The fifth of the seven traditional blessings recited at a Jewish wedding proclaims: “May the (Akarah) barren woman rejoice with happiness in the company of her children.” The blessing is an acknowledgement and an affirmation of the recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible of the woman beyond normal child bearing age who has children. While the term Akarah means “barren woman,” it is used exclusively – and in no fewer than seven cases – in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a woman who has children well beyond the normal child bearing age. The first of these is Sarah, Abraham’s wife and co partner in the sacred Covenant upon which all of Jewish religious thought bases itself. In that Covenant God promises Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: protection, children, permanence as a people and the land of Israel. But those promises are conditional. To merit them we (as God said directly to Abraham) must: “Be a blessing in our lives (Gn 12:2), “Walk in God’s ways and be worthy (Gn 17:1) and fill the world with Tzedakah, “righteousness” and Mishpat,“justice.” (Gn 18: 19) Sarah, of course, feels completely left out because she has no children. In despair, Abraham cries out to God: “What reward can you give me seeing that I shall die childless?” (Gn 15:2). Desperately Sarah invites Abraham to use humanity’s first known fertility procedure–having a child with a surrogate-–so that she can be a mother. She invites Abraham to cohabit with her handmaiden, Hagar who bears Ishmael. Eventually-–at the age of 90-–Sarah herself gives birth to Isaac. Isaac in turn marries Rebecca who is an Akarah for 20 years until she conceives and bears twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob marries four women, but really only loves one, Rachel. And Rachel is also an Akarah for many years before giving birth to Joseph. Three of Judaism’s first four matriarchs, then, did not become mothers until middle age, and in Sarah’s case, well beyond. Leah, who bore children shortly after her marriage, is the only exception. Much later, Samuel, arguably the second most significant figure (behind Moses) in the Hebrew Bible is born to Hannah who is also an Akarah. The (unnamed) mother of Samson, the mighty warrior who delivers Israel from the Philistines is also an Akarah. Finally, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha each invoke God’s help to intervened and help two different women (both identified by the term Akarah) to give birth. Hannah and Samson’s mother share a vital common trait. They are steadfast, understanding and faithful, while the men around them (their respective husbands and Eli the High Priest) are clueless to the meanings of their divine interactions. What modern lessons are we to glean from these disparate but related biblical accounts? The fact that a disproportionate number of the Bible’s great figures are the offspring of an Akarah must be seen as a compliment to women who give birth during middle age or beyond. The many biblical Akarot (plural of Akarah) who give birth is testify to the correlation between desire to have a child and the level of nurture and love that child will receive. We all are all too aware of the many children born almost at random to young women who have neither the emotional maturity or the financial wherewithal, or the family support to become mothers. Often their children are the results of careless “accidents”. The middle aged woman who gives birth, by contrast, almost always does so with great intentionality and desire to become a parent. More often than not the children of such women are eagerly desired, lovingly nurtured and raised in a home where finances are more than adequate to see to the child’s needs. The Bible in its praise of middle aged mothers goes even further. It sees their years of desire and longing as worthy of special reward. They not only give birth, but they “rejoice with happiness in the company of their children” who are destined to play an important role in the history of the Israelite people. (This essay appears as a chapter in Cyma Shapiro’s recently published book: The Zen of Midlife Mothering)
Many think of Purim as simply a time for groggers, costumes noise and merriment. With all the frivolity and fun that we shall hopefully experience, it is easy to dismiss Purim as merely a fun holiday for the young and the young at heart, but Purim is much more.
The Purim story confronts the mature reader with vital philosophical questions about the place of women in society, the phenomenon of prejudice, and the very meaning of life itself.
Too seldom do we ponder the courage of Vashti, King Ahasueras‘ first wife. In the story, the world’s most powerful man commands her to display her beauty for his drunken friends, but she refuses. She is a worthy role model for our daughters. She is also a good jumping off point for a discussion about the value of women as complete human beings. Vashti refused to simply be a sex object even if that refusal cost her throne. Hopefully all of us can learn from her courage
A vital lesson about prejudice presents itself when Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman. Haman is angry, but as the Bible records: “…it was not enough for him to punish Mordecai alone, for they had told him the people of
Mordecai” (Esther 3:5). No, because of his anger at one man, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.
Sadly, the prejudice presented against in the book of Esther has confronted our people many times throughout history. The Purim story provides a vivid example of this phenomenon that we can profitably discuss with young people.
The third vital lesson instructs us in the meaning of life itself. When Mordecai read Haman’s decree condemning the Jews of Persia to death, he sent a message to Esther to intercede for her people. Esther’s response was that she dared not enter the presence of the king because he had not summoned her, and the penalty is death for anyone even the queen who appears unbidden before the king unless he holds out his scepter as a sign of acceptance.
Mordecai, through the servant Hatach, asks Esther a question we should all frequently ask ourselves: “Who knows if you have not become queen for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). In other words, who knows if we are where we are at any given moment for the opportunity to make a difference.
Mordecai really asks: Are we on this earth just to enjoy life? Is our own pleasure the primary purpose of our existence?
Jewish tradition and the Book of Esther say, “No.”
Esther could have lived out her life in selfish luxury. She could have ignored the plight of our people. But Mordecai’s question pricked her conscience enough so that she risked everything to save in an effort to save our people.
Mordecai’s question addresses us as well. What are we willing to risk to keep our people vibrant and strong?
In our day-to-day lives, we, like Esther have moments when our action or inaction, our willingness or unwillingness to risk it all can make a vital difference in someone’s life. We can seize these moments or turn away from them. Esther swallowed her fear and seized her moment. Her example and her courage commend themselves to all of us when the times come for us to step up and make a difference.
As Purim approaches, let us prepare for more than fun and games. If we truly study the Story of Esther, what we learn about the dignity of women, the phenomenon of prejudice and the very meaning of life itself can enrich our Jewish souls long after the celebration is over.