Our pregnant world

Without God’s visitation to Sarah, there would be no Jewish people.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
ROSH HASHANAH celebrates conception, pregnancy and birth. These are central motifs of the Bible readings of the first day and the liturgy which follows the blowing of the shofar, when the custom is to recite the liturgical poem, “Hayom Harat Olam” (“Today is the conception and/or creation of the world”). But the phrase literally means that today is a pregnant world, one full of meaning and possibilities which we will not know until after the birth.
The Torah and Haftarah reading of the first day is preoccupied with two barren women, Sarah and Hannah, and how God remembers them. How did they become pregnant? Genesis 21:1 states: “God took note of/visited/kept his word to/came to/ dealt with/was gracious to Sarah and did for her what he promised.” Note the many possible translations of the problematic word pakad. The sages say that pakad means zakhar (remembered), and the word zakhar is used in Hannah’s case as well. God’s visitations are life-changing events, resulting in the conceptions and births Sarah and Hannah desperately want.
The word pakad appears in many places in the Bible, and one of its meanings is to deposit. Using this, one can even translate the text, “God deposited the seed in Sarah.”
Why does scripture allow for this interpretation? Why not use the word zakhar (remembered)? In the preceding chapter, we read about Abimelech, king of Gerar, who “took” Sarah, and may or may not have touched her. In his argument with God, he said, “O Lord, will You slay people even though innocent? He [Abraham] himself said to me, ‘She is my sister!’ And she also said, ‘He is my brother’” (Gen. 20:1-7). Despite this claim of innocence, God had closed fast (atzor atzar) all the wombs of Abimelech’s household (of which Sarah was temporarily a part) – all this because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham (Gen. 20:15-18). Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children.
And right after this episode, “And God took note of [pakad] Sarah... and Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham...” (Gen. 21:1-2). I think scripture wants us to understand in no uncertain terms that Abimelech could not have impregnated Sarah.
In a subversive midrash (Genesis Rabbah 53:6), the sages connect Sarah to a woman suspected of adultery (a sotah) who successfully passes the bitter waters test. Rabbi Isaac implies that Sarah, who entered Abimelech’s house and emerged undefiled deserved to be remembered, just like the sotah: “If the woman not be defiled, but be clean: then shall she be cleared, and shall conceive seed” (Numbers 5: 28). The midrash adds that the fact that the Lord remembered Sarah means that she did not “steal seed” from Abimelech.
And lest we have any doubts, the text makes clear that Isaac’s features were like Abraham’s and that “he was born at nine months [of pregnancy], so that it might not be said that he was a scion of Abimelech’s house.”
What’s bothering the sages? Perhaps they sense that in the biblical text Abimelech protests too much about not approaching or even touching Sarah. Perhaps they suspected that Sarah could have been impregnated by Abimelech and thus stress that the Biblical phrase “closed fast” means she was untouched.
And now Sarah’s womb is ready to conceive seed, which God deposits.
Hannah’s story begs for comparison with Sarah’s, so it is especially interesting that in the Babylonian Talmud (BT Brachot 31a-b) Hannah, the heroine of the Haftarah, uses her knowledge of the sotah text to get herself impregnated. Hannah said to God, if You don’t solve my barrenness, “I will go and shut myself up with someone else in the knowledge of my husband Elkanah, and as I shall have been alone they will make me drink the water of the suspected wife, and since I am innocent, according to the law, I shall be cleared and shall conceive seed.”
All this desperation is expressed in her prayer for a son, and the Amidah (the Silent Prayer) is associated with Hannah who prayed so silently by moving her lips that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. Thus, it is fitting that today many Jewish feminists invoke Abraham’s spouse in the Amidah, the formerly barren Sarah, and add to the ending of magen Avraham (who shields Abraham), poked (or pakad) Sarah (who remembers/remembered Sarah) i.e., by enabling her to conceive). Their justification is that without God’s visitation to Sarah, there would be no Jewish people.
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of ‘Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God’ (2005), ‘The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder’ (2004), ‘S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories’ (1993; 2003), and ‘Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating’ (1998)