What were the first words in the Bible spoken by a Jew?
Was it about monotheism, social justice, the sanctity of land, peace or peoplehood?
Not even close. The first Jewish quote, attributed to Abraham, was about the sexual allure of his wife, Sarah, a woman so magnetic that men would murder just to have her.
“I can that see you’re so beautiful,” says Abraham.
Several millennia later, Sarah is still compelling.
Later this month, thousands of Israelis, mostly Orthodox, many settlers, will make a pilgrimage to Hebron, coinciding with Shabbat Chaye Sarah (Oct. 30) when the Torah reading tells of her burial there.
On the other side of the cultural divide, the Israeli writer David Grossman, a secular Jew and a passionate peace activist who would quickly give Hebron to the Palestinians if he could, is nevertheless every bit as passionate about Sarah.
In a recent New Yorker profile, speaking of how “women are more skeptical” than men about government and war, Grossman needs just one example: “I always think of the sacrifice from the Bible,” he says. “If God came to Sarah and told her, ‘Give me your son, your only son, your beloved, Isaac,’ she will tell Him, ‘Give me a break,’ not to say ‘F— off.’ She will not collaborate with it, not a chance in the world. And Abraham immediately collaborated. He obeyed. He didn’t ask questions.”
Grossman, like so many descended from Sarah, speaks of her in the present or future tense, so immediate does she seem.
And yet, the first Jewish woman was also one of the loneliest, and few things are as lonely as being alone within a marriage.
“Why,” asks Richard McBee, “is Abraham and Sarah’s marriage so dysfunctional?”
McBee, 63, an Orthodox artist, and a multi-termed president of the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue (16th Street Synagogue), has since 1976 worked exclusively in Judaica and biblical themes. His new show, “Sarah’s Trials” —16 paintings and eight diptychs — is currently being displayed in the Tisch Gallery of the JCC in Manhattan.
All of the paintings are based on the Genesis text, classical rabbinic commentaries and Midrash Rabbah. “I never try to tear down or debunk the text or the commentaries,” says McBee. “I try to get inside them, and understand them, and to see the Divine imperative throughout.”
And yet, McBee wonders, “How could Abraham, our forefather so deeply associated with kindness and charity,” he asks, “be so callous to his own wife?”
Even the Torah itself can’t quite figure Sarah out. She is introduced with a cold, even callous, one-liner: “[Sarah] was barren,” and then nothing further, as if this woman — desired by pharaohs, graced by prophecy — could be reduced and defined only by what she couldn’t do: have a child.
In the show’s catalogue, McBee explains that “Sarah’s steadfast faith and loyalty” are most manifested in her attempts to solve the problem of her own barrenness.”
For years, in one love triangle of her own creation, she shared her husband with Hagar, a woman she came to despise and who returned the contempt, acting as if the barren Sarah was unnecessary.
Sarah’s other love triangle, with Abraham and God, left her on the sidelines, too. For all of Sarah’s vaunted prophetic powers, she is so out of the spiritual loop that when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, neither God nor Abraham bother to tell her.
Discovering Isaac’s close call, Sarah dies from shock, they say, or maybe it was sorrow.
McBee’s large oil paintings, each canvas six feet by five feet, displayed in biblical chronology, suggests the roots of this marriage’s mystery in a midrashic prequel, in the idol shop, where Abraham smashed the idols, an oft-told tale. Without contradicting the commentaries, McBee adds an original twist: in his painting, the idols are fertility goddesses, “the primitive sensual feminine which must be destroyed,” McBee explains. “In the ancient world, the goddess reigned supreme, the dangerous rival” of Abraham’s God, who transcended gender. “For Abraham, the goddess was the enemy,” says McBee, and in his rebellious passion “he could not see the beauty and inherent value of the feminine in his own wife.”
But what of the Torah’s first quote from Abraham? He only spoke of realizing Sarah’s beauty, says McBee, when it threatened his own life, and as way of introducing the brother-sister plot that outrageously would have facilitated the potential rape of Sarah in exchange for Abraham’s safe passage.
McBee next two paintings depict the Egyptian adventure with deep reds, dark skies and fanciful midrashic stories; of Abraham trying to hide Sarah in a box, and then an angel with a whip defending Sarah from the Pharaoh.
None of the paintings offer close-ups of the biblical characters or facial characteristics but rather scenes in a long shot, the better to contain the multiple characters, or the better to make the soulful mood as much of a character in the narrative as the biblical cast. In the text — in Sarah’s voice — that accompanies each painting, she tells us how she tried “for years to have Abraham’s child…”
From an outside vantage point we spot a glimpse of Abraham and Hagar in an upstairs room, Sarah sitting outside the house, as day becomes dusk. “Just like that, Abraham had sex with her and she conceived [Ishmael]. The minute Hagar got pregnant she mocked me.”
In the catalogue accompanying the show, McBee says of Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham, “What selfless love, what a heartfelt attempt to accomplish the Divine imperative,” that Abraham’s line continue, even if her line would not. “Practically before the words are out of her mouth,” writes McBee, Sarah “realizes how painful this ploy is.” She allows Abraham to take this “young pagan into her sacred marriage bed. And Abraham doesn’t hesitate a moment.”
When Sarah realizes, years later, that she will have a child of her own, she laughs, not because she doubts God, says McBee, citing Ramban, but because she’s laughing “at her own folly,” that she even thought for a minute that the Hagar option would fulfill God’s plan.
In the end, after Abraham tucks Sarah into her grave in Hebron, he returns to Hagar, “looking wistfully back at the graveyard where he’s buried his wife,” says McBee. “It’s the ultimate insult to Sarah’s memory that now he’s bedding down with the woman who, for so many years, made Sarah’s life so miserable,” let alone having six more children with her.
McBee admits, “It’s a sad ending to this series. I didn’t intend it that way but I felt I had to go that way,” along the lines of the Torah’s narrative.
McBee’s next project? Another 16-canvas series, depicting the story through Hagar’s eyes.
Don’t tell Sarah. It’ll break her heart. n
“Sarah’s Trials” can be seen in the Tisch Gallery of the JCC in Manhattan (344 Amsterdam Ave.) through Oct. 28. There will be a “Jewish-Muslim Dialogue” regarding Sarah (Oct. 18, 7 p.m., $10) and a Jewish Art Salon (Oct. 21, 7 p.m., free) featuring McBee, Tobi Kahn, Archie Rand, and Janet Shafner discussing “Sarah’s Trials.” More on biblical art can be found at richardmcbee.com.