Since the disclosures about Harvey Weinstein and others, a media flurry of ‘me too’ talk on sexual harassment has emerged- some of it constructive, some of it not so. My purpose here is not to comment on these individual responses, but rather to shed some healing perspectives about this issue, from this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah.
We might certainly apply the term ‘harassment’ to some experiences in the lifetime of our Matriarch Sarah, Judaism’s ‘first lady.’ From the written text of Torah, we clearly see someone who was forcibly taken more than once to be a sexual object- first by Pharaoh’s ministers, and then by Abimelech’s. We could look at some differences between the two situations but what I would like to bring out is how some of our sages understand Sarah’s resiliency in a way that can help women of our time not only cope, but find a deeper connection to G-d as well as to inspire others.
Medically, it has been shown that many psychological –and even physical-ailments are the product of sexual attacks, particularly in childhood. One result may be dissociation from one’s core self-identity. I would like to posit that the healing that Sarah’s life portrays, moves in the opposite direction, i.e. from shattering experiences that can propel one into a connection with one’s deeper self. Let’s look at the Torah’s direct accounts of Sarah’s life, by first reflecting on the end.
Strangely enough, the Torah portion that’s called, ‘Chayei Sarah’- the life of Sarah,- opens with her death. ‘The life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years-the years of the life of Sarah.’ We notice several anomalies: The repetition of the word years, the repetition of ‘life of Sarah,’ and of course that this whole portion occurs AFTER her life in this world is over. There are tomes of commentaries on these details, but I would like to focus on the perspective of Sarah’s abductions and how she lived an amazing life in spite of, and even because of those experiences.
On this opening verse, Rashi succinctly addresses the repetitive phrase, ‘the years of the life of Sarah,’ with the comment: ‘kulan shavin l’tovah’=they were all equally good.’ But how is that possible, ask later sages? Here are some of the Chassidic responses: First from the Lubavitcher Rebbe: As the Talmud advises, we are all meant to say, ‘When will my actions reach the level of my ancestors, the patriarchs and matriarchs.’ In spite of our mistakes, we are reminded from the Days of Awe that Teshuva Mei’Ahava=Returning out of Love, can actually transform our transgressions into positive acts. Therefore, ‘all her days were equally good,’ refers to her being the first model of that process. In other words, the ability to admit our mistakes, express regret, and determination to be better, will re-create the days of our lives into ones ‘equally good.’
Another response to ‘equally good’ is from Rabbi Chaim of Chernowitz: An important spiritual principle in Judaism is that the true definition of life is to be connected to a transcendent, eternal reality even when living on a material plane. As the Talmud puts it, ‘the righteous even after life are considered alive, and the wicked even when physically alive are considered not living.’ By extension, someone like Sarah who was able internally to rise above even the most challenging vicissitudes of her life, could truly be called having lived each moment in a state of grace.
Now let’s look at the episodes relevant to the issue of harassment: Regarding the kidnapping by Pharaoh’s men, many people question how Avraham could have let her be taken, while he himself went free. For me, the Zohar’s take on this scenario fills in the picture. The Zohar says that Avraham sees Sarah surrounded by the light of the Shechina, the Divine Presence, as a protective shield, and knows she’ll be safe. For himself, on the other hand, he had to think quickly because, as Rashi and others explain- there was a particular cultural setting at that time. When a beautiful woman was to be abducted, if the man with her were her brother, they would negotiate for the ‘acquisition’. However if they knew she were his husband, they would just kill him, and take her against her will.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe adds an esoteric spin on the wife-sister contrast. He posits that a wife represents an acquired connection with G-d and with sanctity that is felt when life feels safe. In On the other hand, a sister represents an innate and unbreakable link with the Divine- a kind of hidden pilot light that can be accessed when one’s conscious bond with holiness is broken by an abusive and threatening encounter.
A similar experience happened with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines. The common feature in the two kidnapping episodes was that Sarah was taken against her will by or for a man in power. After being released in both circumstances, regardless of the ambiguity of what actually happened to her, she would have easily been justified in not only claiming ‘ME TOO,’ but feeling scarred- and scared- for the rest of her life. Instead she raises her son with such a profound dedication, that he becomes the next patriarch and his wife Rivkah, according to the Kabbalists, was actually a reincarnation of Sarah herself!
Furthermore, the Midrash relates that when Sarah nursed Yitzchak, she was also able to nurse other babies who were born in her time. In her presence, people became healed from ailments, even psychological ones! In addition, the sages add that whoever was able to nurse from her became righteous when they grew up and even turned into future converts! To me this implies that the wellsprings of faith that she unearthed from facing her challenges, inspired an entire world around her.
So, it seems that a person cannot remain the same, after going through some form of serious harassment. As I see it, the options are between a deadening response of some kind of inner shut down and withdrawal or a response of deepening one’s inner discovery of the latent G-d connection and pure soul currents that lie buried beneath the wounded areas. The outstanding women of Tanach are inspiring examples of finding deeper connections out of stressful situations.
I think it is good that more voices are emerging these days- both the admission of women and men, of ‘ME TOO,’ as well as ‘I HAVE’. It will not be easy or quick to change a prevalent cultural attitude that tolerates bullying and harassment as an acceptable part of all ages of contemporary life, but open acknowledgement is a start. How do we prevent and react to such excruciating situations even when they seem innocuous? I doubt most people want a police state of prosecuting and amplifying innocent interactions. Rather a Torah perspective bids us to examine our own inner states, and continue to monitor and refine our intentions and gestures especially in gender relations. If we have been wounded, or wounded others in these areas, let us model from our matriarch Sarah, the courage to emerge from lion’s dens, with a stronger and more determined connection to a life of integrity and holiness in all our relationships, both divine and human.