Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Rest of Her Life

The Rest of Her Life
A Midrash  by S.J.Schwaidelson

Tamar stood at the foot of Judah's pallet. She had waited patiently for him to open his eyes and speak to her. Her life, it seemed in that moment, had a chain of moments during which she waited for Judah to speak to her. Time was growing short, and unless he made some comment, said something, anything, there would be a struggle but not amongst the children.

No, the boys were fine with how things turned out. Shelah was always the sweetest child, Tamar remembered; it was his father who would not let him come to me, and he told her many times he felt guilty about that. He treated his twin brothers with the utmost regard and kindness. He played with them, he taught them, he loved them as more than brothers...they were more like his own sons than those of Judah who was too old to appreciate their natural exuberance. If only they...those ever-present gossips...could keep their tongues glued to the roof of their collective mouth.

Even in old age and infirmity, Judah was a handsome man. Bedding him had been no hardship. If Tamar had one regret, it was that he would not take her as his wife. Yes, she gave him two more sons, but her position as daughter-in-law was not a position he could lie with night after night. He always treated her with the utmost respect and kindness, but he never touched her again.  When her body hungered, it was always for him, and she would remain forever hungry.

Squatting down beside him, Tamar brushed a grey curl from his forehead. His brow was cooler than she expected considering how ill he had been these last weeks, but it was still warm to the touch. She let her hand linger on his cheek.

"Tamar," he breathed.

Her stomach knotted just as it always did when he said her name. She picked up the cup near the pallet. "Here. Drink some watered wine." She put her other hand beneath his head and raised it.

He let her bring the cup to his lips and he took a small sip, then let his head fall against her hand. His eyes opened, but only for a moment. "You're still beautiful."

She shook her head and laughed gently. "Not that anyone would notice. How do you feel?

Ready to join my father." He opened his eyes again. "You are here with a purpose," he said with unexpected clarity.

"Yes. We need you."

He sighed. "I cannot die until I do this, can I?

"No, you cannot."

"Where are the boys?"

"Outside. Shelah is teaching them to use a slingshot."

Judah rolled his eyes.  "As long as they don't use it on each other."

Tamar smiled. "They're fine, Judah. They're good boys." She started to rise, but stopped when Judah's hand clamped on her arm.

"Did I do the right thing, Tamar?"

"Yes. I think so. For the boys, anyway."

"Not for you?"

She shook her head. "No, not for me, but I...I..."

"You did what you had to do."

"That's not what I meant. It's water under the bridge. Spilled milk. Chaff in the wind. It doesn't matter now." She heard hardness in her own voice, which took her by surprise. "You walked a fine line. You did what you had to do."

Judah looked at her, his hand still around her arm. "I did a terrible thing to my brother. I compounded it by lying to my father. I lost the knowledge of right and wrong."

"And you redeemed yourself in Yosef's court. You stood up for Benjamin and redeemed yourself in Yosef's eyes. He told you that. He told us that. "

"It wasn't enough." He released Tamar's arm. "Go. Get the boys."

Shelah came into the tent, a twin grasped firmly in each hand. "They're not very clean, and they don't smell very good, but they look an awful lot like you, Abba. They claim they're my brothers." His grin lit up the darkness of the tent. He had grown as tall and almost as handsome as his father, but he had an easier way about him, and laughed far more than his father ever had. "Do you want them...or shall I throw them into the local offal pit?" The twins laughed and tried to elbow their older brother. 

Judah smiled. "No, Shelah, don't throw them in the offal pit. It would offend the offal."

"Well, Abba, if you insist, I'll release them." Shelah gave them a good shake, then said softly, "Go kiss Abba.” He let Perez kiss their father's cheek first, then Zerah, before he knelt down beside the pallet.  He dreaded this moment as much as he knew this moment would come. "We are here, Abba." When Judah struggled to sit up, Shelah helped him and set the cushions behind him.

"My sins are diminished by the strength of my sons," said Judah. "I will bless you all, for your are all worthy of blessing." He motioned to Perez and when he knelt down, Judah put his hand on Perez's curly head. "You are my son, and the son of my firstborn, Er, may G-d be merciful to him. You are already as tall as he was, but you are wiser even in your youth. Your inheritance is that of the first born. You will stand for our family when the time comes, but you shall not stand alone. Never alone. You will share this with your brothers who will stand by you. If we have learned nothing else in this family, we have learned that brothers must _always_ stand together. " He touched the signet that still hung around his neck. "Your mother, in her wisdom that far outshone mine, will give this to you with her own hand. Promise me you will listen to your brothers and do nothing to send them from you."

"I promise," said Perez. He kissed his father again, and stepped back. Zerah took his place at their father's side.

"You, Zerah, are my son and the son of my second born, may G-d be merciful to him. You have redeemed your father with your love of your brothers. Your inheritance is that which would have been your father's, but you have already enriched it with your kindness and devotion to your family. You will be your brother's other eyes and ears, and your keen sensibility will assure the continuation of our clan.  Promise me that your will stand with your brothers and do nothing that will divide this family."

"I promise, Abba," Zerah said solemnly as he kissed his father's cheek. He rose and went to stand beside his brothers.

"Shelah, " said Judah softly, "come here."

Shelah knelt beside his father, and took his hand. "I am already blessed, Abba," he said.

