Chayei Sarah חיי שרה

On Bondage

I want to set this Torah text and the story of Sarah and Rebeka against the background of a movie and a TV series. The Israeli movie Sand Storm (Sufat Chol), written and directed by Elite Zexer, was shown at TIFF four years ago and won the Israeli “Oscar” (an Ophir) as the best film in 2016 and the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The four-part TV miniseries, Unorthodox, also on Netflix, is one of the hits of the 2020 season. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” it was adapted by Anna Winger and directed by Maria Schrader.

Both the Hasidic mini-series and the Bedouin movie are about women kept in quasi-bondage to their respective communities and the males in those communities who are the enforcers of tradition and ensuring that women continue to treat their husbands as kings. Both are about young women trying to break free from those bonds. In both, the performances, especially by the leads, the sets, the cast, the script, the plot and the settings, reek of authenticity. They are both wonderful to watch.   

Sand Storm opens with a Bedouin daughter (Layla or Lulu played by Lamis Ammar) in her late teens driving a pickup truck along a dusty desert road. Beside her in the passenger seat is a man who we quickly learn is her father, Suliman (Hitham Omari). The two banter back and forth as the father tries to extract what mark she received in a course at the university. 90, he guesses. She finally owns up that she got a 63. Her father is clearly very disappointed. “63, surely you are kidding.” When he recognizes she has told the truth, he becomes angry and chastises her.

Will he make her withdraw from university? He clearly expected more from her. And we quickly learn why. She is a very bright as well as very beautiful young lady with a very strong independent streak. She is obviously a student at Ben Gurion University in Be’ersheva where the one scene outside the Bedouin compounds is set. Otherwise, the whole movie unreels in this tiny Bedouin ramshackle of a tiny town in the Negev Desert south of Be’ersheva. It is a dusty town. Layla no sooner washes the floor of the house than it is soon again covered in dust. When she and her father are getting out of the truck, they try as much as possible to sweep the dust off their clothes. But, as we shall see, they do not succeed.

God formed humans from dust and to dust they will return. Dust, as in James Joyce’s Eveline,is a symbol of a suffocating, boring, restrictive and dreary life. At least in the Hasidic tale, there is a mikvah in which the bride thoroughly immerses herself with the last piece of dirt scraped out of her fingernails. Later in the film, she will strip off her pantyhose and sweater and finally remove her wig or sheitel to allow it to float away in Lake Wannsee right opposite the castle outside of Berlin where the final orders were signed to implement the Holocaust. Like Moishe, Yanky’s cousin, the Chasidic enforcer, who later strips and jumps in the Rhine, she too submerges and then floats on her back.

These are moments of freedom from the strictures of Hasidism.  The Holocaust in many ways haunts the series. Washing is not only renewal; it is risk, for, as the rabbi opines at the seder table, whenever Jews assimilate, whenever they forget who they are, “they suffer God’s wrath.” It does not pay to take risks.

Unorthodox opens with a broken eruv hanging from a pole. Though its purpose is briefly explained in the TV series when Esty (Shira Haas) is forced to leave her meagre carrying bag of belongings behind in her flight from Williamsburg and the Satmar Hasidic sect in which she grew up, I doubt if many viewers will catch the symbolism. For an eruv does not merely place a wire or a string around a community so that the area it surrounds can be treated as a single household in which its members can carry parcels and handbags on shabat. The thin string ties high rise apartments, stores and streets into a single private domain. When the eruv is broken, instead of uniting one set of domains and separating it from the rest of the world, the supposed “private domain” is shattered as well as the imaginary separation of the community from its surroundings.

That, in a nutshell, is the series which starts with Esty’s flight from the sect and her arranged marriage or shiddukh and flits backwards to the process of getting married and the quality and character of the first year of her married life in Williamsburg and forward to her life in Berlin where she discovers herself and her freedom. Whereas Esty escaped her bonds, Layla in Sand Storm heads back into the family compound with her father.

Clearly, Suliman is a very progressive father. After all, he allows his daughter to go to university. Further, that is a place where she can mix with other boys unchaperoned by her parents – and why it is risky. When they reach the edge of town, Layla pulls over and the two switch seats. Clearly, neither wants to allow the people of the town to observe a father teaching his daughter to drive. In the Hasidic TV series, women have different restrictions; for example, they cannot sing in front of men. In the Bedouin village, custom insists that women do not drive.

We soon learn the purpose of the trip in the truck. Suliman is returning with a bed for he and his bride-to-be. He is greeted by his sullen wife, Jalila, played by Ruba Blal. We quickly understand why she looks so sour. Her husband has built a new and much better, even if ostentatiously decorated, house for his new bride to be. We see the contrast between the new house and the old one when Suliman gives his first wife a tour of the new home. Suliman is about to take his second wife.

