You Are My Sister

You Are My Sister


Check-ins included the scent of frankincense and a reading from a modern piece about feeling the story between the words, which is what we attempt to do in this group. An attempt to bring in teachings from the Koran met with difficulty, as the use of language and story telling felt so different than Torah it was hard to access, and we were unable to pick up the thread of the story of Abraham and Sarah. It appeared clear that it will take time, and likely a Koran scholar to join us, before we can gain from that direction of study. After some further discussion of our last session, including the recognition that one of the oppressions that men have had to bear over the millenia is having to grow up knowing that their role may include that of being sacrificed in war, we picked up the story of Sarai and Abram again in Haran – midway between Ur Kasdim and Canaan.

Genesis 12:5. “Abram took his wife Sarai . . . and the souls they made in Haran”. After Abram gets his walking papers from HaShem – Lech l’cha, Go for your sake – he picks up the family, children, possessions, servants, and entire community they had assembled in Haran and prepares to leave for Canaan, where HaShem has promised “you shall be a blessing.” The Zohar tells us that Abram had to “take” Sarai through persuasion, that a man is forbidden to take his wife to a foreign land without her consent. This is the first hint allowing us to imagine how this couple must have communicated with each other, how they must have negotiated both this dramatic move and all the steps that were to follow.

The various English translations gave us “souls” or “descendents” in place of the Hebrew word nefesh. That the Hebrew uses the singular form of the noun suggests perhaps that what Abram and Sarai took with them on this journey was the communal soul that they had made together. The commentators say Abram had converted the men, and Sarai the women, to the understanding of YHVH, and it is the nefesh of this community that they made in Haran and took with them. This was a time of major spiritual transition, from the goddess and pagan worship that had been predominant in this region of the world for so long, to a new path into the unknown, led by a nascent understanding of YHVH. And Abram and Sarai were building this together. This was on the ground, nuts and bolts, community building, as the verb “ahsu” (they made) indicates the action is in the World of Assiyah (physical reality), rather than some philosophical (B’riyah) or symbolic (Yetzirah) activity.

Finally, reading the words “Lech L’cha”, we remember the melody we have created singing this in our holy tent in the desert . . . and you shall be a blessing.

12:5. “They left . . . and they came to Canaan“

The parsity of Torah is so evident here. What must have been such a momentous journey, travelling with a large contingent over many weeks to get from Haran to Canaan, is covered in just 7 words of Hebrew. What physical challenges did they encounter? How often did they argue? Who joined them on the way? Who left? We are given no clues in the text, and have to “feel” the heart of the story between the words.

12:7. “And he built an altar there to HaShem who appeared to Him.”

We read of the early journeys within Canaan, Abram et al finding their way from place to place – Shechem, Beth-el, Ai, then steadily to the South – leaving altars at each place in dedication to YHVH. What kind of altars? Simple stone? How large? Many details not included.

The verse preceding this one tersely states that “the Canaanite was in the land”. What were the interactions with the local peoples that we are not told about? Abram encounters the town of Ai early upon entry into the land, which is reflected some 400+ years later when on another entry into the land, Joshua encounters resistance and a temporary defeat, but ultimately conquers Ai. It would seem Abram’s encounter was much less violent, much more diplomatic. He was, after all, the stranger wandering into this land.

12:10. “There was famine in the land”

Throughout our history, famine was the great motivator of huge events. This is the first famine to determine the fate of the Hebrew people, forcing Abram and Sarai to journey to Egypt. This foreshadows the later famine which led to the descent of Jacob and the 70 souls to Egypt, as well as that which occurred hundreds of years later which led Elimelech and Naomi to Moab and the story of Ruth which we read last year. What modern day famines have moved/are moving us into new ways of being - if we can pay attention and move?

12.11. “See now, I have known you are a woman of beautiful appearance”

Abram initiates a conversation with Sarai with praise, with acknowledgment, perhaps even flattery. But what he is about to request of her is huge. He starts with the phrase “Hinay – Nah”, a supplication, asking please, approaching softly, intimately, respectfully. This reminds of his having to get her consent to leave Haran. There are conversations, joint decisions to be made in time of great duress. The relationship is presented to us not as one of Abram lording it over Sarai, but a partnership with respect and negotiations preceding each major step. And we take note: these are the first recorded words between Abram and Sarai, and they are words of direct relationship (Hinay, be fully present with me) and deep respect (Nah, please). Imagine the power, intimacy, and connection you would feel engaging your partner, lover, friend in this way.

12:13. “Please say that you are my sister.”

These verses led to much discussion, attempting to understand what was really going on between the ancestral couple at this critical moment. Fearful of his life as they enter Egypt, Abram asks Sarai to pose as his sister, that “it may go well with me for your sake”. Is Abram a barbaric boor, willing to prostitute his wife to save his own skin? Is he simply a coward? Or maybe they messed up here, this dysfunctional couple of ours, simply made a bad decision? Maybe they should have gone boldly and unapologetically into Egypt as husband and wife? But the outcome of this decision served to move the story of the Jewish people forward, feeling like a Greek tragedy full of dark humor, with Sarai and Abram just pawns in a cosmic manipulation – doing this for the sake of the greater plan being played out by God/Zeus.

Or are they acting from their own free will, simply trying to do the best they can in the moment of being confronted with a difficult situation? The moment between them is poignant: Abram respectfully asks her to say she is his sister, “that I may live on account of you.” But the Hebrew used actually says “That my Nefesh (Soul), will live because of you.” This may refer back to the Nefesh that left Haran with them, the entire community of souls travelling with them. How many women throughout history had to offer themselves in this way, potentially sacrificing themselves or their own personal dignity, in order that the group “over-soul” could be preserved?

So Sarai seems to be a fully willing partner in this drama, fully grounded in the fact that it is just the reality of the situation – if they are both to survive and fulfill their joined destiny, she just has to do what she has to do. But let’s not sell Sarai short. As we read between the words to feel the heart of the story, the heart of the relationship between Abram and Sarai, we can sense she was no passive player in this drama, simply being led off to be Pharoah’s concubine. We imagine instead that she acted from a position of power, with the truth and recognition of her role as Priestess/princess and Seer/Iscah, a sacred ambassador to the Pharoah of Egypt. We imagine her fully and consciously utilizing her beauty and sexuality as resources - a pact is made with Egypt that results in her own nation being blessed. And blessed they were - with sheep, cattle, donkeys, manservants and maidservants, female donkeys, and camels. All bigla’lah – on account of her.

Next Gathering: Saturday morning, September 11, Shabbat T’shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur)

Location: Hike to the Trees, Encino hills

What: Continue the exploration of our first ancestral couple; but also hold Council on the Head of Change (Rosh HaShanah) that is presenting itself to each of us individually this year, as we dwell in these 10 sacred days of uncertainty before the cleansing of Yom Kippur.

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