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)
One of the great examples of Reform or Progressive Jewish thinking–some 2000 years before there was anything called Reform Judaism– regards the Festival of Shavuot.
In the Torah, Shavuot was strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest. Our ingenious Rabbinic Sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of when our biblical ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot be sure of exactly how it happened, but I imagine a scenario much like this:
A group of concerned rabbis was discussing the state of Jewish life. One Sage mused, “You know, Shavuot just doesn’t attract the great crowds to celebrate in Jerusalem that it once did.”
A second Rabbi answered: “That’s true, but it’s understandable. Times have changed!”
A third participant: “You are absolutely right! When we were primarily an agrarian society, first fruits and the barley harvest were compelling reasons to celebrate. Now, that we have become more urban, those occasions don’t mean so much to many people.”
First Sage: “What can we do?”
A fourth participant spoke up: “I’ve got it! If you look at the Torah, Shavuot comes 50 days after the first day of Pesach. That’s just about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt! Even though the Torah does not make the connection explicitly we can make the connection. From now on we can celebrate Shavuot—in addition to its biblical significance–as a joyous celebration of when we received Torah at Mount Sinai”.
A fifth Sage asks: “Can we do that?”
The fourth responds: “Not only can we, we must!! If we want our precious Jewish heritage to endure, we must be skilled interpreters of biblical texts so that they speak meaningfully to the present and future realities of our people.”
In this way, I imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading festival and gave it a historical underpinning and new life for future generations. In similar fashion, our early Reform leaders made Shavuot the time when ninth or tenth grade students celebrate Confirmation.
The example of what our ancient Sages did with Shavuot should continue to inspire our thinking as Reform or Liberal Jews today. If we want our precious heritage to remain vibrant and relevant, we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully to our children and grandchildren!
When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent–not at odds–with the process by which our Rabbinic Sages reformed biblicalJudaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.
Eden – Many think of the Story of Eden as “The Fall of Man.” We might better think of it as the “Elevation of Humanity.” Eve, rather than being the villain that much of religious history has made of her, is the true hero of the story because she chooses a limited life of purpose and meaning in the real world over an endless existence of indolence in the Garden.
Cain and Abel — Nobel laureate John Steinbeck considers Cain and Abel, “the symbol story of the human soul” because it is the story of every one of us. It is about rejection – which all of us have faced – and how we deal with it. And Yes! If this world is ever going to work, we must be our brothers and sisters’ keeper.
Noah and The Flood — Many accounts of a deluge emerge from various cultures of the ancient near east. The biblical flood story is unique in two important ways: Only in the Bible does the flood occur because of humanity’s moral failure. Only in the Bible is the hero chosen not for capriciousness, but for his righteousness.
Babel – The brief account of the Tower of Babel is analogous to “the last straw” in God’s attempt to persuade humanity as a whole, to create a just, caring and compassionate society. Also, I am often asked: “Wouldn’t it be great if there were just one religious outlook?” No! The Tower of Babel teaches us that God created diversity, and the world is better off because of it.
Abraham – After three attempts at persuading humanity to create a just, caring and compassionate society (in Eden; pre- and post-flood Eden), the Eternal One chooses Abram as a Covenantal Partner. He then launches a new vehicle for humanity to understand God’s desires. Now, one family and its descendants will become an instrument to teach the world the ideals and values we all hold dear.
Jacob – A punk kid who extorts the precious birthright from his brother and misrepresents himself before his blind father grows through many trials to emerge as a responsible partner in God’s Covenant. If we understand the relationship between the crimes of Jacob’s youth and the tribulations he endured because of them, his journey can transform our lives, as well.
Joseph – Like his father, Joseph transforms from a spoiled, selfish brat into a leader whose bold policies saved the biblical world from famine. His story and the parallel story of his brother Judah, are stories of suffering, growth and forgiveness. The lessons they learn through bitter experience can inspire us as we seek meaning and purpose in our lives.
Slavery – “A new king arose who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). In this verse, we have the paradigm of all Jewish history. A pattern has repeated itself in almost every country where Jews have lived. It is a fitting starting point for our people’s journey from the degradation of bondage to the dignity of a free people, and it has a universal message.