Judah smiled at his oldest living child. "Then I will bless you again." He put his hand on Shelah's head. "Your mother was the love of my youth, and no father was prouder of his sons," he began. "But your brothers, may G-d be merciful to them, turned away from their duty as my sons, and turned away from G-d at the same time. I thought, when the each died, that G-d was punishing me for what I did to my brother. But instead, G-d showed me kindness through you, and mercy in the form of Tamar...and then your brothers. But in that kindness, there is a warning: you must do what I did not. You must protect your brothers, both of them, and protect our line. You must teach your children to stand with the children of Perez and the children of Zerah to be one family, one clan, one tribe. Together, you will find favor in G-d's eyes. Together, you will redeem me as G-d redeemed Joseph. Promise me, Shelah, that you will stand as the voice of their conscience. "

"My wealth, Abba, is in the unity of this clan. No inheritance more important. I will defend and protect my brothers and my family. We shall be one, remain as one, and grow as one." He leaned over and kissed his father cheek. "Now, you will listen to me, Abba." He helped Judah to lean forward, then removed the cushion from behind his back. "Rest now. We'll come back later with the news of the day."

When they were gone, Tamar emerged from the shadows of the tent. "Thank you, Judah," she said as she knelt down beside him.

"No, Tamar; my thanks are yours. You gave me back my sons."

"I was glad to do it."

"I should have given you more."

"It was a choice you made. For both of us."

"Are you still angry?"


"Never lie to a dying man. It's bad policy."

Tamar sighed and sat back on her haunches. "No, Judah, I'm not angry. Not anymore. There's no point to it." She saw him smile, and for a moment, she saw the man who took her near the side of the road.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Four Sisters

We were not exactly slaves. We were not without some status even though we were called slaves. How could slaves produce sons for the master, sons who would inherit equally with the sons of the mistresses? No, we were not slaves. We were sisters.

Jacob married not two, but four sisters. We were the daughters of Laban just as much as Leah and Rachel. The only difference between them and us was our mother. Our mother was a slave who found herself the object of her master’s desire, just as we would. 

We grew up as close as sisters could be. And we matched, one for one, the temperaments of Rachel and Leah. When Jacob came and our sisters were married to him, we went to our father and begged not to be parted from our sisters. We would go as their attendants rather than let our father marry us to lesser men. We were, after all, his daughters and deserved better. So we went with Leah and Rachel, hoping that Jacob would find husbands for us from amongst his kinsmen. We heard about Esau and both of us harbored the hope he would wed us both to him, thereby bringing helping to heal the rift between them. We were as beautiful as our sisters, and anxious to begin our lives in Jacob’s world. 

I think the intent really was for both of us to be given to Esau. Jacob told us wonderful stories about his brother, and along the way, we heard even more. He was strong, he was handsome, he was a good provider...and his mother hated his wives. We would be the balm to sooth the old woman’s rage. We were kinswomen and worthy of the eldest son. 

Things didn’t turn out the way anyone expected. Rachel couldn’t conceive, and Jacob, as patient as he was, was turning more and more to Leah who was popping them out with no effort. Rachel was getting desperate. She said prayers to his G-d, her father’s gods, to rocks and trees and anything else that appeared to be listening. When her menses was upon her, she would send me to Jacob with dinner just to keep him out of Leah’s tent. Oh, not that I minded. I liked sitting with Jacob and talking about all sorts of things. 

And he wasn’t bad to look at either. I never understood why everyone got the impression Jacob was a soft, paunchy kinda guy. Maybe he was when he left his parents after his finagled Esau’s blessing, but by the time he married my sisters, he was not flabby. He was one handsome man. Dark curly hair, strong arms, a chest you just wanted to lean against, and shoulders that looked as thought they could carry the world. He used to amuse the children by cracking almonds with one hand. His eyes were the darkest amber eyes could be. If he caught you in his gaze.... but I digress. 

The evenings we spent talking about sheep and goats, stars and the heavens, his parents and my parents grew longer and longer. More than once, I fell asleep in his tent. Usually, he carried me back to my own and gently deposited me on the cushions. He would kiss me on the forehead before covering me with my blanket. Then one night, I guess he fell asleep, too, because we were both awakened by Rachel’s cry of surprise in the early morning. “What have you done?” she demanded, although later we both wondered to whom that was directed. 

“Nothing,” shrugged Jacob. “We fell asleep. Look, we’re both fully clothed.” He laughed as he got up and went to Rachel. He kissed her. “Bilhah is just sweet kid,” he assured her. “She is your sister. I think I have enough on my hands married to two of you.” 

But Rachel just stood there. Her brows were knitted. This was not a good sign. Not at all. I knew Rachel well enough to know she was thinking something through. I don’t know if Jacob was on to that look, but I sure was. Jacob gave her a squeeze as he left us alone in the tent. 

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but stop,” I told her. 

She shook her head. “I know what your cycle is. Lay with him. Get his child inside you...and you shall have it for me. You will make me a mother.” 

I just stared at her. “Are you crazy?” 

“No. This is a great idea. Tell him you’ve agreed to have a baby for me. It’s done all the time.” 

“Yeah, if you’re a slave and I’m not your slave, Rachel.” 

“And what is your official position in this household?” 

I was stumped. I didn’t’ know how to answer. Slave on a technicality was what she was thinking, and she was right. Laban had never officially given us our freedom. Our position? There was an excellent question. If our father heard I’d spend the night in Jacob’s tent, there was no telling what he’d do. 

On the other hand, I’d heard both Leah and Rachel moan with the greatest pleasure on the nights Jacob spent in their beds. They bragged to each other about the heights of ecstasy he wrought the mornings after. What could be bad about that? Just thinking about it made me squirm in a most unladylike manner. “If you can convince Jacob, I’ll do it. But what are you going to tell our father?” I asked her. 

“Don’t worry about our father. I’ll tell him afterward when he can’t do anything about it. Just make sure you get with child.” 

