A Random Walk With Rashi – New Perennial Insights

To set the scene, Sarah has just witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac, and promptly complains to Abraham, insisting that not only Ishmael, but also his mother (that Egyptian slavewoman Hagar), both be banished. This clearly distresses Abraham, who to this point has seemed to be not easily perturbable (may not be a word, but should be).

We have a surprise guest for our study group this week, an actual call in from the big fella himself, our g-d (with a capital G) who art in heaven (or in this case, just down the hall from me), who saideth to Abraham:

[Click here for the Voice of G-d]

Genesis 21:12-13
“Be not distressed over the youth or your slavewoman: Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours. But the son of the slavewoman as well will I make into a nation, for he is your offspring.”

Wow. We can certainly see now why Abraham would have paid heed, not only to Sarah, but to G-d as well. But lets back up a step, and remind ourselves just what led to this scene. Going back a single verse, to begin with.

Genesis 21:11
The matter greatly distressed Abraham regarding his son.

For he heard that he had gone forth, i.e., adopted evil behavior. And its simple meaning is, regarding her telling him to send him away.

To refresh our memories, we were left wondering just what Abraham was distressed about. On the one hand, might it have been about hearing that Ishmael has gone astray, and now has to be dealt with? Or on the other hand, might it have been about Sarah bringing her concerns up at all, and particularly at this time and in this manner? Or on yet another hand (this is Torah after all), might he have been distressed about potentially losing his concubine Hagar?

Curiously, Rashi confirms that the straightforward reading would imply the second option (i.e., it is Sarah that distresses him). He quickly realizes, however, that this interpretation would not put Sarah in the best light, nor jive with Rashi’s previous commentaries (in particular, that Ishmael’s “mocking” could somehow be equated with adultery, murder and the like).

So Rashi goes on to give us a different read, and one that is more favorable to Sarah. Abraham, he suggests, simply had shpilkes – he was distressed by the entire “matter.” This makes sense, since as we have seen, Abraham has routinely tended to exhibit what seemed to be ‘conflict avoidance’ – whether it was in parting ways with Lot, letting Sarah cast out Hagar (the first time), or even bartering to a draw on behalf of Sodom. As our resident Rashi psychologist reminded us, this mindset can and often does entail far more than someone having to choose between yes and no, but more often, choosing between multiple forms of yes, and multiple forms of no – all to the point where Abraham would simply tend toward an easier way out, and in this case, become distressed to boot. Turning that around, it makes Abraham all the more human, and real, with palpable emotions that we can appreciate. He is one of us, after all. We were at his bris.

So back to our verse, in which we see that G-d himself knew or assumed that it is both Hagar and Ishmael that distressed Abraham. What is Rashi’s take on the voice of G-d – as captured in the clip above ?

Rashi (to Genesis 21:12) – HEED HER VOICE – We learn from this that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in matters of prophecy.

We had ourselves a veritable feast of our own with this concept. Rashi is clearly ‘troubled’ by just what it means to “heed” Sarah’s voice, leading him to conclude that this confirms that she was a prophet above even Abraham himself. Surprisingly (to me at least, which doesn’t take much), according to the authority of some website, there seem to have been seven female prophets within the Jewish faith, these being:

Sarah Gen 11:29 – 23:20
Miriam Ex. 15:20-21; Num. 12:1-12:15, 20:1
Deborah Judges 4:1 – 5:31
Hannah I Sam 1:1 – 2:21
Abigail I Sam 25:1 – 25:42
Huldah II Kings 22:14-20
Esther Esther

There were certainly several more male prophets, and still perhaps a glass ceiling of sorts for even prophets, but one that is positioned far higher than I would have thought it might be.

We followed the line of logic concerning what it meant to heed Sarah’s voice. Just as G-d himself rarely if ever ‘commands’ (instead, he tends to achieve the same result through his utterances and words alone), so too does it seem that Sarah’s voice alone provides the original basis for “she who must be obeyed”.

The word for heed is a familiar one to us – shema (as in the Irish phrase “hear O’Israel”). In these and other contexts it generally means to not merely hear, or listen, but more importantly, to hear in order to do, to internalize and act, or to follow up and take action accordingly. In this case, G-d is telling Abraham to listen to Sarah, and take heed (try as we might, there turned out to be no better word).

Our text tells us that in some, more modern, editions (not ours) this commentary of Rashi often begins with the phrase “the voice of the Holy Spirit within her”, suggesting that this relates back to Rashi’s parallel comments to Genesis 16:2. In that earlier verse, Abraham first “listened to the voice of Sarah”, regarding his proposed tryst with Hagar – which Rashi concluded at the time meant that he did indeed listen “to the Holy Spirit which was in her [Sarah]”.

In turn, both times we are taught that Abraham listened not only to her voice, but to a particular quality of her voice, given the fact that she had – and her voice expressed – a Divine inspiration. This inspiration, in turn, relates back to Genesis 11:29, where we learn the genealogy of Abraham’s family, which includes, among many other in- and out-laws, the name of Milcha, and his daughter Iscah. Rashi told us at the time, that Iscah was indeed our very own Sarah. (Whew)

Others have suggested the manner in which Sarah’s name is thought to have evolved over time, from Iscah, to Sarai, and finally, to Sarah. If you would like to explore further, you might take a peek at “The Three Faces of Sarah”, which suggests that “[i]t appears that each time Sarah changed her name, it was symbolic of a greater spiritual refinement. Thus, we can assume that Sarah went through three transformations in her life – each reflected in a name change.”

Finally, our discussion last week began by revisiting my previous post, which attempted to pull together various strings in the story to date, and in turn, to the thought that just when I get a post filed away, and think I have finally arrived at an answer or understanding, we have yet another study group, often leading to yet another, and often entirely different understanding.
Apparently that’s a good thing.

To some it evokes the thoughts of Torah study leading to an ongoing series of “perennial insights”, while to others its remindful of the approach to teaching that involves the use of a “spiral curriculum” in which students repeat the study of a subject at different grade levels, each time at a higher level of difficulty and in greater depth.

For that matter, though the word “Mishna” (first section of the Talmud) is often translated to mean ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’, the literal meaning of the word is repetition. Makes sense.

With the combination of our learning Torah through the original Hebrew, in a group setting, while focusing on but a single verse at a time, it appears that we will never be done finding new meaning, depth, and insights in each phrase, word, and vov. That seems to be what we are challenged to do. So what I said last time? Forget it. This is what it all means. Until we meet again. Then that.

(Photo: NicoCanali)