A Bedouin and a Hasidic wedding occupy centre stage of each respective production. They are both elaborately and sensitively choreographed as occasions of great joy. But the joy hides tears. In the Bedouin village, it will mean demotion and eventually banishment for wife number one, Jalila – not freedom from bondage in a bad marriage, but a new, more restricted confinement. The Satmar Hasidic joyous festivities are followed by Esty finding herself in an increasingly oppressive marriage to a well-intentioned momma’s boy, Yanky, played by Amit Rahav. It is from him and the marriage that she eventually flees.

In the struggle between tradition allied with the appearance of patriarchy and strong independent women, both Layla and her mother Jalila in the Bedouin film, and Esty and her mother Leah (Alex Reid) in the Hasidic series, fight against oppression, resulting in loss in one and victory in the other. Esty married to find a sense of purpose in her life. Layla married when she gave up the search for purpose in her life. To escape to freedom and uncertainty and risk or remain within the tight bounds of a community secure and fulfilled by having a family and children – that is the question. Culture is not only a particular set of restrictive norms but its opposite, the music and art of a cosmopolitan world that Esty found in Berlin. When a movie or a TV series is marked by both psychological insight and cultural acuity against a very rich physical and emotional tapestry, each story offers a universal message.

Against this shadowy background of both the film and the TV series I want to explore the relationship between Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and then Rebekah and Yitzchak (Isaac). Parashat Chaye Sarah open with the death of Sarah at the age of 127 in Kiryat Arba, now Hebron, in Canaan. Clearly Abraham loved his wife for he mourned and wailed over her death. In contrast, Yanky sobbed when his wife left him even after he entreated her to return. In the Bedouin village, men do not and did not cry, let alone over a wife.

What do we know of Sarah’s life that was covered in the two previous parasha? When Abram left Haran with his nephew Lot and his wife Sarai for Canaan, they had accumulated considerable wealth and possessions. Once arriving in Canaan, the troop gradually moved towards the Negev (12:9), the setting for Sand Storm. When there was a famine in the land, he took his family to Egypt. But before entering Egypt he turned to Sarai and told her that because she was so beautiful, the Egyptians will kill me in order to take you as a wife. Pretend or tell them that you are my sister, which she really was since they had the same father but different mothers. (See 20:12) When they encountered the Egyptians, they did take Sarah for the Pharaoh’s harem and, instead of killing Abraham, let him live and prosper and grow even more wealthy.

The Egyptians were afflicted by a plague, discovered the cause as the fact that the Pharaoh was sleeping with another man’s wife, so Abram, Sarai and their entourage were expelled from Egypt into the Negev Desert. We learn very early that Abram is a revolutionary. Even when he used his men to defeat the enemies of Sodom, he refused to benefit from their wealth (14:23). When at the beginning of Chai Sarah he was offered a gravesite for his recently departed wife, he refused to take any as a gift, but rather bargained to buy the Cave of Machpelah in which to bury his late wife. Abraham had established a new culture built on covenants and contracts rather than gifts. Guilt from breaking a witnessed agreement rather than shame at not repaying a gift was to become a cornerstone of the new culture. God too became a covenantal figure rather than an arbitrary exerciser of divine power. Further, God was dedicated to ensure that the progeny of Abraham – he had none at the time God made him the promise – that, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” (15:13)

Williamsburg is not America, Esty opined. But Esty was a stranger both in Williamsburg and the United States. Ironically, she eventually found a home in Berlin, the centre of the instigation of the Holocaust. In contrast, Layla always felt at home in her Bedouin village even though she rebelled against its strictures. Both Sarah and Rebekah leave their father’s homes for a new land and the creation of a new nation built on a culture of contracts and guilt as well as a culture in service to progeny rather than progeny to strictly following tradition. Unorthodox tries to have both cake in the form of lots of children to replace the six million murdered while paradoxically insisting that those children are akin to matzah and, unlike Abraham’s heirs, strictly observe the traditions of an inherited past. Clearly, the Bedouin village in today’s Negev was a mirror of Williamsburg, only the men wore jeans and t-shirts.

Abraham’s first child was not by Sarai but by Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant of Sarai who had offered her to Abram when she herself seemed to be infertile. She became Abram’s concubine (a second wife), became pregnant and then, “when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem.” (16:4) Hagar took on airs and no longer respected Sarai. Abram gave Sarai permission to treat Hagar as she wished and “Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away.” (16:6) In the wilderness, an angel appeared to Hagar, addressed her directly and instructed her to return to Sarai and put up with her harsh treatment. But the angel promised her a child to be called Ishmael.

The rivalry between the two “wives” was underway and is mirrored in Sand Storm. Children are caught up in that rivalry. Each would be an heir of Abram to whom God had made an unconditional commitment for all time. This was a God not dedicated to His own glory but to the children of man. The promise was for the future not subservience to the past, to independent and responsible humans and not blind obedience to a divine being. God served man and that is why men served God. This was as true of Ishmael as it was of Isaac when he was born. Circumcision would be a sign of the covenant for them both. Abram was renamed Abraham. Sarai was renamed Sarah and promised a son, Isaac. They were all in bondage to God, but God was also in bondage to humans – the other side of the coin forgotten both in the Bedouin village and in Williamsburg.

