What’s your Hebrew name?” the teacher asked me.
I was a 37-year-old mother of four, consumed with the desire to learn the Hebrew language. That propelled me into Hebrew 101 at the University of Minnesota. There I sat, on the first day of class, surrounded by college kids.
“What’s your Hebrew name?”
My parents did give me a Hebrew name- a feminized version of my dad’s father’s name. That grandfather died long before I was born, and from everything I heard about him, he was a complex, difficult, and sometimes cruel man. I wondered why they named me after him at all, but in the end, my Hebrew name didn’t matter much. I did not have a bat mitzvah, was never called to the Torah with this name. Throughout childhood and into adulthood, my Hebrew name sat like an unused tool in the garage.
So, when the question was posed: “What is your Hebrew name?” I decided it was time for a change.
Learning the Hebrew language was a turning point in my life. I thought of the biblical figures whose landmark moments were marked with a change of name. I thought of Sarah, the only woman in the Torah to have her name changed. Sarah, the matriarch. Sarah, the builder. And I thought of our young family, and the Jewish home we were trying to build.
“Sarah”, I replied. “My name is Sarah.”
Starting this week, we will read about Sarai who became Sarah, matriarch of the Jewish people. Reading our ancient text, from a distance of almost two hundred generations, we will watch as Abraham and Sarah experience the revelation of God. We will see the how the revolutionary understanding of one universal God began.
We will encounter God’s promise to them: “I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” How? Infertility had left Sarah childless. Now she was ninety years old. God’s promise must have seemed almost unfathomable. But before long, Sarah was, indeed, pregnant. If that’s not playing the long game, what is?
Sarah, and the biblical matriarchs who followed her, each had a role to play in the founding of the Jewish people. Prayers in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements invoke the names of those matriarchs right along with the patriarchs: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah”. God doesn’t need the reminder of our lineage— we do. We are the descendants of Judaism’s founding fathers and mothers. When I whisper the matriarchs’ names, I feel connected to them, as if they are saying, “You belong to us, and our heritage belongs to you. Keep it going.”
This profound sense of belonging is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. Perpetuating the Jewish faith and Jewish peoplehood throughout our long saga of exile and dispersion is our great triumph.
While we have lived through periods of history many times tougher than what we are dealing with now, keeping Jewish life thriving during a pandemic is not easy.
Who will help get us through this wretched time? Matriarchs who play the long game, doing what’s needed to sustain the Jewish people in the present in order to get us to the future.
These women are rising to the challenge with determination and creativity, guided by timeless aspirations. Despite the constraints of social distancing, they’ve figured out how to make Jewish life work right now. Every day I see Jewish women using the tools at hand to help themselves and others feel that sense of Jewish connection and continuity. Their examples inspire me.
One friend and her husband care for their two young grandchildren while the kids’ parents are at work. I often see their smiling faces on social media baking challah and preparing for Shabbat. Last Friday afternoon, something new. The children were taking part in a pre-Shabbat activity, on Zoom, led by the female cantor of their synagogue. Matriarchs were on both sides of that screen.
Another friend runs the annual Great Big Challah Bake, taking place this year online. I’ll miss the usual, high-energy event, with hundreds of women filling the room. But this creative powerhouse knows that helping novice challah bakers get going is what matters. Those who attend the online program will leave with more confidence in their ability to bake challah, but that’s the second most important thing they’ll acquire. Above all, they will leave affirmed that they belong to something worth perpetuating and they have the power to do that.
And, there’s the dear friend who is still hosting Shabbat dinner for her family and still including her eighty-five-year-old parents. How does she do that safely? Everyone bundles up and eats on the screen porch, with her parents seated in the far corner, backs to the screens, and kept warm with space heaters. This is Minnesota, folks, where we just had record-breaking snow.
She says, “When I do rituals that are unique to Judaism, I experience that as a kind of time travel. For example, when I wave my hands over the Shabbat candles and say the blessing, it’s the same ritual that was done by my ancestors and will be done by my descendants. I feel my place, my responsibility, my belonging. This existed before I came and will continue after I’m gone. It’s eternal. Now is my time in eternity.”
Someday this pandemic will end. The Jewish people will go on.
The matriarchs, descendants of Sarah and experts at playing the long game, will see to it.