And Sarah Laughed

And Sarah Laughed


We gathered for another morning of study together, furthering our exploration of the relationships found in the story of Abraham and Sarah.

Genesis 18:1: “The oaks of Mamre”

Having just completed the circumcision, his own, Ishmael’s, all the men in the community, Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent amongst the shade trees (odd English translations include the “plains” of Mamre or the “terebinths” of Mamre, but the Hebrew is clearly “alon”, oak) when 3 men approach. These are known in our oral tradition to be angels, actually archangels, each with his own specific task: Michael bearing the news of Sarah’s upcoming pregnancy; Raphael to heal Abraham’s wound; and Gabriel to destroy Sodom. Despite his own pain and infirmity, Abraham leaps to his feet and goes about washing the feet and making preparations to host his guests, the quintessential teaching in the Hebrew tradition of generosity and hospitality to visitors.

A teaching by Rabbi Jonathon Omerman, related by one in the group: Abraham sitting at the door of his tent indicates the practice in antiquity of deep meditation. This brings a question to mind: did this event really happen, or was the entire thing a meditative vision of Abraham’s?

Genesis 18:6: “Abraham hastened to her tent, to Sarah . . . “

The English again misleads away from an important detail, saying “the tent” rather than “her tent”. But her tent, Sarah’s tent, is separate from that of her husband’s tent. Thus, though married for over 60 years by now, Sarah and Abraham still maintain a degree of separation that allows each his/her individuality and ability to not confuse by blending the important independent roles of the Dakar (Masculine) and Nukvah (Feminine) in our tradition. We see this throughout the Hebrew tradition: HaKodesh Baruch Hu and Shechinah are separate aspects of the Divine, yet we recognize the bliss that is involved in their union; Moses could not enter his tent when Shechinah dwelt there, only when She left; Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) said that a man should not enter his house suddenly – who knows what the Feminine was up to in his absence? Thus, there is a respect and honoring of the 2 different life forces, recognizing that each has its own journey, as well as relationship with each other – like the sun and the moon. Or as Kate Hepburn put it: be married, and live next to each other.

We read of the bustling preparations for the Guests, Sarah and Abraham each with their role, and the youth (Ishmael, according to the midrash, who Abraham wanted to teach how to properly treat guests), who runs off to prepare the calf for the meal. But we suddenly realize: Where is Hagar? As Sarah’s handmaiden, she would likely have been with Sarah in her tent, but there is no mention of her in this scene. But the Torah is silent, and we are left to fill in the narrative.

Genesis 18:12: “And Sarah laughed within herself . . . “

Sarah no longer experienced the “moon” of women, so hearing Michael announce to Abraham that she would have a son, she laughed within at the idea of it. The language she uses is almost the same as that used by Abraham when he laughed at the same announcement back in Gen 17:17 – shall they really bear a child, both being as old as they are? We were told Abraham’s laugh was one of joy, while Sarah’s was a laugh of skepticism, but as we considered the scene, we were not so sure of this standard interpretation.

Another question: why is the angel speaking to Abraham, giving him this news, and not to Sarah directly? The text says “Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, behind him”. Did the angel indeed not mean for Sarah to hear this? Is this a hint that He thought better to go through Abraham, through the relationship of husband and wife, to get this news to Sarah? Perhaps he well knew that a woman of her age, experience, and wisdom would of course be skeptical! Maybe better just to let Abe know and let events happen. Scene through our modern lens, this could be seen as a sexist, patriarchal slant in the text. But it could alternatively be viewed as an acknowledgment that while Abraham was the dreamer, Sarah was the one with both feet grounded in reality, who did not need to hear such prophecy, but would certainly know when her body was carrying Isaac.

Genesis 18:15: “I did not laugh” . . . “No, you laughed indeed”

The interpretation here is usually that God is scolding Sarah for laughing. But what if that isn’t the real story? Suppose Sarah really did laugh in joy, at the realization that her life of barrenness was truly about to end. This fact of her inability to have a child had been such a burden and source of pain and anguish that she had carried all her life, and now, suddenly, freedom from that burden and the releasing laugh of that freedom. But then, having laughed, Sarah is suddenly frightened. Isn’t this what happens? When we have that release, that sudden freedom that accompanies a deep, deep insight and growth transition, isn’t the very next step doubt? Fear? We see this in the story of Pesach as well. After rejoicing, singing and dancing at the edge of the Red Sea, the next thing the Children of Israel do is start doubting: maybe we were better off in the Narrow Place after all, at least we had meat to eat, and we knew where our water was coming from.

So imagine God here as supportive therapist, rather than judgmental, scolding parent. “You did laugh, you really did, this is real, you are changing, you are growing, there really is reason for joy and laughter!” Now we see a new message: trust the laughter, trust the moments of freedom, when your spirit laughs and your soul sings.

Next meeting:

Saturday, March 19 (Erev Purim, Full moon of Adar II – a double dose of joy this year), 10 AM – noon

Location: To be determined

16th Joshua Tree Passover Village: See postings below

DATES: Thursday 4/21 – Sunday, 4/24

LOCATION: Joshua Tree National Park

Numbers: Limit is 40 participants

COST: $72 (adults and post-Bar/Bat mitzvah youth); $36 for children; As always, less than the full amount for those unable to afford full price - let all who are hungry come and eat.