Jacob found me at the well late in the afternoon. “Are you sure you want to, Bilhah?” he asked. He touched my face with his hand; it was so warm against my skin that I blushed. Jacob threw back his head and laughed. “Is that a yes?” All I could do was nod. “Tonight is a night I was to be with Rachel; you come instead, and we’ll talk about it then. 

Rachel helped me get ready. We did it secretly, without Leah or Zilpah knowing what we were doing. She even gave me a new dress, one with lots of embroidered flowers down the front and fit for a bride. Rachel had her shortcomings, but she was bound and determined to do this right. She arranged the meal, and had it plated on the most ornate tray we had. To make sure no one was suspicious, she wrapped me in a cloak before sending me to Jacob with the tray. I don’t know how I managed to walk the distance between her tent and Jacob’s; I was shaking. 

Jacob took the tray from me as soon as I came in. He set it on the low table, then helped me removed my cloak. When he told me I looked beautiful, I started to cry. I have no idea why I started to cry; I just did. 

“You are under no obligation, Bilhah,” he said. “We will only do this if you are certain this is what you want.” He sat down and patted the cushions beside him. “Come sit down. Let’s pretend there is nothing unusual about tonight, and if it happens, it happens.” 

We ate, we talked, I even managed to laugh. And in a quiet moment, I turned my face to his. “Yes,” I told him. “I want this.” 

I cannot tell you if the night was long or short. I cannot tell you if there was a moon or stars. I cannot even tell you that at the moment of his entrance into me there was pain. Jacob led me through the rites of womanhood with a gentleness I did not know existed. My heart soared, my body arched with pleasure, my soul floated above the bed. He took nothing I did not wish to give, but he gave me so much more. And I wanted more. I wanted him, his seed, and ultimately, his love. And he gave it all willingly. 

I know what has been written, but it does not even touch the surface of the reality. My nights with Jacob were as precious to me as my sons. My father’s wrath was nothing compared to the freedom that motherhood brought me. My son’s name, Dan, was given by my sister, but not because he vindicated her barren state. He absolved me of my status of slave, for I was the mother of a son of Jacob even if Rachel called him hers. But I was his milk-mother and he knew me as mother all the same. 

My second son, Naphtali, was named not for the Rachel’s struggle with G-d to have children, but her struggle to love my son as her own. Naphtali favored me, whereas Dan favored his father. Still, she loved Naphtali and cherished him as I did. We shared those children for we knew they would not exist had this not been a partnership between us. Our sisters’ bond was strengthened by our shared motherhood. So strong was that bond, that Leah and Zilpah followed our lead. 

We were four sisters. We shared our husband’s bed and our husband’s children. We rejoiced as one, we commiserated as one, we danced as one, and we shed tears as one. Together, we founded a people. 

As for our father? If you thought he was angry about the speckled sheep, you are sadly mistaken.

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The Sacrifice of Sarah

When Hagar's labor began, Sarai was there with the midwife, although she was not anxious to see it emerge. The night was long and Hagar's screams piercing, but Sarai felt nothing. Finally, a long, scrawny boy slid out from between Hagar's legs. The midwife severed the cord, then turned to present the child to the mistress.

Sarai was frozen in her place. She could not pick up her hands to take the bundle of life. She remembered the first night she sent Avram to Hagar; she remembered how she asked God to send howling winds so that she would not hear Hagar's moans of ecstasy. She remembered the moment she knew Hagar was with child. Sarai stared at her husband's son, then his mother. The midwife thrust the baby toward her, yet Sarai still made no move to take him. She could feel Hagar's eyes burning into her. At last, she sucked in her breath saying, "Give him to his mother." Sarai fled the tent. 

After that, Avram was careful not to go to Hagar while Sarai was still awake. He doted on his son, but he restrained himself before his wife. Sarai was neither blind nor stupid; still, she said nothing. She heard them through the skin walls of the tents, she could see the smug satisfaction on Hagar's face each morning after. The only comfort she took in all this was that Hagar did not again conceive. 

The child was healthy and beautiful; he favored his mother's people. Ishmael grinned and gurgled every time he saw his father and his father could not help but beam when he saw his son. Each passing day gave the old man new cause to praise God's wisdom in granting this one wish. He found himself contemplating the very nature of the universe and the role God wanted him to play. Avram was too absorbed in his son and his journey toward God to notice there was a space between him and his wife. 

Sarai kept the pain in her heart well hidden; she tucked it into a corner where no one but she could see it. She made certain Avram did not suspect. She tended to his needs, shared his bed on occasion, and smiled at all times. Any feelings she had toward Hagar were set aside in favor of Avram's need for peace in his household. 

God summoned Avram and made a covenant with him. "Walk in My ways and be blameless... I will establish My covenant between Me and you and I will make you exceedingly numerous. As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I make you fertile and make nations of you; kings shall come forth from offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession. I will be their God." 

Naturally, Avram, now Avraham, thought his descendants would come through Ishmael, but God had other ideas. After instructing him to circumcise himself and the men of his household, God told Avraham, "As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her." 

Avraham laughed, "Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old...or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?" It was ridiculous notion at best. "Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor instead!" 

God was annoyed with his incredulity. "If I said Sarah will bear a son, she will bear a son and you shall name him Yitzchak; and I will keep my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. As for Ishmael, I'll listen to you. I hereby bless him, as well. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. However," said God with a slight note of warning, "my covenant will maintain with Yitzchak whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." 

There was no more to be said. God left Avraham alone to consider the enormity of this new revelation. 

