Hayyei Sarah 5768/
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Abraham and Sarah
Dr. Ruth Wolf
Interdisciplinary Program in the Social Sciences
Many commentators have addressed the initial scene of Abraham mourning for the death of his wife Sarah. Scripture describes the great loss which Abraham felt upon the death of his wife (Gen. 23:4-19) and tells how he negotiated with the sons of Ephron the Hittite to buy a burial site. We have chosen to address ourselves to the question of the nature of the relationship between Abraham and Sarah, as reflected in the Torah.
We have two proverbs about marriage: “He who has found a wife has found happiness” (Proverbs ). Closer to home, we recently read, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him” (Gen. 2:18). These verses express the importance that Judaism attaches to the sense of union and completeness between spouses. Indeed, a person is not complete without a partner. It has been said that man and woman together comprise a whole: “Rabbi Eleazar said: Any man who does not have a wife is not altogether a man, for it is written (Gen. 5:2): male and female He created them… and called them Man” (Yevamot 63a).
In this regard Rabad (Provence, France, about 1125; died at Posquières, 1198) said: “Therefore it behooves a man to love his wife as his own self, to respect her, be compassionate to her, and to safeguard her as he would one of his own limbs; likewise she must serve him, respect him and love him as herself, for from him was she taken” (Rabad, Ba’alei ha-Nefesh, p. 15). The parameters that are emphasized in this command are: loving, respecting, having compassion and safeguarding, which are the same parameters associated with close friendship between people. This wholeness of the spousal relationship is both physical and emotional, and the duty of respecting and safeguarding each other is the essence of love in the Jewish view.
Examining the complex of relations between the couple, as presented in Scripture, and analyzing it in the light of this approach is likely to reveal a preferential model of family-spousal relations. It is well known that biblical stories do not hesitate to lay bare the difficulties in relationships between people; the relations between couples in the Bible are described in realistic terms, even if not ideal ones. We have chosen to examine the relations between Abraham and Sarah, presuming that from their relationship one might be able to conclude something about a fitting relationship between spouses. Even though the status of women in biblical society is altogether different from their status today, it appears that the fundamental values of married relations as presented in the relations between Abraham and Sarah are absolute, beyond time and place. Assuming that what makes up the human soul, a person’s needs and yearnings, were similar then to what they are today, the ability to attend to these needs is likely to contribute greatly to relations between spouses today as well.
The question arises: what parameters pertain to a successful marital relationship? What characteristics are required of the spouses to build a good marriage? And what of all this finds expression in Scripture?
Psychological literature emphasizes that the bond between spouses is based first and foremost on satisfying the needs and longings of each individual within the relationship.
Rabin (1995) mentions ten parameters that are necessary for a mature spousal relationship: warmth – friendship, a sincere and deep emotional bond between spouses; caring – a sense of concern and involvement, understanding that your spouse is prepared to help you in time of need; expression of endearment – love is expressed in a variety of ways, including verbal and non-verbal expressions of emotion; acceptance – a sense of unconditional acceptance by one’s partner, even if at times there be disagreement and friction, a sense of deep trust that each spouse receives from the other; empathy – understanding one’s partners feelings, including being aware and sensitive to his or her weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Empathy is perceived as a sincere attempt to see the world from the point of view of the other, to enter the other’s shoes; intimacy – with intimacy, the partners are open to sharing their feelings, apprehensions, beliefs, fears, aspirations, and yearnings – even the most deeply secret – with one another. Intimacy means sharing ones thoughts, ideas and feelings, whether they are accepted or not; friendship – seeing one’s partner as a true friend; bringing gratification – trying to bring the other joy and happiness; support – causing one’s partner to feel that he or she has someone on whom they can rely, to lean upon in time of need, and knowing that one can lean on one’s partner in difficult times; closeness – enjoying quality time spent together. Close partners feel a desire to live together, to be near one another and to share experiences together.
If we examine the lives of Abraham and Sarah as a couple, we see a stormy and difficult life. They went through many tribulations of relocation together; they left their family, country, and homeland and migrated to a foreign land, all the while deeply believing in the destiny set for them by the Holy One, blessed be He: “Abraham took his wife Sarai, … and all the wealth that they had amassed, … and they set out for the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5).
On the personal level they also had their difficulties. Sarah was barren, and surely suffered great emotional hardship as a woman until she decided to give her husband Hagar and perhaps even have a son through her.
Sarah is portrayed as a strong woman, involved in taking extremely significant decisions in the life of the couple, beginning with their life in Haran, where, according to Rashi’s interpretation (on Genesis 12:5), “Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women”; continuing with her cooperation with her husband in traveling to the land of Israel; upon arriving in Egypt – “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you” (Gen. 12:13); through the encounter with Abimelech – “Let this be the kindness that you shall do me; whatever place we come to, say there of me: He is my brother” (Gen. 20:13); and through the decision to expel Hagar and Ishmael – “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10).
The very fact that Sarah was willing to give up being the only woman in her husband’s life underscores her strength and self-confidence as a woman. Sarah knew that marriage is not complete without a successor generation. Being unable to provide for this, she took action (actually, an accepted practice in her day), even though it was at the expense of her own status. Abraham, on his part, left the field in Sarah’s hands. It was she was who chose the suitable woman and she who encouraged her husband to enter the specified bond in order to bring offspring.
Sarah’s strength also finds expression in the status that Abraham gave her regarding Hagar: “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right” (Gen. 16:6). Abraham gave Sarah the liberty and authority of the woman of the house, by whose word things would be done. Even though Hagar bore a son for Abraham, that did not raise Hagar’s status, and Sarah remained the one determining the character of the joint household. The decision to banish his son Ishmael displeased Abraham: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his” (Gen. 21:11), yet he nevertheless gave in to her.
Abraham’s behavior can be interpreted as reflecting his desire to appease a hurt wife; he gave up his own will in deference to hers for the sole purpose of restoring her feeling of empowerment as the dominant wife in the house. Respecting Sarah’s wishes actually received confirmation by divine command: “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you” (Gen. 21:12). Notwithstanding this command, a situation in which a person must banish his own son is a very trying situation indeed.
In conclusion, in the marital relationship between Abraham and Sarah we can find reciprocity and cooperation in times of difficulty. Their relationship included appreciation one for the other and a sharing of their fate – walking together, a shared life that stood the test of especially difficult events and times – emigrating from one land to another, barrenness, competition between women and building a family. This is a model of an admirable marital relationship characterized by warmth and understanding. In their relationship we see the ability to lean on one another and give support, and most of all, great consideration one for the other. The partnership between spouses finds expression in each person in the partnership relating to him or herself and even finding their own individuality.
The partnership of marriage does not mean that the partners blend completely. It is precisely the retention of each one’s individuality within the partnership and the concern for the needs of the self which is important. Rabbi Nahman Mendel of Kotsk put this well in his saying:
If I am I and you are you,
then I am I and you are you;
but if I am you and you are I,
then I am not I and you are not you.
In other words, it is preferable for the spouses to develop their own capabilities, each one separately. It is precisely the nurturing of the self that helps a person live in harmony with his or her partner.
Scripture notes that after Sarah’s death Abraham took another wife: “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah” (Gen. 25:1). Emphasis is placed on this having been after Sarah’s death, not in her lifetime.
So we see that one can build a life together with another if the relationship between spouses is founded on friendship, respect, reciprocity, equality, probity, and other traits that contribute to a good relationship. This emotional bond requires work, for it says, “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This strongly bonded union is the essence of love. The power of giving is the dominant force making this bond.
Abraham and Sarah may have had crises in their relationship, yet their marital bond was strong and solidly based.