Micha Turtletaub
A Rabbi Who Shoots From the Hip

Have You Seen My Mother?

Jerusalem, The Queen. (Max Richardson, used with permission)

Today’s blog is essentially an excerpt from what will be (with God’s help) my upcoming book, “My Sword and My Bow.” To be released by an as-yet-unknown publisher, on a date to be determined by the general forces of the Universe At Large. Here we present a streamlined version of the subject, simply because a blog needs to be short(ish). For a more detailed and text-based discussion of this subject of saying the Matriarch’s names during the Amidah, I refer you to my book. Now just be patient.

Why aren’t the Matriarchs mentioned in the Shemonah Essray, the Amidah prayer? When this question was asked of me by LeeAnn in St. Louis, Mo, the year I was a freshman Rabbi, I got tingles. I told her I don’t know, but I would get back to her. The next morning I jumped into the Talmud. The tingles were justified. The mothers are in the Amidah, but we do not pronounce their names. They are there in thought. “God of Abraham” does NOT mean ‘Abraham’ alone according to Our Sages. It means, “Abraham/Sarah.” God’s covenant is NOT with Abraham. If it was, it would also include Ishmael, and the children he had with Keturah. It only includes the children from Sarah, i.e. Issac, which is clearly written in the Torah itself. When the Sages express the covenant as the one God made with Abraham, it was via the trials of Abraham, which almost all include Sarah’s participation (think Pharoah/Avimelech) and her absolute and steadfast righteousness. The covenant is as much hers as his. But in truth it is neither his nor hers. It is theirs. I can prove this textually. So I will. Now.

The Amidah, or Shemonah Essray (18 Blessings) was written by the Men of the Great Assembly, the greatest gathering of Torah sages ever. Why did they not mention Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah?

This is in the most important blessing in the Amidah, the first blessing, the blessing of the Patriarchs. Knowing what the words mean is vital to the fulfilment of the Mitzvah. Is this yet another example of Rabbinic sexism? Did the Rabbi’s simply not hold the Imahot in high regard? Did they want to keep the women in the kitchen, like Mother Sarah in her tent when the angels came to visit? Or worse… was it simply an oversight on their part because their default position is that it’s only the men who matter?

O those silly Rabbis – doing that “Patriarchy” thing again… how tiresome.

But none of the above assumptions are correct. And I can prove it. A cursory search of the Midrash, for example using the excellent site produced by sefaria.org and doing a search in Hebrew for the term “אמהות” will bring you the following enigmatic comment from the Sages, among many Rabbinic discussions regarding our Matriarchs. The Midrash is commenting on the verse in Leviticus which describes God’s “remembering” the Covenant and returning the Jews to the Land. I’ll quote the verse first, in order to place the Midrash in context: [text of all quotes as well as the Biblical translations are taken from sefaria.org]

Leviticus 26:42

וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר׃

Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.

Vayikra Rabbah 36:5

אֵין לִי אֶלָּא אָבוֹת, אִמָּהוֹת מִנַּיִן, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר אֶת, אֶת, אֶת, וְאֵין אֶתַיָּא אֶלָּא אִמָּהוֹת, דִּכְתִיב : שָׁמָּה קָבְרוּ אֶת אַבְרָהָם וְאֵת שָׂרָה* וגו’.

[From this verse] I only know the Patriarchs, how do I know the Matriarchs? The Torah teaches: “Et, Et….” And “Et” is only intended to include the Matriarchs, as it is written elsewhere, “there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah—“

שָׁ֣מָּה קָֽבְר֞וּ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֗ם וְאֵת֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֹּ֔ו שָׁ֚מָּה קָבְר֣וּ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְאֵ֖ת רִבְקָ֣ה אִשְׁתֹּ֑ו וְשָׁ֥מָּה קָבַ֖רְתִּי אֶת־לֵאָֽה׃

Let us begin to just taste an understanding of this very deep Midrash. The Sages note the absence of the Matriarchs, because in many areas, especially when referring to the merits and covenants which God granted, very often the Matriarchs are mentioned in one form or another, along with their unique accomplishments. So why here, in this verse which references the Covenant of the Land and the Jews eventual return to Israel, why specifically here are the Matriarchs not included? When I first saw this Midrash some 30 years ago I was happy, but I was only seeing the surface of it. Obviously the Midrash was noting the “et” which in Hebrew is a conjunction, a word which joins things. So the intent was clearly that the mothers were joined to the fathers, much as Eve was originally an aspect of Primordial Adam in the collective consciousness, before the creation of the human as a “flesh and bone” creature. It goes much much deeper, but as I said, this is a blog, not a book.