Avraham returned to the camp and immediately began preparations for the circumcision. There was little chance to protest; Avraham made it clear all men were to enter the covenant if they wanted to stay with him. As a sign of his conviction, Avraham went first, followed by Ishmael. The women, Sarai and Hagar included, stayed away from the ceremony, but stood nearby with the appropriate salves and bandages for the men. 

By the strength of his belief in God's commandment, Avraham withstood the rigors of the day, but by nightfall, he was in pain, exhausted, and ready to collapse. Sarai helped him to his tent. She made sure he ate some stew before he stretched out on his bed. Sitting beside him, she touched her hand to his brow and was relieved to find it cool and unfevered. His hand caught hers and held it. 

"God has commanded us to change our names," he said softly. "I will be known not as Avram, but as Avraham, and you shall be called Sarah." 

"Sarah? repeated Sarai. "Why Sarah?" 

But there was no answer save Avraham's snores. 

She didn't like the name. Sarah meant princess. A woman born of high station; to her mind, an inaccessible woman. A princess was a daughter born to a king; it was an inherited title, not one of merit or power. Avraham, she knew, meant 'father of a multitude.' Obviously, she was not to be the mother of a multitude; she was simply a woman who could not be touched. She wondered, too, if Hagar had been given a new name. "No doubt, Queen," she snorted to herself. The joke didn't lessen the hurt. Of all the names this God could've given her, no name could\ have made her feel worse. 

Her own tears splashed on her lap. They were silent tears, but hot and hurting all the same. Sarah felt barren; betrayed by her body and now by her husband and his God. Once, he would have shared God's instructions with her. Once, they would've sat up through the night talking about the future and what was to come of their decision to follow God's path. Since the night of Ishmael's birth, Avram had had no time to sit and talk to her. "Is there no room in this covenant for me?" she whispered into the night. She prayed to God for death. "I cannot watch him rejoice in his son, nor do I want him to separate himself from Ishmael because of me. Let me slip away from life in the night; let them bury me beside the road. Don't make me watch my husband's line come from the loins of Hagar's son." 

Avraham recovered slowly, but quickly enough to sit outside beneath a terebinth tree, administering to his clan. Sarah saw to his comfort. She made sure he had fruit beside him as well as a skin of curd and milk. While she tended to her own daily chores, she kept a close eye on her husband. At night, in their tent, she waited for him to say something, anything to her, yet he remained silent. Sarah felt cut off from him, from the clan, from his God. She was not a part of this revelation nor would she ever be. "Sarah," she wept in the darkness, "a fitting name for one who is noticed but not heard." 

God felt Sarah's tears and was, once again, annoyed with Avraham. Selective repetition was not what God had in mind. Sarah was hurting because she had been told only part of what she needed to hear. 

Avraham was still sitting outside his tent beneath the terebinth tree when he saw three men suddenly near by. Although he had been watching the road, he had not seen them in the distance and their abrupt appearance startled him. Struggling to his feet, he called to them. "Don't go past my tent! Please, sit down, let me get some water to bathe your feet and a morsel of bread to refresh yourselves." 

The three men accepted his offer. 

Avraham hurried into his tent to find Sarah. "Quickly, take three measures of choice flour! Knead it and make cakes!" He then hurried to the herd to pick a calf for slaughter. Ishmael went with him; it was time for the boy to learn to art of hospitality. When the first foods were ready, Avraham took curds and milk to his guests. "Please, eat your fill," he said as he respectfully waited on them. 

"Where is your wife, Sarah?" asked one of the men. 

"Sarah?" repeated Avraham; the use of this new name caused him to stop his fidgeting. Other than to Sarah herself, Avraham had not told anyone of their new names. If the men knew his wife was to be called Sarah, Avraham concluded, they must have come directly from God! "Uh.....Sarah is in the tent." 

Sarah was standing behind the flap watching her husband and his visitors. Since she would not be permitted to serve men herself, it was the only way to hear news from abroad. At the sound of her new name, however, Sarah leaned closer to the opening. 

The stranger then said, "I will return to you when life is due, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." 

Unable to help herself, Sarah guffawed rather loudly. And the guffaw disintegrated into laughter. She held her sides as she tried to keep her mouth shut lest Avraham be embarrassed by her. "Oh, of course!" she howled silently, "now that I'm too old to even enjoy my equally old husband, we're going to have a baby. Why, it's only natural that so old a woman can bear a son!" 

The men outside heard her laughter. Avraham's face reddened; he had already heard this from God once, now someone else, a messenger from God, was saying it again. His mouth flapped open and closed several times, unable to form a respectful response. The three men stared at Avraham. "You did not tell her?" the one asked almost gruffly. But before Avraham could answer, the same man said loudly, so that Sarah could hear, "Why is Sarah laughing, saying that an old woman cannot bear a son?" He called toward the tent, "Is anything too wondrous for God to do? As I told you, I shall return to you when life is due and Sarah shall have a son!" 

Sarah's laughter died in her mouth. She could sense they were waiting for her to say something, anything. "Oh, I wasn't really laughing at you," she fibbed through the flap, "I was laughing with joy." 

The stranger didn't buy it. "No, Sarah, you laughed." 

She could not see the smallest hint of a smile on his face. 

Yitzchak slid easily from his mother's womb and her breasts were full for him. As old as she was, Sarah felt twenty again; full of life and vitality, ready to take on the endless tasks of motherhood. 

At first, Sarah was willing to let the much older Ishmael play with his young brother. The boy seemed gentle enough with the baby, but as Yitzchak grew and began to toddle, Sarah was concerned about the rough play between them. There were times when Ishmael treated Yitzchak nicely; usually, though, he teased the youngster until he was in tears. Sarah took Hagar to task for Ishmael's lack of kindness, but Hagar dismissed her complaints. Tension was mounting between the two women, yet Avraham did nothing to alleviate it. 