When Sarah overheard that promise, she snickered. She was well past menopause. She, like Eve, lied to God. She denied that she had laughed, but a year later gave birth to the son as promised. He was named Isaac, Yitzhak meaning “he will laugh.” (See 21:6) Unlike the tale in Sand Storm where the first wife, Jalila rather than second wife, is banished back to the home of her father when she stands up to her husband in defence of her oldest daughter, Layla. In contrast, Abraham gave in to the willfulness of Sarah. Esty after one year of marriage and one successful but very painful act of intercourse, like Sarah, also became pregnant. Abraham assumed that bondage to God meant blind obedience. He learned it did not and proved himself able to argue with God. Sarah would never have offered her son as a sacrifice to God so Abraham had to sneak away in the early hours of the morning. Esty went further and fled the world of oppression committed to bringing up a child in a cosmopolitan but very risky world.  

Whereas Jalila evolves from a harsh and strict mother and reveals her deep love for her eldest daughter and becomes, for that love, a very sympathetic figure, Sarah becomes even harsher and banished Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness. There, Hagar’s deep love for her son becomes apparent. God promises Hagar that not only will her son survive, he will become the father of twelve that, in turn, will develop into twelve tribes. Hagar finds a wife for him from her Egyptian family and wee see the origins of marrying within your own tribe for both the Bedouin and the Satmar Hasidim.

In the biblical text, Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father. It is a tale of reconciliation in which all the progeny prosper, though not without the grandchildren of Isaac eventually moving to Egypt and becoming slaves of the Egyptians for four hundred years. Even though there is much suffering on the way, God’s dedication to and covenant with the progeny of Abraham would be kept. God would be revealed as a very different celestial being, not one who enslaves humans to His service, but who asks for voluntary service in return so that those who serve Him will grow and prosper as responsible individuals. But the risks became too great and bondage became a matter of absolute obligation for both Bedouin and Hasidim.

Sand Storm has a tragic outcome. In spite of the progressive inclinations of the father, the power of patriarchy is restored. Wives would be forced to submit to the will of their husbands rather than asserting their own will and independence; instead, independent assertions of will are crushed. In Unorthodox, female independence is set free. The ultimate victims are not the daughters, but the risk takers. Whereas the Torah and Unorthodox are stories of emancipation, Sand Storm is a tale of the tragedy of feminine suppression.  In the end, in spite of the father’s progressive leanings, in spite of his unequivocal love for his daughters, they become the victims instead of being treated by a father for whom “compassion for his children” (Palms 103:13) trumps all.

That is why, in the end, the Torah is not a tale of patriarchy but of the process of matriarchy gradually assuming the upper hand. Whereas a wife for Isaac was obtained from Abraham’s family according to the same strictures as the Bedouin, and perhaps the somewhat broader but still very narrow strictures of the Satmar sect, look at how Rebekah was tracked down and enlisted to marry Isaac according to both the  narrator and Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, who located Rebekah.

Abraham told Eliezer to go find a wife for Isaac from his native land, but the servant interpreted that more narrowly to find her only among members of his family and, serendipitously, that is where – thank providence – he found Rebekah. In fact, Rebekah found him by offering water to Eliezer’s camels. Only then did he learn that she was the granddaughter of Nahor and, according to his retelling of what happened, give her the jewelry as a present and bridal payment. Even wives had to be obtained transactionally rather than by force.

In contrast, the matchmaker for Esty did not carry out his responsibilities to ensure that Esty was born of a solid and good family but just affirmed that he had found aa wife from Abraham’s family as instructed. Further, as in the story of Rebekah and of Esty, it is the women – the mother of Yanky – with whom the match is negotiated even though she will later blame her husband for being too relaxed on the credentials required. In Sand Storm, men are unequivocally and exclusively in charge of the negotiations.

Unfortunately, Esty did not have her mother in her life with whom she could check whether the match was a good one. Rebekah ran to her mother’s house to get her approval and Laban, her brother, is sent forth as the intermediary. As with Abraham, in effect the father then appeared to in effect say that whomever his wife approved of, so did he. Layla spoke to her mother first, who warned and chastised her for wanting to marry a boy she met at university for that would enrage her father. It did. And when Layla’s mother stood up for her, that is what led to her banishment.

Both Rebekah’s mother, Betuel, and Sarah, Isaac’s mother, are the powerhouses in their respective families. So is Esty’s mother, even though she was defeated and fled into exile. So is Jalila, Layla’s mother, even though she too was banished, but locally back to her father’s house rather than abroad. It is through the women that primacy is given to the parents serving their progeny rather than the reverse as in the Bedouin culture where, when Jalila confronts her husband, she is banished. Further, though it is Abraham who establishes Judaism as a covenantal and contractual culture that feeds off guilt, women are the implementers. The Bedouin mother tried but failed. The mother that fled the Hasidic sect tried but failed. But that is only because Hasidism is a throwback to tribal patriarchal culture rather than placing the real power of cultural transmission in the hands of women.


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