In this Parshah we read the account of Isaac’s birth, the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, the story of Lot, Hagar’s exile and the Akeida “The Binding of Isaac.”
I would like to focus on Sarah who is told that, at the age of 90, she will have a child within the year. She laughs. In ancient Arabic poetry the verb to laugh can also be translated as to menstruate. And Sarah did indeed menstruate. How do we know this?
Before we answer this question, I would like to mention
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’ Ma’ayan Programme, which trains women to become educators for the Jewish community and advisors in the area of Taharat Hamishpacha (laws of family purity). Menstruation is less of a taboo subject than it was a few years ago partly due to more open discourse on menstrual matters. But it still takes a brave woman to bring it up in textual analysis. Sarah, whose life breaths through this chapter, in my eyes is brave.
Three guests arrive at Abraham’s door and he asks his wife Sarah to “knead and make cakes” for them. But he does not serve them. Why is this? One interpretation is that whilst she was preparing the dough, she started to menstruate which renders the food impure.
The guests ask: “Where is your wife, Sarah?”
“There in the tent” Abraham replies.
The tent is the menstrual hut –I like to think that she has self selected this separate space for menstrual quietude. We know that menstrual segregation featured in the Bible from a more direct reference when Rachel says to her father “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.”
Sarah overhears the guests telling Abraham ““I will return to you next year and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Thus, her menstruating at the start of the chapter makes even more sense.
Rambam explains that Abraham was too busy to tell Sarah the news himself. He was also in pain following his circumcision. Some interpreters suggest that Sarah’s laughter is directed at her husband who appears afraid and in awe of the messengers. Sarah hears the news straight from G-d’s messengers, not from Abraham and this is because she is on a higher prophetic level to her husband. Rabbi Sacks writes about how Abraham is told to listen to Sarah’s voice – not just her words but her actual voice – and to obey her.
The Midrash points out that Sarah asks if, now a menstruating woman, she is to represent renewal. Her laughter some say is that of a sceptic, born out of a lack of faith. Others say she is scornful, not wanting to be associated with procreative tasks. I read it as Sarah’s ambivalence. Ambivalence in psychoanalytic theory can incorporate the two states of love and hate. I think Sarah is furious with G-d whilst acknowledging that He has asked of her something unrivalled and unique.
When Isaac is born Sarah says “God has bought me laughter, everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
She is now one of many; her menstruation represents that of ordinary woman-folk. In contrast, amenorrheic and infertile, barren women are often portrayed as have a special relationship to G-d, above and beyond the earthly realms of ordinary women. Hannah is a good example of this. She prays and prays for a son but volunteers to give him up if her prayers are answered. In her meditative state, in deep prayer and thought, she is in a symbiotic union with G-d and actually Samuel’s birth interrupts this. She can give her son up in part because her wished for state is to be with G-d.
So, menstruation represents physicality and mortality – Not the stuff of prophets. Rambam however writes helpfully that a prophet must develop fully as a human being before obtaining transcendental prophecy. Nevertheless Sarah’s laugh can nudge us to question this.
Sarah represents the fact that you do not need to be a mother and you do not need to have periods to be a woman. This is extremely relevant to us all today because of the increasing numbers of young women who struggle with issues of identity and rebel against societal ideas of what it means to be a woman.
And the concept of womanhood further evolves in this chapter with the story of Lot’s daughters getting their father drunk so that they can each be intimate with him. Here we have the first of many women who academics call “the Delilahs of the texts” – women who use their bodies, their sexual prowess to get what they need.
Another developed reality is that of Lot’s wife. One interpretation is that she turns back to look for her lost daughters. This is the real suffering of a mother whose children are dying. Very real and easy for us to empathise with and relate to. It is perhaps more difficult for us to think of Sarah’s silence during the Akeida. Where is she? Where is the voice that Abraham is supposed to obey? I think like Hannah, she is in prayer with G-d. Unencumbered by the task of conception, pregnancy, birth and motherhood, she can return to her prophetic seat by G-d’s side. Interestingly Sarah is always portrayed and viewed as a woman, a woman of beauty and character. Unlike Mary of the New Testament whose immaculate conception has no traces of impurity, blood, pain and so on – Mary is not to be seen as a woman at all.