On the day of Yitzchak's weaning feast, Sarah could not find her son. The clan was gathered to celebrate this milestone, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Hiking up her robes, she frantically searched for him. Finally, she heard his screams. Following the sound, Sarah found Ishmael dangling Yitzchak over the communal well. With one hand, she grabbed Yitzchak, with the other, she delivered a resounding smack to Ishmael's arm. The older boy recoiled, ready to strike Sarah. "You will not touch me nor my son!" she snarled between clenched teeth. "Go to your mother's tent and wait there!" Ishmael ran as fast as he could. 

Holding the wailing Yitzchak against her breast, Sarah found her husband and practically dragged him into the tent. "He would have dropped Yitzchak into the well, Avraham," she shouted. "He would have killed our son without a second thought. I have found him leading Yitzchak into the rams' pen. I have stopped him from using Yitzchak as a target for his slingshot. I have complained endlessly to Hagar and all she says is, 'Boys will be boys.' She ignores my demands that she teach her son manners appropriate to his station. He may be the older, but you yourself have told me he will not inherit your position. That position is rightfully Yitzchak's!" 

"Surely we have more than enough room to raise two sons, Sarah!" Avraham protested. 

"Space is not the issue, Avraham; surely God had enough room to leave Sodom and Gomorrah!" 

Avraham winced; they had witnessed the destruction of the two cities and on its heels, had almost witnessed the destruction of themselves in the process. "What would you have me do, Sarah?" asked Avraham. 

"Something, anything." She waited for Avraham to answer, but the old man was silent. "Fine," she rasped. "I'll tell you what to do. Send them away. I will not spend my days worrying whether or not Ishmael will kill him the next time." 

Avraham left her alone in the tent without comment. The next morning, he prepared a skin of water and a parcel of bread. "You must leave this camp," he told Hagar. 

"Why, because Sarai says so?" sneered concubine. 

"Because it will be better for Ishmael if you leave." 

"You would send away your eldest son?" 

"God will care for you, Hagar." 

"Whose God, Avraham? Your God? I do not worship your God." Hagar began to weep. 

"It does not matter, Hagar. God will take care of you and the boy." He took her arm, and took Ishmael's hand, and led them to the road. "Keep them safe," he murmured to God. Avraham watched Hagar walk out into the bleak wilderness and on that day, a piece of his heart was broken. He never spoke of Ishmael again to Sarah, but the image of his first born son stayed with him all the days of his life. 

The silence between Avraham and Sarah grew more profound with each passing year. Although they continued to share a tent and a bed, there was little conversation between them. He was deep in thought about the path he had taken, about the path he followed, his family behind him. Avraham, when not tending to his flocks and herds, spent more and more time off on his own in the desert. He relied on Sarah to tend to the business of the encampment; she was the one who knew how many lambs were birthed and how much one could get in trade for wool. The shepherds and the goatherds no longer went to Avraham with their questions, they sought out Sarah. So long as everything ran smoothly, she saw was no point in disturbing Avraham. He was so weighted with this burden God had given him that Sarah decided it was her job to allow him the time and space to work it through; it was the most sacred of tasks. Sarah never questioned what exactly Avraham was doing; if he wanted her to know, he would tell her. The periods of isolation grew longer and longer for Sarah, although Yitzchak's well being took up most of her time. She busied herself with the day to day tasks of running a large household and she told herself often that preparing Yitzchak for his future role as leader of their clan was all that was important to her. 

After the covenant for peace was made with Abimelech, Avraham found life to be calm with little more to do than worry about his flocks and his herds. As Yitzchak grew, he took to following his father around. He wanted to help with the lambs, he wanted to help with the shearing. He asked endless questions of Avraham who delighted in trying to answer them all. And Avraham saw a great difference between Yitzchak and Ishmael whom he missed with all his heart. Whereas Ishmael never asked about the world and how it came to be, Yitzchak wanted to know everything about the faceless God of his father. Avraham tried to answer the questions, although not all of them could be answered with simple explanations a child could understand. He did the best he could, all the while hoping that eventually God would speak to Yitzchak as God had spoken to him. Days melded into weeks, weeks into months, and as Avraham instructed his son in the ways of God, he wondered if he would hear the voice of the Holy One again in his lifetime; and if he did not, he hoped that Yitzchak would when the time was right. Avraham decided God's silence meant all was well and if he missed that Voice, he made no mention of it to Sarah. 

On a day while he was alone with his sheep, when the air was still and hot, Avraham felt himself no longer alone. There was that strange vibrancy in the air once more and he fell to the ground as he heard his name called. 


"I am here," he replied, keeping his eyes averted. 

"Take your son, your beloved son, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you." 

Avraham's heart stopped beating. His breath came short. His mouth flopped open and closed. For a long time he remained on the ground trying to breathe again. He was astounded, shocked, filled with grief. Avraham recalled God's words: I will keep my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come . Had God changed the covenant? Was Yitzchak, still so young, still so unformed, already deemed unworthy to follow in his father's footsteps? Would God break a promise made in the heat of another afternoon? He tried to form words of protest, but before a single one could come out, the air returned to its stillness and he knew God had left that place. Avraham struggled against his anguish, yet he knew he would carry out God's commandment. He returned to camp before nightfall and went directly to his tent. 

"Are you unwell?" Sarah asked him when she brought him water for washing. 

"I'm fine." 

"I know you, Avraham; something is wrong." 

"Nothing....nothing is wrong. I am tired and hungry. Get me something to eat." 

