Who Cried With Sarah?—by Ayala Emmett

Abraham didn’t tell her. Sarah was never consulted. That was the way it had always been, powerful men ruled the public domain and subsumed the domestic sphere making decisions that deeply affected the family and women. Historically and with few exceptions, women life-givers were not invited to offer, resist, or refuse when life-taking decisions were made, when their sons were called to become warriors, to endure danger and face death.

Thinking history/midrash is how we know that when Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, he did it stealthily, early in the morning when she was sound asleep, not suspecting a thing. Abraham woke up his son before dawn, when it was still dark outside, motioned him to get dressed, brought his finger to his lips to caution that Isaac was not to make a sound. When Isaac moved his head in the direction of Sarah’s tent, his father whispered, “Later, you can greet your mother when we return.” Only two young servants accompanied father and son when they left the compound, so Isaac knew that it would be a short journey, a couple of hours and they would be back. On long journeys there would have been numerous slaves, male and female, to carry, cook and set up camp. That day, however, Isaac could tell that his father was tense and deep in thoughts. As the sun rose in the sky and Isaac could see his father’s face, he heard Abraham tell the servants to wait along the road, “we will worship and we will return,” and father and son walked on together toward the Akedah, the binding of Isaac on the alter.

At that moment Sarah was up, she did her morning ablution, got dressed came out of the tent and realized that instead of the usual morning sounds, there was utter silence; the servants avoided looking at her when she inquired about her husband and son. Gone. Without saying a word to her. She knew right away.

What is a mother do when her husband takes her son on a dangerous journey? Does this week’s Torah reading, [Genesis 18:1-22:24] offer an answer?

The Torah narrative, as we know, places father and son at the center of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, the traumatic, harrowing and enigmatic story, that Sarah, from a distance, could only imagine/refusing to imagine. The Torah narrative declines to bear witness to this mother’s anguished scream. We hear nothing from Sarah. The Genesis narrative waits in utter silence, for a later biblical text to give sound and substance to Sarah’s unbearable pain. It waits until two women in the Book of Kings cry with Sarah’s voice in this week’s Haftarah [Kings 4:1-37]; the Haftarah which is read after the Torah’s Akedah story confronts the Genesis silence.

The first woman in the King’s narrative is the widow of a prophet, a disciple of Elisha, who “cries out to Elisha, ‘your servant my husband is dead…and now a creditor is coming to sieze my two children as slaves.” The widow terrified for the life of her children cried out, tzaakah in Hebrew, a loud/scolding public scream, Sarah’s cry that had waited to be heard. Elisha heard the scream and helped the widow save her children from a life of slavery.

The second woman, known as the Shunamite, in the Kings account echoed Sarah’s reproductive history; in her case, she was married, her husband was old and she had no children; Elisha the famous prophet promised her, as Sarah had been promised, that she would have a child. She, like Sarah was skeptical and she, like the foremother, gave birth to a son. Several years later her son suddenly fell ill and died. She did what Sarah could not do; she went to confront the prophet Elisha. “When she came up to the man of God, she grabbed his feet.” One of the disciples tried to push her away and Elisha said, “Leave her alone, she is in bitter distress and God has hidden it from me.” The woman confronted him, “Did I ask for a son? Didn’t I say, ‘don’t mislead me?”

In this life-and-death story, Elisha revived the dead boy and the Shunamite woman got her son back. Sarah got to see her son Isaac, but she left Abraham and never lived with him again.

The two biblical women in the Book of Kings gave voice to Sarah and to generations of mothers everywhere, bereaved mothers and mothers of sons (and now daughters) who have come back from wars wounded and traumatized and they want to know if the prophet Elisha is still around.