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Remembering my Sabta Dina z”l

When we quote those who are no longer with us, we must represent them accurately, or we hijack the conversation and diminish their greatness

Today, 22 Cheshvan 5780 (November 20, 2019) marks the 12th yahrtzeit of my grandmother, Dina Lerner, z”l. Sabta Dina’s yahrtzeit invariably falls during the week when we read Parashat Chayei Sara. Our rabbis note that a literal translation of the name of the weekly portion is “the lives of Sara,” in the plural. While my sabta was named Dina, she lived between two individuals named Sara – her mother, Sara Flemenbaum Yatom, z”l, who died when Sabta Dina was a young child, and her oldest daughter, my aunt, Sara Younger, z”l, whom my family lost this past December.

It is no surprise, then, that I closely associate Sabta Dina’s yahrtzeit with this week’s Torah portion, which speaks about the death of our matriarch Sara.  Like Sara, Sabta Dina experienced the loss of a parent at a very young age. Like Sara, Sabta Dina was no stranger to emigration, having moved to settle in a foreign country five times over the course of her life.  Like Sara, Sabta Dina was a beautiful woman who recognized that one brings meaning to life primarily by helping others. Sabta Dina recognized how difficult it is to integrate into a new society when one is unfamiliar with the local language. Being fluent in about eight different languages, she volunteered for many years at the Minneapolis JCC, helping new immigrants from the former Soviet Union learn English and integrate themselves into their new community.

In addition to losing my Aunt Sara z”l earlier this year, I also lost my mother z”l this past August. While we were sitting shiva, we went through family photographs, many of which were from Sabta Dina’s collection. Sabta Dina had the unusual habit of writing on the back of  almost every photograph in her collection. Not the usual text one might expect such as date, location, or who was pictured. Instead, Sabta Dina used the picture as a prompt to write poetry, or reflections about life, or simple commentary about the people in the photograph (“what a beautiful nose my granddaughter has…”) Some of Sabta Dina’s reflections were surprising, and some were even downright uncomfortable, yet they are all part of her legacy to be preserved for future generations.

There is deep wisdom about “remembering” in Sabta Dina’s practice of writing text on the back of those photographs. While it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it is through the narratives that we tell about ourselves and others  that we remember the important people in our lives. When we give voice to those narratives, we in a sense re-embody those individuals who may no longer be with us and help to bring their spirit back into this world. Sabta Dina, in her work as a volunteer educator, helped people unfamiliar with English voice their narratives and therefore bring meaning to their new lives in the United States.

Sabta Dina’s wisdom about how we choose to remember also applies to classic Jewish texts. Last week, we read the Torah portion “Vayera.” There is an intriguing story at the beginning of that portion (Genesis 18:1-15) about Abraham and Sara which is somewhat ambiguous.  Abraham, having been told earlier (Genesis 17:16-17) that Sara will give birth to Isaac, is seemingly told the same thing a second time.  Nachmanides (1194-1270, Spain and Israel) suggests in his commentary to 18:15 that Abraham had been “too busy” to share the first prophecy with his wife, Sara.

Framed this way, Abraham’s answer to the question in 18:9, “Where is Sara?” — that Sara is still in the tent — can be taken metaphorically: “Sara is still in the dark about what You told me a few days ago – I didn’t tell her.” God’s question to Abraham in 18:13 is then a criticism of Abraham: “How can it be that Sara is hearing something so important for the first time from guests, rather than from you?”

In considering this narrative of the text in Genesis 18:1-15, I became aware of yet another enigma. A commentary on the Pentateuch, the Chumash Mesoras HaRav, has been published within the past decade, and includes collected commentaries of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l (“the Rav,” 1903-1993, Belarus, Boston and New York.) In the comment attributed to the Rav on 18:9, the Chumash Mesoras HaRav states:

“Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold in the tent.”

These travelers were not ordinary people whose eyes see only the surface. They were the angels of God. Their glimpse penetrated and apprehended the image of the true leader, teacher, prophetess, to whom everything should be credited. Nonchalantly, they remarked, Where is Sarah, your wife? Without her, you could not play the part that God assigned to you. Where is she? Why do people not know the truth? Why has she been trailing behind you? Why does she not march in front of you? After all, the covenant cannot and will not be realized without her.