Sarah left the tent, but returned shortly with a tray of roasted lamb and vegetables. She watched silently as her husband picked at his food. He pushed more lamb about the tray than made it into his mouth. Finally, he pushed the tray away. 

"Avraham, it's not like you not to eat." 

"It's the heat." 

"I doubt it. Is your stomach bothering you?" 


Sarah frowned. There was no point in talking to him; he would not answer. She picked up the tray and left him alone. 

When she lay down beside him that night, she knew he was still awake although he made no sound whatsoever. When she awoke in the morning, however, he was gone. Yitzchak's bed was empty as well. Rising from the pallet, she noticed his waterskin and his cloak were missing from their pegs in the tent pole. Outside, people were going about their morning business. Sarah checked on the cooking fires, then went to give her servants their instructions for the day. There was more than enough to do to keep her occupied. By midday, however, she was growing concerned about Yitzchak; he had not come back for his meal. 

Methodically, she started looking about the camp for her son. She began with the other children of the camp, but on one had seen little Yitzchak. She checked the pens and the well. "Have you seen Yitzchak?" she asked the goatherds. They shook their heads, but promised to keep an eye out for the boy. She walked through the herds as she did every day, but on this day, she was not counting sheep, she was searching for her son. 

The late afternoon shadows were lengthening by the time she found someone who had seen Avraham leave the camp before dawn. "Did he say where they were going? she asked the servant. 

"No, mistress, he did not. He asked for an ass to be saddled, then left with the boy and two servants. They road toward the east." 

"Did he say when he would return?" 

"No, mistress." The servant shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry; I wish I could tell you more." 

"If Yitzchak is with his father, I'm sure he's all right," Sarah managed to smile. "You've done nothing wrong, so don't feel responsible. At least I know they're together." How much trouble can they get into? she wondered silently. 

Sarah took her dinner alone in her tent, then lay down. Sleep was long in coming, and when it came, it was sporadic. She awoke several times throughout the night, only to be disappointed when she could not see the dawn creeping over the horizon. Laying down again, Sarah prayed, "My God and God of my husband; please keep them safe and bring them home." 

God heard Sarah's prayer and was mildly annoyed with Avraham. There had been plenty of opportunity for Avraham to tell his wife of this commandment. There had been plenty of opportunity for Avraham to argue for the life of his son the way he had argued for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. But instead to pleading his case, Avraham had been silent. Even if he had told Sarah and Sarah argued with him, she would have made him ask God to reconsider. He did not even cast his eyes upward as he did when Ishmael was to be cast out of the camp. Instead, Avraham blindly went out into the wilderness to slaughter his beloved son. 

The next day was long and painful for Sarah. She moved through her chores like one asleep. The servants gave her wide berth; they could tell she was frantic with worried inside even if she appeared outwardly calm. Her personal servant made sure the old woman ate something, then rested out of the afternoon's heat. At nightfall, she helped Sarah prepare for bed, but not before she insisted her mistress have some milk and curd. Once she was alone, Sarah prayed again to God, saying, "My God and God of my husband, please let them be safe beneath Your watch." 

On the third night, her dreams were filled with horrific visions of Yitzchak, bloody and limp, lying on a stone slab. She heard herself scream as her son was transformed into a ram; Avraham stood beside him, his long knife dripping with blood. Bolting upright in the bed, Sarah thought her heart would stop. Her breath was shallow and ragged. She gasped for air. The vision remained before her; she shut her eyes against the sight. When she opened her eyes again, the image was gone. "Avraham!" she cried out, "what have you done?" 

There was no answer in the silence of the tent. Clutching her chest, Sarah fell back against the pallet. The universe crushed her beneath its weight. She could scarcely breathe now. "God of my husband, how can You give us so precious a gift as is Yitzchak only to take him from us? How can You who sent Your messengers to tell me I would bear a son, ask for his life so soon? Take me as your sacrifice, my God; take me instead of my son!" she whispered into the darkness. 

She was still alive in the morning, and by evening, there was still no sign of Avraham. Somehow, she managed to keep her head up despite the oppressive emptiness inside her. For five more days she waited and for five nights, she prayed to God for his safety. And each morning, when she opened her eyes, she wondered why God could not hear her. 

The last bit of the seventh day was fading in the west when Sarah heard a shout go up from the shepherds. Raising her skirt hem so she could run, she trundled her way across the camp toward the road where a man was coming from the east on an ass, three people walking beside him. As soon as she counted three, and one of the three on foot was obviously as child, Sarah turned her eyes upward. "I shall never ask for anything ever again, my God." 

"Ema! Ema!" called Yitzchak as he scampered toward his mother. "Ema! Ema! Wait 'til I tell you what happened! Oh, Ema! There was an angel from God....and I heard him talk to Abba! And.....and......and......." 

Sarah listened to her son's tale, never taking her eyes from him or her arms from around him as he recounted the story of how he helped his father to build an altar of stone, how Abba tied him up and was ready to give him to God when the angel called to them from heaven to show them the ram instead. And how Abba let him help to make the burnt offering. And how they saved the ram's horn and he could blow it.....a little. Sarah drank in each word, and in each breath, she thanked God for Yitzchak's deliverance from harm. 

Sarah took Yitzchak to the well to wash the travel dust from his face. She called for some milk and curd, and cakes. She watched him eat until it was clear he was more asleep then awake, then she tucked him into his bed and kissed his brow. "Yitzchak," she whispered into his ear, "I love you with all my heart. Remember that." 

"I love you, too, Ema." yawned the boy as his eyes slid shut. 

With another prayer of thanks to God, she left the tent. 

Avraham was waiting for her in their tent. "Sarah," he started. 

Sarah stared at him and said nothing. 