Six Women Heroes – Moses is the hero of the Exodus and hands-down the most important figure in the Bible and all Jewish thought. Nevertheless, Moses would not have gotten as far as uttering, “Let my people go…” (Exodus 7:16) before Pharaoh were it not for six women. If we look closely, we find many biblical examples in which women play pivotal roles in biblical narratives, while the male protagonist is often clueless by comparison. The recurring biblical theme of the woman who “gets it,” while the man does not, was initiated by Adam and Eve. This theme offers strong testimony that the Bible affirms and exalts the power and role of women.
Moses and the Call to Leadership – Why God Chose Moses. The Bible gives us hints, but for the rabbis, the partnership was based on a careful examination by God of Moses’ character. This chapter explores the rabbinic view of why God chose Moses, and the implications of that choice for our lives today. Like Moses, we each have a destiny, if we choose, as Moses eventually did, to embrace it.
God’s Role in the Exodus — If God represents goodness and kindness, why does God “harden Pharaoh’s heart?” To understand the story of the Exodus, we must see it as a war between God and the pagan deity, Pharaoh. Pharaoh, on the one hand, represented the prevailing pagan value system. One worshipped him by building bigger and bigger monuments to his glory in the hope that he would use his perceived powers to protect his followers. God represented the values of the Covenant made with Abraham: the values of justice caring and compassion. These divergent value systems cannot coexist, and the Exodus represents a struggle to the finish between them. The story and the Passover celebrations based on that, bid us to ask which set of values we choose for ourselves: a life of self-centered greed, or a life of caring, concern and service to others.
Crossing the Sea – In the Hebrew Bible’s most dramatic miracle, God splits the Red Sea allowing the children of Israel to cross on dry ground. The Egyptians follow and are drowned when the Almighty orders the seawaters to cover them. The Children of Israel are now free, but not free to be like everyone else. The ancient Hebrews were set free in order to march on to Sinai to renew the Covenant God made with Abraham. It is a Covenant whose basic values are accessible to everyone, whether he or she is Jewish, or not. One of the issues the drowning of the Egyptians addresses is how we should react to the downfall of our enemy.
A Visit from Jethro –Jethro’s visit to Moses and the Israelites marks, perhaps, the first management tutorial in recorded literature. Moses, Jethro warns, risks burnout unless he develops a plan to delegate authority. Moses heeds Jethro’s advice, and we can benefit from it at well.
Standing at Sinai – This chapter examines different perspectives of God’s revelation at Sinai. What might have happened during the encounter that transformed God’s people from a band of refugees from slavery into a people covenanted for all time to the service of the Almighty? We shall look at a number of Midrashim that offer contradictory viewpoints on what might have occurred at Sinai and ask the more important question: what do these different points of view teach us today?
The Golden Calf – Almost as soon as Israel agrees to the Covenant with God, they break faith in the worst way imaginable by worshipping a golden calf. Certainly, we do not build idols and bow down to them today, yet the story of the golden calf still speaks to our human condition. Do we choose the path of generosity, kindness and the quest to make a better world, or to find our own security and satisfaction at the expense of others?
The Spies — In the second year of the Israelites desert journey Moses sends out twelve spies to report on the land God has promised them. Ten of the spies come back and say the land is unconquerable. Two, though, Joshua and Caleb demur and say we need to have faith and confidence in God’s promise. The chapter explores what we can learn from this story.
The Waters’ of Meribah — For nearly forty years Moses has been God’s faithful servant. He slips up once – in what seems like a minor way—by hitting a rock to give drink to the thirsty people instead of asking the rock to brings forth water in God’s name. God punishes Moses by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land. Is this fair? Perhaps not, but the lesson of the story is vital to each one of us.
What If I Don’t Believe in God? — As discussed throughout the book, the Hebrew Bible assumes the existence of God, who wants human beings to establish a just, caring and compassionate society. The simple fact is not everyone believes in such a God. This chapter discusses how the ideals and values of the Journey can speak effectively and meaningfully even to those who do not believe in God.
Conclusion— This summary of the journey and its meanings reviews and elaborate on the vital lessons we learn from the Genesis’ story of creation to the edge of the Promised Land where Moses’ dies on Mount Nebo. Moses is the Hebrew Bible’s pre-eminent figure, but he dies with his dreams unfulfilled. Like Moses, most of us leave this earth with –despite our accomplishments – dreams unfulfilled. The lesson we learn is that each of us should do the best we can for as long as we can, to make the world in some way, better. Part of our task is to inspire and mentor others to continue the work.