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A Noble Woman

Mother and Matriarch
Why did God give Sarai a new name?

Table for Five: Lech Lecha

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And God said to Abraham, “Your wife Sarai; you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. And I will bless her; I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.”

-Gen. 17:15-16

Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Co-rabbi, Nvay Shalom and Faculty, AJRCA

Sarai was Avram’s wife and partner as they both left the land of their birth, family, and culture. They were mavericks, risk takers, and embodied Avram’s identification as an Ivri, “one who crosses borders/boundaries.” But only Sarai had a yud as part of her name, which is a masculine marker, a prefix for future tense when referring to “he” and the first letter of God’s omnipotent name YudHayVavHay, יהוה.

Midrash teaches that Sarai took the yud, which represents the number ten, and divided it into two, representing two letters, the hay (numbering five), using one to change Avram to Avraham and the other for herself becoming Sarah. The letter hay is the female marker, so they both attain the feminine aspect of the Divine, Shechinah, as well as an essential part of God’s name and character. They proved to be faithful and devoted servants of the Holy One and would carry an essential part of the Divine as part of their identity and mission.

What is even more remarkable, Midrash suggests that Sarah, who became an ambassador for the new and unique religion of the One hidden God, unlike the idols that were ever present in the ancient world, took the “yud,” which was once part of her original name, and bequeathed it to Joshuah. Once called Hosheah, he becomes Y’hoshuah, also bearing the Divine within him as he enters and conquers the land, fulfilling God’s promise, “she shall give rise to nations.” A name is a powerful thing!

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University

This is the first of many verses in the Bible that see children as a blessing. Children are our link to generations past and future, a way for parents to give further longevity to their own parents and at the same time, live beyond their own lives. It is also the way that the Jewish people and our tradition live on from one generation to those following.

Children bring great joy to the people who are able to have children when they want them and, conversely, great distress to those, like Abram and Sarah to this point, who are not able to procreate. The commandment to procreate in Genesis 1 applies logically and morally only to those who can have children naturally. Couples certainly may use artificial reproductive techniques to try to have children, but Jewish law does not require them to do so. Adoption is also an honored option in our tradition. We in the Jewish community must support infertile couples in every way we can.

The Jewish community is in deep demographic crisis. We are not even reproducing ourselves, let alone regaining the six million we lost in the Holocaust. Jews who can have children are strongly encouraged to do so, and older Jews – including grandparents, if possible – should help make it economically possible. Ways to achieve this include providing financial support for the Jewish education of children, informally in camps and youth groups, and formally in schools.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

Although the exact derivation and meaning of the name Sarai is not entirely clear, the most obvious translation is “My Noblemen.” In contrast, the meaning of Sarah is somewhat less puzzling and somewhat more fitting. Sarah means “Noblewoman.”

The Gemara (Berachot 13a) asserts that the shift from the name Sarai to Sarah represents a shift in Sarah’s status as a Matriarch. She is no longer a noble figure and leader to only her own people; she has now become a noble leader to the entire world. Rashi clarifies that use of the possessive “my” in Sarai is an indication of particularism, whereas the name Sarah, Noblewoman, is more universal.

Along the same lines, it may be said that the seeming shift from the plural “Noblemen” to the singular “Noblewoman” can indicate Sarah’s role as a unifier rather than as one who promotes the numerous distinctions that divide people. Indeed, Sarah is Abraham’s partner in spreading monotheism and in uniting the world through this belief. The seeming shift from masculine (Noblemen) to feminine (Noblewoman) likewise suggests that Sarah was coming into her own as a woman, a mother to Isaac and Matriarch to all of humanity.

Sarah’s name change reflects her legacy. Sarah reminds us that we too can become noble leaders when we seek unity in preference to division and when we overlook possessing in favor of giving. Sarah puts forward the role of Jewish femininity as a model of Jewish devotion and as a productive affirmation of God’s oneness.

Laya Saul, Author of Copper Mirrors, founder CMGteam.org

Miracles are going to happen. Change your name, change your fortune. In this case, Sarah’s name change gives her mission even more power. The commentators suggest Sarah has become something more. She is going from Sarai (literally, “my princess”) to Sarah—the nation’s princess. And we’re not talking Disney princess. She was a real woman with real challenges to overcome, a true leader in her own right. She didn’t play a minor, passive, or submissive role. Named directly by God we see a key player, Sarah, who gave rise to nations and rulers of peoples. Sarah, our matriarch.

What kind of thoughts went through the minds of Abraham and Sarah? The thoughts of parents at the time of conception influence the soul to be born. What did they need to do to prepare for this kind of responsibility? This was not just “you’re going to have a baby after all this time of barrenness.” This is massive. It’s life changing and even more so, world changing.

So how is this relevant and what’s the metaphor for us? As the descendants of such a matriarch, how do we take this to a personal level? What in *your* life can go from barren to fertile right now? What are the thoughts you’re thinking to conceive your next step? What are the changes you can make with—and how will you take responsibility for—the gift and blessing of each new day? More miracles are going to happen.

David Brandes, Screenwriter / producer

A child’s Hebrew name is more than just a random act of choice by the parents. According to the Kabbalah, when a child is born a spirit of prophecy, so to speak, comes over the parents and this spirit unconsciously directs them to the name they will chose. A name is in some mystical way connected to the essential spirit of the child. It will define the child throughout his/her life.

Both Sarai and Sarah mean princess. However, as Rashi explains the name Sari refers to the individual or personal princess, while Sarah transcends the personal into “a princess for others.” By adding the “H,” a repeated letter in the ‘YKVK’ holy name of God, God is setting Sarai on a new grander trajectory. It redefines Sarai by imbuing her with God’s divine breath. It announces her newly anointed role of matriarch of nations. This new name is a gift from God as well as a responsibility.

With thanks to Rabbi Eva Robbins, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Laya Saul, and David Brandes.

Image: Abram’s Counsel to Sarai by James Tissot, c.1896-1902

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