Abraham answered tersely, in the tent. Indeed, she is enveloped in mystery. Sarah, the Biblical woman, is modest, humble, self-effacing. She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves softly by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of an audience which is hardly aware of her. She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat. Only sensitive people know the truth.

It is interesting that although Abraham survived Sarah by 38 years, his historical role came to an end with Sarah’s passing. Isaac leaves the stage together with Rebecca. Jacob relinquishes his role to Joseph with the untimely death of Rachel. Without Sarah there would be no Abraham; no Isaac if not for Rebecca; no Jacob without Rachel. (Family Redeemed, pp. 111-112)

This text has been quoted approvingly by individuals who support the right of some communities to use various means to limit the role of women in the public sphere.  It has the Rav apparently approving of Sarah being in the tent.  As I studied this text more, it bothered me that the text did not flow properly – the text is somewhat incoherent and raised a number of textual questions.  I went back and found the cited text in the original book of essays, “Family Redeemed,” published in 2000, and it is startlingly different (and also on pages 119-120, rather than 111-112, in a section titled “The Tragedy in Motherhood.”) The original text is arranged in a different order and has additional words missing from the excerpt above:

Sarah, the Biblical woman, is modest, humble, self-effacing. She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves softly by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of an audience which is hardly aware of her. She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat. Only sensitive people know the truth. Only three travelers inquired about her.  These travelers were not ordinary people whose eyes see only the surface. They were the angels of God. Their glimpse penetrated and apprehended the image of the true leader, teacher, prophetess, to whom everything should be credited. Nonchalantly, they remarked, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” (Gen 18:9). In other words, we know that without her, you could not play the part that God assigned to you. Where is she? Why do people not know the truth? Why has she been trailing behind you? Why does she not march in front of you? After all, the covenant cannot and will not be realized without her. Abraham answered tersely, “She is in the tent (Gen. 18:9).” Indeed, she is enveloped in mystery.

It is quite interesting that although Abraham survived Sarah by thirty-eight years, his historical role came to an end with Sarah’s passing. Isaac leaves the stage together with Rebecca. Jacob relinquishes his role to Joseph with the untimely death of Rachel. Without Sarah there would be no Abraham; no Isaac if not for Rebecca; no Jacob without Rachel.

The Rav in “Family Redeeemed” sounds much more critical of those who would want to limit or downplay the role of women. The Rav appears to be consistent with Nachmanides’ approach to the text, where Abraham is being critiqued for sidelining his wife rather than treating her as an equal partner in the enterprise of leadership.

This discrepancy in the two texts admits of no easy explanation. The editors of “Family Redeemed,” Rabbi Dr. Joel Wolowelsky and Rabbi Dr. David Shatz, and the editor of the “Chumash Mesoras HaRav,” Dr. Arnold Lustiger, are students of the Rav and scholars. I do not understand how it is that there are such widely diverging narratives in the name of the Rav on such a pivotal issue. Perhaps there is a different version of “Family Redeemed” with which I am not aware (maybe with a different pagination,) or perhaps I am unaware of an erratum published for one work or the other. In light of all the evidence I have at this point, Occam’s Razor dictates that the earlier version, “Family Redeemed,” is more accurate, and the derivative work contains errors. One certainly hopes that the Rav can be remembered correctly, rather than drawing his spirit into conflict.

When honoring the memory of an individual, it is important to be careful not to give a “spin” on that individual based on personal bias. It is a fundamental human tendency to project our own bias onto a text and inject confirmation bias in reading it.  It is a deeply problematic tendency which leads to conflict rather than to peace.  Regardless of whether we agree with an individual’s narrative – whether that individual be a Torah giant like the Rav, or an “ordinary person” like Sabta Dina – we must work to let them speak for themselves, even as they are no longer here.  When we do not let their narratives be in peace, we make the conversation about us, and we diminish their memory and take away from their greatness.

About the Author
Daniel Geretz grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the founding rabbi of Maayan in West Orange, New Jersey. Daniel was awarded semikha by YCT Rabbinical School, and besides continuing to serve as the rabbi of Maayan, he works as a Spiritual Counselor at Center for Hope Hospice in Scotch Plains, NJ, and a Chaplain Intern at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ.
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