Birthing the Unexpected

[Ner Shalom Malakh, November 2009]

The month of November opens this year with Parashat Vayera - a busy bit of Torah that includes Abraham hosting angels, Sodom being destroyed, Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt, Sarah giving birth, Hagar being exiled, and Isaac being offered on an altar. (This was my Bar Mitzvah portion 36 years ago.)

This year I'm struck by the complex portrayal of Sarah in the story. Abraham, not Sarah, names their son Yitzchak - my own Hebrew name, from the root tzachak, meaning "laughter." While Abraham might have been filled with joyous laughter, Sarah was not. Instead, she laughs in disbelief when told she would bear a child. And she explicitly fears being laughed at when it is learned that she bore a child. She even accuses God of making her a laughingstock.

Sarah is self-conscious, fearful, even peevish. We understand this. She was, after all, 92 years old, far beyond childbearing age. No one expected her ever to have a child. By one Talmudic account, Sarah was also a tumtum - i.e. she was intersex, meaning that she had an ambiguous sexual anatomy that in her case wouldn't have permitted procreation, even when she was young. Sarah overcame (or undermined) the constraints of both age and anatomy. She gave birth to the unexpected, the impossibly unexpected, in a world that she feared would hold her to her limitations.

I always identify with Sarah when I read her story. Don't we all have the unexpected in us? How often do we hold back from letting it out for fear of ridicule? "What will people think" trumping "what am I called to do?" And then how we bristle and steam at our self-made shackles!

Our own community is made up of people with many seeming limitations - those of age, physical ability, money, education. But creativity is not among our lacks. So perhaps we help heal Sarah also when we overcome our fears and unleash our unexpected creativity.

There is another Midrash that although Sarah felt alone in her story, she wasn't. At the moment that God thought of her, making her fertile, other barren women conceived, sick people were healed, deaf people heard, among other Biblical-style miracles. Perhaps this is our tradition's way of saying that blessing comes in waves. When you step beyond others' expectations of you and your own expectations of yourself, others will follow. And the blessing will touch us all.