“The Beautiful, Barren Matriarchs”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, G-d commands Abram and Sarai (their names had not yet been changed), to give up their past in Mesopotamia and to travel to a new land, an unnamed land, where they will forge for themselves a new future.

Life is difficult in Ur Kasdim for Abram’s father, Terach. His son, Haran, dies there. His surviving sons, Abram and Nachor, each marry, but Abram’s wife, Sarai, is barren. Terach takes his son Abram, his grandson Lot and Abram’s wife Sarai and begins to make his way to the land of Canaan, stopping in Haran, where Terach dies.

It is at this point that our parasha, Lech Lecha, opens with G-d’s dramatic command to Abram, Genesis 12:1: לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ , Go for yourself, from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

At age 75, Abram sets out from Haran, making his way to Canaan.

Despite G-d’s promise to Abram that he will see great success in the new land, Abram is immediately faced with a famine and must go down to Egypt. Scripture relates that when he is about to enter Egypt, Abram says to his wife Sarai, Genesis 12:11, הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ , See now, I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. Abram is concerned that the Egyptians will kill him and take his wife. He therefore schemes to have Sarai claim that she is his sister, so that his own life might be spared.

For the first two thousand years from the time of creation, the world was filled with anarchy, murder, idolatry, and rebellion. Now, with the selection of Abram and Sarai by G-d and their mission to settle in Canaan, a new chapter of creation dawns. For the first time there are G-d-fearing human beings–Abram and Sarai, and the destiny of the world is about to be reshaped.

Based on the information provided in scripture, we have no idea what were the unique characteristics of Abram that merited that he be chosen by G-d. We do however know two things about Sarai–-she is barren and she is beautiful.

What is the significance of these two factors that will play an important role in the future history of the Jewish people? Furthermore, not only is Sarai barren and beautiful, so are the other matriarchs–Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

Why are the matriarchs barren? The Talmud, in Yevamot 64a, states that G-d desires the prayers of the righteous, and wants these righteous women to pour out their hearts to Him. The Midrash Rabbah in Genesis 45:4, cites Rabbi Meir, who suggests that G-d wants the matriarchs to be beautiful so that the patriarchs will benefit from their beauty, and pregnancy reduces from their beauty. The commentary Yafei Tohar on the Midrash Shir Hashirim 24, explains that the patriarchs were so wrapped up in their sacred thoughts that they withdrew from the pleasures of this world. The matriarchs’ beauty was meant to arouse their husbands in order to perpetuate humankind.

The Torah testifies that all the matriarchs were beautiful. Genesis 24:16 states regarding Rebecca: וְהַנַּעֲרָה טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד , and the maiden was exceedingly beautiful. Similarly, in Genesis 29:17, scripture describes Rachel: וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה , and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance. Likewise, regarding Leah, Genesis 29:17 notes, וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת , and Leah’s eyes were soft, explained by the commentaries to mean pretty or beautiful.

The rabbis are perplexed why now, as Sarai and Abram approach Egypt, does Abram realize that his wife is so beautiful.

The Ramban suggests that it was because they were approaching a royal city where every beautiful woman was first brought to the king for inspection. Acknowledging his wife’s beauty, Abram grew fearful, lest they would slay him in order for the king to take her.

A Midrash cited by Rashi on Genesis 12:11, states that Abram noticed Sarai’s beauty at this point because normally women lose their beauty due to the exertion of the travels, yet Sarai retained her beauty. Other commentaries say that because of their extreme modesty, Abram would not have noticed her beauty previously. Now, on the journey, says the  Midrash Tanchumah, Abram happened to see that Sarai’s reflection in the water was resplendent as the sun. Targum Yonatan suggests that parts of Sarai’s body were exposed while crossing the river, while Mizrachi maintains that it happened when Sarai fell while crossing the stream.

The simple reason seems to be that now is the time for Abram to become anxious about her beauty, because they are coming to a land whose people are accustomed to seeking out beautiful women, and he will be harmed.

With the opening of a new epoch of creation with Sarai and Abram, the Torah confronts the most vexing issue facing women–how they value themselves. On the one hand, the matriarchs are very beautiful; on the other hand their natural beauty is challenged or compromised by their barrenness and their painful inability to bear children.

Beautiful women who are unable to bear children may lose their comeliness in the eyes of their spouses. On the other hand, those who may not be particularly endowed with beauty can gain beauty in the eyes of their spouses when they have children. In Samuel I 1:8, Elkana says to his barren wife, Hannah, that he is more precious to her than ten children. That great compliment fails to satisfy Hannah, and she goes to Shiloh to pray for a child.

The Al-mighty has blessed humankind with eternal hope. Through the miracles of modern medicine, barren women today are giving birth even in their later years. Both men and women who are considered physically unattractive, can become comely through fashionable clothing, cosmetic enhancement and corrective surgery.

Abram and Sarai inaugurated a new era in human history. That era continues to evolve, improve and even blossom in our days and in our times.

May you be blessed.