Meanwhile, it is absolutely essential to the understanding of this blessing to know that the Matriarchs are secretly hidden within the conjunctions to the names of the Patriarchs, if you actually want to fulfil the mitzvah of saying this prayer. The halacha demands we understand the “payrush hamilim” i.e. the simple meaning of the words, and intend them when we say them, at least in this first blessing of the 18, or we do not fulfil the mitzvah. And we are actually technically obligated to pray again until we get it right. We don’t do that, essentially because the halacha has given up on the idea of us getting it right to begin with. This is written in the Mishna Brura, although I paraphrase.

But just as Mother Sarah was hidden in her tent, but quite present for the conversation, and so she laughed, and gave birth to Isaac, so too the Mother’s must be alive in your mind when you say this blessing, or, in my opinion at least, you do not fulfil the Mitzvah. Because you do not really understand the blessing, or what the Sages, or for that matter the Torah, means at all.

Of all of Abraham’s accomplishments, without a doubt his greatest was his marriage with Sarah Imainu. Much greater than let’s say, the binding of Isaac. True, marrying Sarah is not one of Abraham’s famous “10 trials.” But that does not mean it was not an accomplishment. It just means it was never a “trial” to be married to our mother Sarah. She was amazing.

Sarah repaired the sin of Eve, and Abraham repaired the sin of Adam. How they accomplished this is beyond the scope of a blog to describe, but suffice it to say it was the bedrock marriage that they forged together over the course of more than 120 years that brought the anima and animus of human consciousness back together.

Let’s briefly examine the commentary of the Maharal on the following Gemara in Bava Basra (58a, taken from https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Batra.58a.3-5?lang=bi )

ר’ בנאה הוה קא מציין מערתא כי מטא למערתא דאברהם אשכחיה לאליעזר עבד אברהם דקאי קמי בבא א”ל מאי קא עביד אברהם א”ל גאני בכנפה דשרה וקא מעיינא ליה ברישיה

§ Having mentioned Rabbi Bena’a, the Gemara relates an incident in which he was involved. Rabbi Bena’a was marking burial caves for the purpose of helping to prevent the contracting of ritual impurity. When he arrived at the cave of Abraham, i.e., the Cave of Machpelah, he encountered Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, who was standing before the entrance. Rabbi Bena’a said to him: What is Abraham doing at this moment? Eliezer said to him: He is lying in the arms of Sarah, and she is examining his head.

א”ל זיל אימא ליה בנאה קאי אבבא א”ל ליעול מידע ידיע דיצר בהאי עלמא ליכא עייל עיין ונפק

Rabbi Bena’a said to him: Go tell him that Bena’a is standing at the entrance, so that he should assume an appropriate position to receive a visitor. Eliezer said to him: Let him, i.e., Rabbi Bena’a, enter, since it is known that there is no evil inclination in this higher world, so it is not inappropriate for Rabbi Bena’a to see Abraham and Sarah in this position. He entered, examined the cave in order to measure it, and exited.

The Maharal explains:

…And it says that he lay cradled in Sarah’s arms, meaning that from this servant (Eliezer) we can appreciate the whole level that Avraham attained, that he lies in the arms of Sarah….

Know that Avraham and Sarah unified themselves from their own choice more than any man and woman in the world. 

Maharal then proves this from a verse in Yeshaya (Isaiah).  I have brought the verses in full as to better understand the point of his commentary.

Isaiah 51:1

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord;

Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn;

Look to Avraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.

For he was one when I called to him, and I blessed him and made him many.

