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Sarah: A Beacon of Hope and Possibility
By Elizabeth Tragash
Over the years I have often joked that the Torah portions that are read on the High Holidays must be from the Book of Exodus, since it seemed that as soon as the Torah scrolls were taken out of the ark, there was a mass exodus from the sanctuary. For many years I, too, was part of that exodus, joining scores of fellow congregants in the lobby, the ladies room or the courtyard. Consequently, I had little knowledge or appreciation for the Torah portions being read. As time went on and my interest in Judaism grew, I began to stay in the sanctuary during the Torah service. I soon learned that the portions that are read on Rosh HaShanah are from the Book of Genesis where we read Parshat Vayera, which tells the story of Sarah, a barren old matriarch who gives birth late in life to a son, Isaac. Several years later, G-d asks her husband, Abraham, to sacrifice Isaac and he complies, leading us to question Abraham’s faith - or his sanity!
For the most part, I viewed Sarah’s story as an “appetizer”, a prelude to the more tantalizing main course, the Akeda, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. On the surface, Sarah’s story is that of a barren woman, well beyond her childbearing years, who has given up hope for bearing a child of her own. When G-d sends three messengers to tell Sarah she will give birth to a son, she bursts out laughing at the ludicrous idea that she will bear a child at her age. Perhaps her laughter also reflects her doubts about G-d’s benevolence and her diminishing faith in G-d. However, G-d keeps his promise to Sarah and she gives birth to Isaac at the ripe old age of ninety.
For many years, the significance of this story eluded me. However, when I recently became a Bat Mitzvah at the age of fifty, I had the opportunity to study this portion in greater depth and I was able to view Sarah’s story through a different lens. I had reached middle age and found myself in a barren stretch of life, wandering in a desert of my own making. Suddenly, I was keenly aware of the things I hadn’t accomplished, the things I was no longer able to do, coupled with the stark realization that the sand was picking up speed as it raced through the hourglass. Although I may have been projecting my own feelings onto Sarah, I speculated that her barrenness was not just physical, but existential and spiritual as well. I began to see that Sarah was more than an old woman who had spent a lifetime yearning for a child; she was a woman who had given up hope.
Sarah’s barrenness can also reflect the sense of futility and stagnation that many of us feel as we grow older and resign ourselves to the status quo, telling ourselves that we are too old to change, that it is too late to start anew, that the way things are is the way they will always be. Sarah represents that part of us that faces our aspirations with the attitude of “I’m too old, too young, too incompetent, too busy, too poor….to be able to make that happen.” She is the part of us that faces a challenge and turns away, muttering the words, “I can’t do it.”
G-d shows Sarah that even at her advanced age, even when her body is shutting down, when it seems that all of the doors are closing, a whole new door is opening. It is still possible to change and bring new meaning into her life. It is through Sarah that we see the chance to transform that which appears to be impossible into that which is possible. As such, Isaac is not just a long awaited child; he is also a symbol of our ability to generate life and meaning even when we think that it is impossible to do so. Isaac is a reminder that even in our darkest, emptiest moments, if we can suspend our doubts and silence our laughter, we can allow G-d to help us find hope in a seemingly hopeless place
Just as Isaac’s birth reminds us of the possibility that our most coveted dreams can come true, the Kedah (the binding of Isaac) shows us that our greatest nightmares can also come true. As most parents discover, the pleasures of having children are juxtaposed with the somber and terrifying realization that we can lose them. Indeed, life presents all of us with many situations when the fear of loss hovers alongside the joy of love.
While it is commonly felt that G-d is testing Abraham when He asks him to sacrifice Isaac, I’d like to suggest that it is not G-d who is testing Abraham, rather it is G-d’s imperfect world that is testing Abraham, as it tests all of us. While we may not be called upon to sacrifice our children, we are “tested” in other ways. There are countless instances when we are confronted with the fragility of our lives and the mortality of those we love, when the shadow of death dances across our doorstep. It is the close call, the averted accident, the anxious vigils in emergency rooms and hospital corridors, the waiting for test results to hand us a verdict. It is all of those pivotal moments when life sounds the Shofar that awakens us and shatters our complacency, reminding us that the fabric of our lives can be altered at any time, often without warning. It is a reminder of life’s sanctity and brevity, a call to us to appreciate the blessing of life and to live more fully and meaningfully.
The High Holidays are one of the pivotal times in the Jewish year when we have the opportunity to take stock of our lives. It is a time when we, like Sarah, confront the barren places in our lives, identifying the things we want to change and considering the kind of pursuits that might fill the empty pockets in our lives, imbuing us with renewed energy and purpose.
During the Days of Awe we ask to be inscribed in the “Book of Life”, however, it is also a time for each of us to open the “Book” of our own lives and decide what we would like to inscribe upon its pages. If we feel that the book has been written for us, that “the dye has been cast” and that there is no space for us to write a new chapter, we are stuck in a barren place. If we view ourselves as too old, too set in our ways, too entrenched in life as it is, it will become difficult, if not impossible, to envision life as it could be; harder still to translate our vision into action. It is in those moments that we need to remember Sarah and let her serve as our beacon of hope and possibility as we write the pages of our lives in the New Year.
The author is a freelance writer living in Groton, Massachusetts and her work has previously appeared in Jewish Magazine in 2003(Tashlich at Walden : the Gift of a Home) Her work has also appreared in GenerationJ.com and the Metrowest Jewish Reporter as well as several local and regional publications.
from the September 2010 High Holyday Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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