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Parashat Chayei Sarah: Honouring our matriarchs

Rebecca at the Well by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini
Rebecca at the Well by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

Rabbi SchellHave you noticed how “matriarchal” Genesis is? It is true that the “founders” of Judaism are the three patriarchs – three men – but it was their mothers and not their fathers who determined who carried the mantle. Abraham had two sons. Did his firstborn, Ishmael, become the standard-bearer of the new faith? No, Sarah’s firstborn and only son, Isaac, did (and God made it clear that being the son of Abraham was not sufficient to secure the tradition; the heir must be the son of Sarah). Isaac had two sons. Did his firstborn and preferred son, Esau, get to inherit the birthright? No, Rebecca’s favourite, Jacob, did; Rebecca made sure of that. The mother’s plans overrode the archaic birthrights. Jacob grew up and had twelve sons of his own with four women. Did Jacob’s firstborn, Reuven, become the focus of the last fourteen chapters of Genesis? No, but Rachel’s firstborn, Joseph, did. Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel determined the early direction and formation of our Jewish family; it was the women of Genesis who anointed our patriarchs and set the tone in our covenant with God. As progressive Jews we honour this fact by not only calling out the names of the avot, the fathers, but also the ones of the imahots, the mothers, in our prayers.

Besides that, I am aware that the biblical tradition is not always in favour of women rights. There are many parts in the Torah where women are only regarded as men’s property. One exception to this is a short episode in our parasha for this week: As part of the marriage arrangements for Isaac and Rebecca, her brother and mother said “We will call the maiden, and hear what she says,” from which Rashi teaches that “one may not give a woman in marriage unless she agrees.  And from her response, ”I will go” we learn further that a woman may marry even without the agreement of her parents” – a revolutionary change in a world where women had no say in whom they were going to marry. This little episode serves us as an example that we need to change procedures if we see that they are unjust and unequal.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Schell (Source: Janice Garfunkel)

Torah Reading for Shabbat Chayei Sarah
Genesis 23:1-25:18 (Reading 24:1-26; Plaut p.156; Hertz p.82); M’varchim Chodesh Kislev (Th/Fr)
Haftarah: 1 King 1:1-31 (Plaut p.169; Hertz p.90)

The Torah Study with Rabbi Schell continues this Shabbat, 07 November at 08h45 (Rondavel).

The Prayers of our Siddur”– class with Rabbi Schell every Thursday from 18h00 to 19h30 (Foyer).

Podcast of Rabbi Schell’s weekly Radio Sermons Tuesdays on Radio Today (10h30) or online:

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