Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

 
 

Now that we are squarely in the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, we eagerly re-read the stories of Bereshit, the first book of the Torah. This is the story of a family. We count the toldot, the generations that lead from one to the next as each family fulfills the mitzvah of pru urvu, the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. This mitzvah is assigned to humans in the first chapter of the Torah. And the bearing of children drives the book of Bereshit, the book of creation, as our sacred text transitions from being the story of Abraham’s family to the story of Abraham’s People.

We first met Sarah, Abraham’s wife (then named ‘Abram’ and ‘Sarai’) last week in parshah Lech Lecha. We learned in Genesis 16:1 that Sarai has not yet been able to fulfill the mitzvah of pru urvu of her own accord, that she “had borne him no children.” Instead, she arranges for her husband to bear a child through Hagar, her handmaiden. And thus begins the complicated relationship between Sarah and Hagar – two women who each have something the other desires. Sarah has status. She has power, and a husband, and will someday be the mother of a great people. And Hagar is fertile. The plot of the story thickens in this week in parshah Vayera, when Sarah learns that though she has already reached menopause, she will, through Divine prophecy, now bear a child of her own.

Resources from National Council of Jewish Women point out that in parshah Vayera neither Hagar, nor Sarah are granted reproductive freedom. Because of the social expectation that a woman of Sarah’s status and lineage ought to be a mother, she is forced into an uncomfortable power dynamic with her handmaiden, Hagar. She is forced to mother Ishmael, a son that isn’t hers, and who was conceived between her husband and Hagar. And meanwhile, Hagar, who is enslaved to Abraham and Sarah, is not able to make dignified choices about her own fertility. She is forced into intimate relations with Abraham, and forced to bear a child on Sarah’s behalf. Hagar’s physical agency is taken away from her and her body is used for another’s desires. And then, in parshah Vayera she and Ishmael, the son that she bore to Sarah and Abraham, are cast out into the wilderness with contempt. They have no justice, no power, and no hope for survival.

Reproductive rights are a modern concept, but the complexities of agency, authority and a woman’s wish to choose her own fate are as ancient as the Torah itself. Perhaps this is why, as the rabbis added layer upon layer to our interpretation of these texts, they not only permitted reproductive choice, but even required it when the life of a pregnant person was in danger (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6).

We learn from Sarah and Hagar that reproductive choice includes, but is not limited to abortion access. The Jewish imperative for reproductive choice is about physical autonomy. That while pru urvu is a mitzvah, so is shmirat haguf, caring for our bodies, and pikuach nefesh – valuing the physical, emotional and spiritual life of each and every person.

From the tragedy of Sarah and Hagar, we are forced to see the heartbreak of women whose bodies are not their own. And today, we strive to do better. We strive for agency. For choice, and for dignified reproductive healthcare. To fulfill the mitzvah of pru urvu through our own bodies if we want to and if we are able to, and to find other ways to be a family or to choose our family if we don’t. Parshah Vayera shines a light on a world without choice. Parshah Vayera teaches us how important it is to strive for better. JN

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.