Maharal:

“About both of them it says “for he was one when I called him” because Sarah with Avraham is one.  And this is because Avraham and Sarah were the (new) beginning of the world… and as a beginning it is fitting that it [humanity] should be one [being], because as it comes from the One Maker, who is the cause of this beginning, and therefore it [humanity] will be similar in some way to the Cause from which it comes.  But if it were totally (i.e. originally) divided [into genders], it would imply God forbid that the Cause is also not One but two… And therefore it follows perforce that Avraham and Sarah, who are both the (new) beginning, that they should be unified.”

If we look more closely at the verse itself this also becomes clear, in which case it’s not really only the Maharal who is teaching this, but also Isaiah. 

“Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.”

Rock is Avraham, Quarry is Sarah.   A rock comes from a quarry.  These are at their roots one thing divided into two. Sarah is the Mountain, and Avraham takes from her power and goes out to build the blessings of the world, as the Talmud says about Torah Sages:

Do not call them sons but rather builders.

Let us consider something else about Sarah’s embrace of Avraham.  If we think of the interplay between males and females we might assume the opposite should really be true, that the male should surround and protect the female.  And when it comes to protection from external threats, this may be the case.  But in Judaism, as we see from the custom that the bride walks around her groom seven times, as well as the custom of her presenting him with his tallis, which surrounds him during prayer times (and his burial) that it is actually the female that surrounds the male when it comes to spiritual matters. 

Why is this? 

Because she is the proper person with which to have the give and take of his creative energies.  Even when he is out in the world among the many people he must deal with to provide bread for the table, her presence surrounds him inside.  His can learn all the wisdom he wants, but only the woman can provide the sense of completeness that protects her husband from the ravages of his own ego and libido.

To sum up this very long blog and make the “spiritual” practical:

Strange as this may sound, when your breath leaves you as your are saying the word “Avraham” in the prayer, imagine Abraham’s name as a tent and Sarah is sitting inside.  Or in other words, just as Eve was originally one half of Adam, and yet the external name is still Adam, so too we can speak of Abraham but implicitly include Sarah as well. The implication is solidified when followed with “God of Isaac,” Isaac being the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, and so on.  As the blessing is distilled through the 3-fold-cord of those first generations, it eventually transforms the Jews into Israel, the People of the Land. It is with the unity of Abraham and Sarah that this Covenant begins.

Lastly, because this is indeed a blog and not a book, I feel the freedom to be a bit snarky. It is not the Sages of the Talmud, nor the Torah, nor the Almighty who is sexist. It is today’s Judaism that is sexist. Today’s Orthodoxy, and how it is taught (and not taught) to people. It is today’s rabbi’s, who are either too ignorant, lazy at studying, or entrenched in positions of power they want to protect who are sexist. Don’t blame God for the rabbis.

*Genesis 49:31תנ”ך/תורה/ספר בראשית/פרק מט/פסוק לא

About the Author
I am currently writing a book entitled "My Sword and My Bow," which contains my essential approach towards living a Torah life, and covers topics as wide ranging as why Jews belong to the Land of Israel, how learning breathing techniques can help make prayer meaningful, to gender-related issues, to issues of death, suicide, and the afterlife... to simply how to have a happy life, and what I believe God wants from us. I hope you will enjoy this book. Support for my work can be offered by visiting my Kofi-com page or my Patreon page. Your support is greatly appreciated. I grew up in Los Angeles in the late 70's. I was playing instruments by the age of six, but at the age of 12 began playing bass in a local rock band. Fast forward years later, and the rock and roll scene in Los Angeles had become almost frightening to me. I saw things that convinced me that I no longer wanted to become a "rock star." I began exploring spirituality. A year later, I "returned" to Judaism, and began studying Torah at YULA high school under Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, shlita. After years of advanced Yeshiva study in Toras Moshe and Mir, Jerusalem, I decided to attend American Jewish University in Los Angeles, completing a BA in Literature and an MA in Rabbinic Literature. Upon graduation, I returned to Israel, and completed Semicha under the tutelage of Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, shlita. I worked as a "teaching" Rabbi for almost twenty years, until I made Aliyah in 2013. There are thank God enough Rabbi's in Israel! Most recently I worked as a writer in the Donor Relations department of United Hatzalah in Jerusalem. These days I make my living as a writer and musician, and of course, selling musical instruments at amazing discounts... shipped straight from the US to your home in Israel via my musical concierge service, JetMet Entertainment. Just google it.
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