A Random Walk With Rashi: Chazak Sarah, You Go Girl

Genesis 20:17-18: (17) Abraham prayed to Gd, and Gd healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maids, and they were relieved; (18) for Hashem had completely closed off opposite every womb of the household of Abimelech, over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.

Rashi: AND THEY WERE RELIEVED – “and they gave birth” – This is to be understood as Targum Onkelos renders it, “and they were relieved.” Their orifices opened up and expelled that which they were meant to expel This is their “giving birth.” OPPOSITE EVERY WOMB – this means opposite every opening. OVER THE MATTER OF SARAH – this means by the word of Sarah.

These verses conclude Genesis Chapter 20. It is traditional to end the reading of a chapter or book of Torah – as we did last week – with the words “chazak, chazak, v’nis’chazek” meaning “be strong, be strong, and gather strength”. The phrase reminds us that when a Jew completes a portion of Torah, her approach to Torah and mitzvot should be strengthened. Though only a single portion of Torah may have been completed, each portion has an influence on the whole, for the entire Torah is reflected in each of its parts. In turn, each portion contributes to our study group, and hopefully to our readers out there, who by their efforts, each contribute to our study, and back again, to Torah. Cause I said so.

All the more so here, and even with this rather oddball chapter. It seems in hindsight that by beginning these posts with what appear to be the mundane and confusing travails of Abraham in Gerar, we are now more firmly grounded together in the text, and each other, and ready to plow ahead, into what might easily be among the more demanding chapters of all Torah. Imagine if we had just met and were to begin this post instead with upcoming Chapter 21 – “OK, lets set the scene – people, people, pay attention – there’s Abraham and Sarah, they’ve been traipsing around for what seems like forever, and now they are about to have a son – oh just trust me, this is BIG.”.

In turn, it is an opportune time to catch our breaths and ask ourselves, why is this chapter here, what does it teach us? In some ways, it is not unusual, and in fact common, for Torah to splice one chapter in among others, where it seems to not fit. Take Genesis Chapter 36 – please (badda bump) – a sidebar about Judah and Tamar that is tucked neatly within a story line that is otherwise all about Joseph. We will likely never know whether chapters like these are here to teach us something (my vote), or as the result of the J, P or some other author or later editor simply tucking them away so he could head home for the day.

From start to finish chapter 20 has been all about Sarah, and Abraham, and Abimelech, in the land of Gerar. In turn, it is eerily similar to the scene in chapter 12 in which Sarah was offered to the harem of the Pharaoh in Egypt, and again escaped with her virtue intact, by the affliction of the ruler – and his people – with a sudden disease (Pharaoh being a skin condition, and Abimelech having every orifice suddenly closed). Perhaps even more interestingly, both times the scene is connected with the eventual the birth of a son to Abraham, first the birth of Ishmael to Hagar (who presumably left with Abraham from Egypt), and soon, the birth of Isaac to Sarah.

So what bothers Rashi, you might ask? Don’t get me started.

Rashi’s comments, and in turn, those of commentators he looks back upon (our friend Onkelos again) and those that look back on Rashi (our friendly footnotes), all seem at odds with each other, with regard to the orifices leading to birth. In the peshat, or straight reading approach, this would seem to mean either that Abimelech had a womb, or that all his maids gave birth simultaneously, or both.

From the categories of things that typically bother Rashi – the one that seems most applicable here, is the fact that the literal interpretation would seem illogical. Hence, he looks for other ways to understand this verse, essentially concluding that birth does not literally mean birth, or womb literally womb.

Finally, a few weeks ago we were reminded of the child’s game in which we tried to find, and make sense, out of what could be very slight differences between scenes. With Rashi’s final comment we are reminded of yet another game, the old TV game show “Concentration,” in which the players would need to find two matching squares of the puzzle – to the point where the squares are then turned over to reveal the two corresponding portions of the message beneath.

Fortunately, its not just me. Analogies to such things seem fair ‘game’ when it comes to Torah study. One commentator, Aviva Zornberg (perhaps my favorite) reminds us that according to midrash, “[w]isdom is identified with Torah; and the essential activity of Torah is play.” Quoting Psalms, she continues “if Your Torah were not my plaything, I would have perished in my affliction” (Psalms 119:92). Paraphrasing her final thoughts on the subject, ‘the infinite resources yielded by possible combinations of words in the Torah are not held in check by the presence of the Father. On the contrary, each game leads back to Him and to a knowledge of His delight. For these games create worlds, and are man’s intimation of his fearful resemblance to G-d’. Cause she said so.

Rashi tells us that the “matter” of Sarah indicates that she spoke. And it seems about time. For a person who was apparently not asked – nor did she agree – to be provided to Abimelech, she found the words to take control of the situation. Sarah controlled her own destiny – and ours – by the use and the power of her words.

So here we reveal two more parts of the puzzle – I hope you’re sitting – since the phrase regarding the “matter” of Sarah is identical to the one in which she finally spoke up in the presence of Pharaoh. Looking back to Chapter 12, verse 17 we read “[a]nd Hashem afflicted Pharaoh along with his household with severe plagues because of the matter of Sarai, the wife of Abram”. In turn, we learn from Rashi that “because of the matter of Sarai” tells us that she instructed an angel to smite them – according to Rashi “she would say to the angel, “Strike!” and he would strike”.

So what do these two parts of the puzzle reveal? Perhaps little more than to shift our focus from its usual place on a puzzle that seems all about Abraham, to the importance and role that Sarah played in this – not only her seemingly silent strength, but also her faith as well.

After our long break, we are back onto a nearly weekly Rashi schedule – beginning soon with the long awaited birth of Isaac.

Chazak Sarah, you go girl.

(photo: donkeyhotey)