milah, himself.
But what about Sarah’s role in passing down the covenant? Rabbi Sohn, who is a professor at HUC, implies that through the act of giving birth, women have the power to pass the covenant along. She says “Scholars such as Savina Teubal argue that the world described in the Torah was preceded by a matriarchal system in which women held significant power, perhaps as priestesses.” And Sarai is part of Avram’s call as evidenced by her change in name along with his. They both have an “hey” added to their names to make them Sarah and Abraham. It is suggested that the “hey” is from yud-hey-vav-hey, God’s name.
But my favorite answer comes from Rabbi Jill Hammer, a professor at AJR and an author. Years ago, I don’t remember when, we somehow began discussing how, during Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after meals, I had begun to change the word b’v’sa-reinu in the second paragraph to b’libeinu, as it is written in the Reconstructionist bentscher. Instead of thanking God for the “covenant sealed in our flesh,” I, along with other women I knew, had changed this to the covenant sealed in our “hearts.” Jill said, but I believe that the covenant IS sealed in my flesh, all of it!
It is difficult for me to let this parasha go without remembering my friend Debbie Friedman z”l, who’s song “L’chi Lach” is being sung in congregations all over the country this shabbat. Debbie, who left us way to early, was a blessing in so many ways. Along with her lyrics co-writer, Savina Teubal, Debbie changed the command Lech to Lechi, the command for a female. And why not, for we are all part of the covenant.