"God commanded me......" 

Still, she said nothing. 

"I had to go; I had to take him....." 

The silence continued. 

"God told me to bring my son....." 

Sarah held up her hand to stop him. "Our son." 

"I did not tell you because I thought you wouldn't understand." 

Sarah turned her back to him. 

Lying beside him, Sarah stared at the ceiling. She wondered how he could sleep after what he had done.....almost done. She blinked back her tears. My God, she prayed silently, I have been excluded from this. You have obviously found me unworthy to be a part of Your covenant with my husband. I am alone and disconsolate. My heart which was once full of love and kindness for my husband is dried up and bitter in my breast. That name, the one you revealed to Avram, is sour on my tongue yet I am not afraid to talk to You. My whole life has been spent seeing to my husband's needs. I used to think I was a part of his journey to You, but I see now that I am not. I have been as a maidservant in his household. with responsibility, one who has received generous gifts, but I was and I remain, outside. I have never asked You for anything but the safety of my son. I said I would not ask anything else of You, but You know my heart and you know it is shattered into a thousand pieces. I am old and I have lived long enough. You wanted a sacrifice, oh Holy One? Then take me!" 

God heard Sarah's voice and wept for her. Avraham had ample opportunity to share his vision with her; he could've made her a part of his covenant and he chose not to do so. He could've taken Sarah with him to Moriah, but he did not. He could've argued for Yitzchak, but he did not. Sarah argued for her son. She had passed the test her husband had failed. She deserved better than to spend the end of her days alone in her heart. So, God made Sarah close her eyes this last time. God took Sarah, in place of her son, away from Avraham. 

When Avraham awoke in the morning, he was surprised to find Sarah so still beside him. Gently, he touched her shoulder, then recoiled when he found it cold. He pressed his ear to her breast and neither heard nor felt the beating of her heart. He cried out and the servants came running to the tent. 

"Avraham proceeded to mourn Sarah and bewail her." He bought the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite and buried her there. 

In the weeks which passed, Avraham noticed there was a hole in his heart. Gone was her smile and with it, her laughter. He found someone to oversee the herds and flocks, but he had to supervise it himself now. The maidservants brought his meals, but he found he was eating alone. Yitzchak grieved as a child, refused to sit with his father, and blamed him for his mother's death. And for a while, Avraham thought he had lost both wife and son. 

Eventually, he took another wife, but he soon found neither she nor the sons she gave him brought a light into his eyes. And before Yitzchak was to inherit, he sent those sons away as well. Every time he looked into Yitzchak's eyes, he saw Sarah and a part of him ached. He could not name that part, nor could he describe the sadness he felt when he awoke in the night and it was another woman, not Sarah, beside him. He never expected nor understood the emptiness which formed the perimeter of the remainder of his days.

Torah verses: Genesis, THE TORAH published by The Jewish Publication Society of America © 1962

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What She Really Said In Gan Eden

And the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die."

And the Lord God said: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helpmate for him."

"One more complaint and I'm gonna quit finding you stuff to eat."
"Did I complain? Did I say anything?"
"You didn't have to say anything; I saw you roll your eyes."
"I didn't roll my eyes."
"You did and I saw you do it."
"I had something in my eye."
"Yeah, your eyeball." The woman sighed and leaned against the rock. "Hey, I'm as new at this as you are, y'know. It's gonna take me a little time to finesse the process."
"Did you hear me say one single thing about dinner?"
" said nothing. An indictment in and of itself."
"Just because I didn't go 'wow, that's great food,' doesn't mean I didn't like it."
"You didn't ask for seconds."
"I didn't need seconds. You gave me enough the first time around."
"You usually ask for seconds."
"I had a late lunch."
"Late lunch? What were you eating? Did you check it out first? Did you just stuff it in your mouth? How did you know it wasn't that green thing you brought home last week."
"The green thing wasn't disagreeable....the amount was. I ate too many."
The woman said nothing.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman: "Yea, has God said: You shall not eat of any tree in the garden." And the woman said unto the serpent: "Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said: You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die."

The woman walked along the bank of a stream watching the fish swim by. She marveled at the way the sunlight made their skin sparkle even through the water. Stooping down, she put her hand in the water and she laughed when the fish tickled her fingers.
"They look like little rainbows," said a voice behind her.
This was a new voice, one she had not heard before. She turned to see a strange looking creature standing nearby. "What's a rainbow?"
"Oh, now there's a treat for the eyes....but you'll not see one. It something that will come after the rain."
"What's a rain?"
The creature grinned at her. "That's when water falls from the sky."
"Water falls from the sky? That's preposterous."
"Nope. It'll happen. Trust me."
"Trust you? Who are you that I should trust you?"
"Nachash is the name. I live here, just like you do."
"Just like all the other creatures, I suppose."
"Not quite like the other creatures. You're talking to me and I'm answering, right?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"Has anyone else talked to you?"
"No. Not really."
"See, there you go." He squatted down beside her. "I'm not like you or your friend. I've been around a bit longer."
The woman thought about that for a while. "Do you eat?"
"On occasion....when I see something I want to eat."
"Like what?"
"Oh, like a number of things. Figs, pomegranates, the occasional chicken."
"You eat chickens! Yech! That sounds disgusting."
"Hey, a guy's gotta eat what a guy's gotta eat."
"I wouldn't eat a chicken, that's for sure. The feathers would taste terrible."
"You don't eat the feathers."
"How do you avoid it?"
He shook his head. "Forget the chickens. But, I'll tell you one thing that's great."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"Dates? What's dates?"
"Oh, they are succulent! They're a delicacy! Sweet to the tongue and satisfying to the belly."
"Yeah? Where can I find one of these dates?
"There's this tree about half a mile from here.....right in the center of the garden."
"What does it look like?"
"Tall, kinda rough bark, big leaves....almost as big as you."
"Wait a talking about THAT tree?"
"What tree?"
"You know what tree I mean. That tree. The tree in the center of the garden. The one we're not supposed to touch....oh, you know which one."
The serpent laughed at the woman. "Now that's preposterous! I've eaten from that tree and I'm still here."
"Didn't the Holy One tell you NOT to eat from a particular tree?"
"Can't think of a time when it was mentioned."
"Well, the Holy One told my husband one tree was big trouble and to stay away."
"The only trouble you'll get into from eating those dates is the stomach ache you'll get from eating too many. In fact, eat from that tree and you will never look at food the same way again. That tree, m'dear, is brain food. Eat just one those dates and you'll be so alive, so alert that everything you see will take on new definition. I highly recommend the experience."

