In early September, all French booksellers had in their display windows an autobiography of a famous woman, Mrs Valerie Trierweiler, ex-First Lady of France, recently separated from her partner, François Holland.
In “Thank You For This Moment” one can read “everything you wanted to know about the Elysee corridors, but were afraid to ask”. Two months later, the book has sold more than 600,000 copies and has become the best seller of the year!
For 20 euros, you can be sympathetic observers to the painful story of an unofficial First Lady and the current President of the French Republic. These 320 pages expose the couple’s personal and private lives and also that of their political circles. But it is also very authentic, as those who defend the First Lady would attest. Certainly, we can feel the pain of this woman and the horrible injury that makes her react inappropriately in an irrational and visceral manner. However, I also wonder if this book, written by a former journalist, isn’t a 40-year step backwards, to a time before the beginning of the feminist revolution? She exposes her private life and pain as if the only way to reach her full potential is as the partner of a powerful companion and political figure head.
It’s important to note that Valerie Trierweiler stopped working as a journalist once François Holland began campaigning for the presidency, to avoid creating a major conflict of interest.
Unfortunately, the effect of this narrative has been disastrous, taking away respect from a man and from his function, that of President of a nation. Thus, the jealousy and vengeance of a woman who was hurt and humiliated has caused serious political consequences and collateral damage.
Even if Valerie Trierweiler’s case seems trivial and typical of a wealthy, western society in contrast to the much more serious challenges women in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are forced to endure, these stories of life crises have always been relevant.
In Parashat Vayeira, Sarah’s actions remind us what a jealous and humiliated wife can do.
In the early years of her marriage, two episodes (mentioned in the previous Parashah) likely humiliated Sarah: Abraham asked her twice to appear as his sister in order to protect himself, and he also used her beauty as a bargaining chip both with Pharaoh and Avimelekh. Sarah complied but was nevertheless used by her husband.
Another implicit humiliation of Sarah was her infertility, which had tragic consequences for her as part of a couple and her life as a woman. She couldn’t give offspring to Abraham. However, thanks to divine intervention Sarah gave birth to Yitzhak in her old age.
In the Torah, we learn some private secrets: according to the commentaries, Sarah was a neglected woman before giving birth to Yitzhak, yet the promise made by God to Abraham revived interest in the eyes of her husband. We can read in Bereshit 18:12 “Now that I am withered, will I have pleasure with my lord, so old!” (Plaut’s translation). The word “pleasure”, in Hebrew “Edna”, may be allusion to the Garden of Eden. This term has a sexual connotation. (Tammi Schneider in “Torah a Women’s Commentary”).
Following Sarah’s instruction, Abraham had a relationship with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, and she gave birth to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. But then, Hagar and Ishmael got in the way. Various reasons are given for Sarah telling Abraham to send them away; according to Plaut (commentary on Bereshit 21:9) the pretext was that Ishmael was pretending to be Yitzhak.
Sarah talked about the inheritance of Yitzhak, when asking Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away from home. She didn’t want her son to receive only one third of the inheritance as the youngest. The Patriarch hesitated to listen to Sarah and to send his concubine and elder son away, and he asked God for confirmation because he felt very depressed. The Torah uses the word Vayera with ayin to evoke the sadness of Abraham, a possible wordplay with Vayera which uses aleph and means “And he appeared (God)”.
Now, crushed by grief, Abraham can no longer judge what he should do.
The word Vayera is repeated 28 times in the story of Abraham, and 15 in this Parashah. This cannot be a mere coincidence. This term appears in connection with Abraham and Sarah, who communicates with the Deity after having laughed at the absurdity of the promise that she will have a child. A woman who communicated directly with God is quite exceptional in the Torah, but Sarah was also afraid of divine wrath, a further internal pun between the Hebrew verbs ra-ah, to see and yareh, to fear.
In this fourth episode of biblical history, humanity is still in its infancy, at a kind of primitive stage: the family depicted is struggling with relationship problems, and emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, and revenge.
Abraham and Sarah are imperfect human beings like we all are, yet as imperfect as they may be, they become role models for mankind. Like Abraham and Sarah, we make misguided decisions impulsively or in anger, and sincerely think we are right and that our decisions are the best. Fortunately, on other occasions, we are inspired, act justly, and make good choices.
We have to wait until the book of Deuteronomy, 30:15 to find the notion of free will and choice:”See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” (Plaut’s translation). And the verb “to see” appears again in this context!
Several days ago, one of the matriarchs of the Leo Baeck College passed away. Rabbi Sheila Shulman, Zikhronah Livrakhah. Over the past 20 years she ordained several of the rabbis to graduate from Leo Baeck College. She also inspired many others very deeply. I would have probably adored her radical and out of the box positions, but sadly I only met her briefly at Rene’s Pfertzel ordination in July of this year. She was a pure product of her generation, the modern generation: a feminist, a lesbian activist and a wonderful rabbi and teacher. In our post-modern age, we also have to be radical activists, we have to struggle very hard for peace- shalom -and love and kindness – gemilut chasadim. At the Shiv’ah, one of her colleagues and friends mentioned that Sheila also struggled very hard for love; it was her contribution to post modernism. The juxtaposition of 2 apparently contradictory and powerful words resounded within me.
We should consider that even during difficult times, whether out of anger, envy or jealousy, we still have the possibility to choose acts of love and kindness. Sheila Shulman’s struggle for love and kindness can inspire us all.
Student rabbi Daniela Touati
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.