HAGAR/HAJJAR - Another Perspective

Judith M., a member of Passover Village who corresponds with us from Israel, sends this teaching about Hagar (Hajjar in Arabic) from an interfaith study group in Israel/Palestine that includes West Bank residents, Moslems and Jews:
Our discussion centered on Hagar/Hajjar who is a central figure in the Moslem tradition which stresses her faith and dedication. In the Jewish tradition she is a minor figure around whom the Torah weaves a story of family tensions and challenges with G~d, faithful to Abraham and his entire family, by providing for all. The Islamic tradition stresses very clearly the dedication and faith of Hagar and Jewish tradition.

F. and A. spoke of Hajjar as a shining example of faith accepting her test of being cast alone with Ishmael into the desert at the will of G~d. Her time in the desert, her persistent search for water for Ishamel and the miracle which they experienced are the basis of an important part of the Hajj ritual at Mecca the very place where Hagar and Ishmael dwelled.

We heard about the visits that Abraham made to the region to visit his family and his involvement in making sure that Ishmael married a worthy woman from a good family around. This marks the beginning of the development of Mecca.

H.K. delivered a commentary on the Biblical story of Hagar highlighting the interpersonal relationships and feelings in the home of Abraham: Sarah, offering Hagar to Abraham to bear the promised son leaving Hagar, the biological mother, without any matriarchal standing. This is the suffering that Hagar was told to bear when she fled pregnant. The birth of Isaac then created a new source of tension which led to Hagar and Ishmael's dismissal to the desert. As G~d provided water for Ishmael, Hagar's worthiness is stressed by the revelation she received. The midrash points out that this is the only time G~d spoke to a woman.

Although the Hagar and Abraham's first born son are sent to the desert (with a Divine promise for the future) both the Bible and the Midrash keep these characters in mind. The midrash identifies Keturah, Abraham's second wife, with Hagar and the Bible recounts how Ishmael returns to bury his father with Isaac.
 These teachings parallel those that have surfaced in the Passover Village study group this year, and that form part of our Kavanah for this year's seder.


2011 Kavanah: Our Spiritual Intention

Shalom Haverim,

It’s that time again . . . time to start thinking about our upcoming 16th annual Passover Village retreat. This year we will again be returning to Joshua Tree, where the rocky amphitheater of the land is calling us to another year of earth-based ritual, prayer, camping, and being together.

Once again, we remember that Pesach is a time to renew our connections with our ancestors as we explore our ancient roots in ritual fashion. We are instructed to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves had gone out from that “narrow place” over 3000 years ago. It is a time to reflect on the meaning of slavery and freedom, oppression and transcendence, repression and growth. We celebrate what it means to be a people dedicated to service of Hashem/Elohim, and renew our connection with the story and the people with whom it all began.

In addition to these general themes of Passover, our particular group seeks to explore the connection to our people’s past as an indigenous people. That is to say, what does it mean to be a Hebrew - an Ivri, a boundary crosser - one of the Children of Israel, an indigenous tribal people who lived day to day connected intimately to the land and to nature? This was our initial motivation way back in 1995 for holding seder on the land, in the desert, much as our ancestors must have experienced it.

Each year we establish our “ Passover Village” for the weekend, where we enjoy each other’s presence and spirits in a cooperative, and heart-felt endeavor. Our vision is to create a place in which we all dwell together as Brothers and Sisters, in which each Soul is fully seen, recognized, and acknowledged, creating a lattice of contribution, in which each person serves a different role, a vital role in the community aligned as much as possible to his/her core self.

Every year we also add a bit of additional community Kavannah (spiritual intention) to our Seder weekend, to help us explore more deeply our tribal history together. Last year, again setting up our seder ritual space in accordance with the dimensions of the ancient Tabernacle, surrounded by the flags and banners of the 12 Tribes, we experienced deep and very personal teachings about the character and nature of our ancestress Ruth, as well as the nature of the Feminine in our tradition. We each took home from our seder weekend our own very particular lessons and understandings of the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, and were blessed with what we received from the Hebrew Feminine.

For this year’s kavannah, we want to further explore the archetypal nature of our ancestors, to see what lessons we can derive from their lives that will inform our own lives. Building from our experience of Ruth and the Feminine aspects of our tradition, and having studied many of the Masculine archetypes in past years, we decided that this year we would take the next step and explore the nature of the relationship between Masculine and Feminine as embodied by our first couple, Avram/Avraham and Sarai/Sarah.

With these 2 ancestors as our guides, together we will seek to gain some insight into what our tradition teaches us about being in relationship, the nature of Masculine and Feminine, Father – Mother, HaKadosh Baruch Hu – Shechinah, union, intimacy, generosity, laughter, hospitality, infertility, polyamory, ancient wisdoms, relations with neighbors, the division of the Ishmaelites from the Yitzhakites, offerings of healing at personal, relational, communal, and inter-tribal levels. These are just some of the possible teachings that might flow from a study of the first Hebrew couple.

Maybe learning the lessons within the story of our first archetypal ancestral couple could even open up a path to world peace. Im tirtzu . . . (if you want it . . . )

We look forward to what we will discover together at Joshua Tree under the sun and moon of Nissan, through our prayers, discussions, rituals, and general interactions together.

We are indeed a fortunate People to have so much of our ancient history written and available to us in our sacred texts. As we gather this year among the stones of Joshua Tree, and among the memories that we have built over the preceding 13 years, we will celebrate the freedom that we hold so dear, and again learn from one another what it means to be a people connected to the earth, to our ancestors, to Spirit, and to the best within each of us and each of our fellow human beings.

If you want to read about Abraham and Sarah, you can find it in Genesis. Some members of the Village have been studying this text during the past year, and notes from our discussions are posted on this Blog. 

Shalom U’L’hitraot – see you in Joshua Tree!