Zeresh, Hagar, & the Stories Not Told

Participation in the Jewish community is a very personal experience. For some, it involves regular attendance at Sabbath services. For others, it may be keeping up with Jewish news from online sources and weekly newspapers. But for Jews around the world, we are all conscious of a pattern of Jewish life as we go through the year – certain holidays, seasonal rituals and foods.

One way we mark the cycle of the Jewish year is through the selections from the Torah – the Five Books of Moses – that are read in synagogues every week.

This cycle is renewed each year on the holiday of Simchat Torah that we celebrate this coming week, when we will start selections from the book of Genesis anew.

In the middle of my fifth decade of life, I find myself challenged to keep the stories fresh in the retelling. How many times can one read about the expulsion from Eden, endless lists of names, Exodus and Sinai, the design of the sacred vessels in the Sanctuary, and so forth?

I recently finished, and highly recommend to you, a wonderful new collection of short stories, After Abel, by Michal Lemberger. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Torah too has ‘minor’ voices with their own stories to tell; people who probably didn’t think of themselves as minor at all. Lemberger builds on the perspective of women in the Bible, often overlooked and even at times unnamed, despite the major roles they play in some stories (like “Lot’s Wife,” she of the salty pillar).

These often stunning stories follow in the ancient tradition of midrash, non-textual elaborations on the written word of the Bible, offering insight and perspective, expanding our understanding and experience. Lemberger, in the tradition of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, serves up the canon with a twist as she brings these women center-stage, allowing us to see events as they might have.

To immerse oneself in these selections – Eve, who had no one else to guide her as the first mother in bearing and losing a child; Hagar, mother of Ishmael, who was separated from her people and abused by her mistress; Zeresh, widow of Haman, mother of ten executed sons - is to become aware that no matter how familiar we may be with any subject, our understanding is formed by our own perspective on the events. In lifting up these voices, we can attempt to see the old through their eyes, experiencing even the most familiar of events in new ways. It is refreshing to approach the experience of the cycle of Torah readings with a fresh layer of understanding. 

As we complete a season of Jewish renewal, our country enters a season of political renewal when we prepare to select our next President. This process easily becomes defined by the largest and loudest voices, those few – candidates, pundits, constituencies - that yell the loudest, amplify some challenges while ignoring others, and define the debate with limiting perspectives. As we approach this cycle, let us commit to seek out and lift up other stories from those voices that aren’t easily heard in our political discourse and who have different perspectives on familiar debates. It is in their stories that we might bring new understanding and fresh insight into the dilemmas we face together.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Jeremy