|Dedicated to the memory of my holy grandmother, Ilse Gutmann z"tl, the embodiment of the strength of moral character of the Jewish woman of the twentieth century|
Last week on Shabbos we read Parshas Noach, all about the famous flood, Noach's behavior before during and after it, the family he created, and the repopulation of the world by both humans and all species of animals, both through peaceful means (general dispersal and wanderings to find ideal sites) and non-peaceful ones (the aftermath of the attempt to build a tower in Bavel). We finish with the many genealogies of the families of Shem, Yaphet, and Ham, and the departure of Avram from Ur Kasdim.
Parshas Lech Lecha, the one we read this week, begins with a commandment to Avram to depart from Canaan entirely and to wander where he will be shown en route. Much is made of Avram's willingness to follow G-d's command and how this is one of the tests he is given. But wait. Avram did not depart alone. He took his household, including his nephew Lot (for whom this was a great opportunity to find new land to acquire) and his wife Sarai. We know Sarai herself had equal navua (prophetic ability or sense) to that of Avram, so did G-d tell her likewise what was commanded? Or did Sarai herself pass an even greater test, by following Avram based on what he explained to her of G-d's will, without herself hearing it directly? Furthermore, the Tzena Urenah points out that Mishlei (13:20) says, "Yeroa holech et hachamim yechakam vroeh chsilim," "He who walks with the wise will grow wise, but a companion of fools will suffer no harm." Whom did Avram take as companions? Lot, who apparently spent his time far from Avram himself based on later discussions directly in the parsha, and Sarai, whose inherent modesty would keep her near her husband. Logically then it is Sarai who is the wise woman giving wisdom to Avram.
We know that when they approached Egypt, it was Avram who feared because of Sarai's great beauty and not she herself. He tried to hide her, he tried to twist the truth; Sarai herself merely remained silent and obedient to his wishes. Ultimately, Pharaoh treats her well out of fear of Heaven and respect for her (not out of respect for Avram); and indeed it says (12:16), "He treated Avram well for her sake." Tzena Urenah as a source cites Bava Metzia, Perek HaZahav, "that a man should always treat his wife with respect, for the blessings come upon a home because of her…Rava used to tell people, 'Respect your wives and you will be wealthy.'" Indeed, the Jews' claim to Goshen in Egypt comes from this moment, when it is among the gifts given not to Avram but to Sarai to possess.
After the commandment of bris mila is given, we are told G-d takes the letter "yud" (which has a numeric value of 10) from the end of Sarai's name, and split it into two "hays" (each with a value of 5), one to rename Avram as Avraham, the other Sarai as Sarah. There is a medrash that the yud in fact complained at being taken from the name of a tzaddekes, and rather being divided between a tzaddekes and a tzaddik! The yud was consoled only on being promised that it would be re-constituted a second time as the additional holy letter that would later turn Hoshea's name into Yehoshua to allow the whole Jewish people to enter the holy land.
Of course throughout their travels Avram and Sarai, then Avraham and Sarah, taught the men and the women of fear of Heaven, holy Torah, halacha, and Noachite law. But what do we know about teaching? Despite the prevalent thought that teaching boys must have primacy, we know both historically and practically that in fact it is teaching the girls and women which is most important to perpetuate Torah in both practice and values. Twentieth century responsa are very clear about the critical need to educate girls and women in the the written and oral Torah. There are those who have said that if a community wishes to have separate schools for boys and girls and can only build the schools one at a time, they must build the school for girls first; for the boys will surely be taught Torah and if not they can be taught later; but the girls might not be taught Torah and might later not be caught up and then their whole lives, households, and families will suffer their lack of knowledge.
But now I will turn everything around and revisit last week's parsha, which ended with the generations after Noach leading to Avram and Sarai. For there we hear much of Noach's son Shem, and hear of his (I believe but am not running to look up right this second, correct me if I have the relationship wrong) great-grandson Eiver. Those names are familiar, for in Parshas Lech Lecha it is the Yeshiva of Shem and Eiver to which references are made. Shem and Eiver just like Avram were teaching the word of G-d, though only to men. Shem, after the departure from the ark, functioned as G-d's priest. But then why, if Shem behaved perfectly throughout the flood, in the situation in which his father Noach lay uncovered after drinking wine, in establishing a yeshiva from which to teach G-d's word, in functioning as the priest, why is he not the father of the Jewish nation? It can't be because he had unworthy sons among his descendants, for Avram had Ishmael, Yitzchak had Eisav, yet that didn't disqualify them. What did Shem not have that Avraham had? Shem had no Sarah.
Certainly, he had a wife! We know this. And presumably she was virtuous for she merited being saved on the ark. But she was no Sarah. This week's haftarah comes from Yeshayahu. Passuk 41:1 "Be silent and listen to Me, you idol worshippers living on the most distant islands, who claim that I cannot redeem Bnai Yisroel from exile…", Passuk 41:5, "See, island dwellers, what a miracle I performed for Avraham and be afraid." The midrash states that "the islands" metaphorically invoked are Shem and Avraham, equally strong, equally stable, equally in service to G-d. In fact in relationship to the second passuk above, the midrash states that after the war of the four and five kings, Avraham and Shem were equally concerned for their mutual relationship; Avraham feared he had killed so many of Shem's descendants, while Shem was ashamed he had given rise to so many lines of evil men who would confront such a tzaddik as Avraham. They truly rose to equal heights in their yirat Shamayim. So again, what was different?
Avraham had Sarah. For the haftarah ends, 41:13, "For I, Hash-m your G-d hold your right hand to make sure you do not fall, saying to you, 'Have no fear, for I will help you.'" This is obviously only symbolic, but think truthfully; who would in life actually hold Avraham's right hand? No one but Sarah, the physical embodiment of G-d's gifts and strength.