And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her and he did eat.

Alone at the center of the garden stood two majestic trees side by side. No birds chirped, no animals moved along the ground as they did in other parts of the garden. The air was perfectly still. One tree was taller than the other; it's fronds shot upward into the sky, as though its arms were raised to God.
The second tree was smaller, yet no less regal. Fruit dripped from its branches like honey from a hive and it was simply a matter of reaching up to pluck one of the little brown surprise packages. The woman stared up at the leaves for a long time, and it seemed to her the fronds, so weighted from their load, leaned down to her. Finally, she stretched out her hand, barely touching one of the dates, and it dropped into her palm. She reached again, and another fell into her hand. "I'll take just two," she said aloud, her voice sounding strange in the silence surrounding the trees. The words floated away, but there was no response; no warning from God to stop her. "Hmmmph, maybe I did have my trees mixed up. This one is certainly accessible enough; the fruit just falls into my hand just like from all the other trees in the garden. It must be all right." Holding the two dates in her hand, she went to find her husband.

"What is this?" he asked when she handed him the date.
"It's a new variety. I found it at the center of the garden."
"Did you take it from that tree I told you about?" he whispered, almost afraid to ask the question.
"I don't think so." She told him about the serpent and what he had said. "I think this one is all right." And with that, she popped one of the dates into her mouth.
It was the sweetest, most delicious thing to have ever touched her tongue. She chewed it slowly to savor the delicate taste. And as she swallowed, her eyes grew large and she stared at her husband.
"It's must be good," he shrugged as he put the little fruit into his mouth.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

"Where are you?"
The man and the woman knew hiding was not going to help. "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked," said the man as he stepped out from the dense bushes.
"Who told you  that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree which I commanded you that you should not eat?"
The man glanced behind him before he said, "The woman who You gave me to be with me...she gave me this date thing and told me to eat it."
God waited for the woman to come forward. "What is this that you have done?"
The woman swallowed hard, but answered, "The serpent charmed me; he convinced me this was all right; I took the fruit and I ate it."
"You didn't need to eat that fruit," said the Holy One; "because you each stopped to think about what you were about to do, you already knew the difference between good and evil."
"Perhaps," sighed the woman, "but it was unconfirmed."

And the Lord God said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, cursed are you from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; on your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between her offspring and yours; they shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise their heel."

God told the woman she would bring her children into the world with pain and suffering, and that her husband would rule over her. And to the man, God decreed that he would have to work for a living. And, to them both, God pronounced that since they came from dust, they would return to dust at the end of their days. Then, the Holy One told them they would be exiled from the garden.
But the Holy One was not finished with the woman.
That night, as she slept her last night within the protective cocoon of the garden, the Holy One came to the woman and spoke to her.
"Since you are so smart now, you will learn to use your knowledge. Because you paused to think before you ate of the fruit of My tree, the day will come when your descendants will accept the laws that I will give them. When that time comes, and your people will look to My law as their Tree of Life, the women who will come from you will pause as they prepare food for their families to consider whether or not this food is befitting consumption.
"And as if that is not enough, I shall give those women who come from you a holiday cycle which will remind them that I am the Lord God and your actions have caused them to spend endless time in their kitchens. They will also have a holy week when their entire household will be dismantled, cleaned, and reassembled, only to be disassembled and reassembled at the end of the week. The men shall call this Pesach, for it will commemorate a great event, but the women shall call it My Revenge for your transgression."
God looked down at the sleeping woman. "As you have been charmed, so shall you charm. As you were convinced, so shall you convince others. You shall be responsible for teaching your offspring the art of being human. You shall teach them manners and convention. You shall be the rod of discipline while you are the cushion of comfort. They will test you and try your patience, but you are to love them unconditionally, as I love you and your husband. They will not have the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from which to benefit, but they will look to you the same way. You will impart to them the wisdom you gained by swallowing the date, by swallowing your words as I did mine when I let you eat the fruit of My tree. You may guide them, but you must let them learn as I let you.
"I said your husband shall rule over you, and so he shall, but you shall be the arbiter. You shall be responsible for peace in your household. You shall learn to diffuse him when he is angry and you shall bolster him when he is weak, for you are the stronger one. Because you accepted your complicity in this, you will be expected to accept responsibility even when it is not yours. You will swallow this as you did the date, but it will not taste as sweet. You will, however, eventually learn how to use what you now know. And My blessing for you is that you are capable of learning to use it wisely."

And when the woman awoke in the morning, she remembered what the Holy One said. Looking over at her still sleeping husband, she sighed before she nudged him gently.
"Adam, wake up. It's time to get going."

Torah verses: Genesis 2-3, THE TORAH published by The Jewish Publication Society of America © 1962

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