Parshat Lech Lecha by Adena Kirstein
By mid-October, I should seemingly be living in post-chagim bliss, with days of oddball schedules and too much cooking behind me. And although it’s true that I’m happy to be back to a sense of normalcy, I find there’s one line of one piece of liturgy I just can’t seem to shake. In Birchas HaKohanim, said repeatedly on special days throughout the year, an accompany verse to the prayer notes, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted.” This plea feels as though it could have just as easily been written yesterday instead of ages ago.
With this line in mind, we read this week the story of Abram and Sarai. Many may jump to the parsha’s title of a promised journey or to the utter
importance of the Jewish people being charged with the rite of circumcision. Yet in a world where I naturally gravitate to the emotions of a story, just as Bircas Hakohanim speaks to me, so does Sarai. The picture given to us in Lech Lecha is not of the strong matriarch we reflect on in Sarah, but a woman deep in despair, struggling, angry, and incapable of emotional outlets that make sense. The parsha tells us that as Sarai continues on a sad road of infertility, she states to her husband, “…the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” Abram takes this charge, impregnanting Sarai’s handmaiden Hagar. This leaves his wife with the sense that Hagar has lost all respect for her. Thus, not only is Sarai still infertile, but now the stability of a social order she has relied on is turned upon its’ head.
My heart cannot help but hurt for Sarai. In a moment of despair, of wondering where her own justice in the world could be, she says perhaps what she thinks her husband wants to hear. But is it truly what she wants to say to her husband?
The Torah specializes in long-lasting lessons as much as it relies on the human drama of its’ characters. But in going back to the Bircas HaKohanim, it’s not such a far stretch of my own imagination to see Sarai’s true pleas in the line I hold so dear. While the blessing itself aims to allow an individual to interface so intimately and directly with G/d, the irony is that in our modern times, this message gets delivered via human conduits. Thus, in our pleas for mercy and compassion, in our calls for help, do we call for G/d or for each other? And do we know how to ask for the compassion we need in our darkest moments?
Sarai’s challenges prompt me to think through my role as a mentor, as a partner, as a friend. Her lesson to me is the reminder that sometimes words should be taken at face value – but sometimes they should prompt better listening and further questioning. How can we help others give voice to their needs? Helping each other open this doorway of communication is an invaluable gift.