In Jewish tradition, the first three generations of Abraham’s family are extremely important. Abraham was the first to hear the voice of God calling him to go to the Land of Canaan. God’s promise of making a huge nation of him was what started the Jewish nation. In a way, Abraham and Sarah were the first Jewish people.
Forefathers (Avot) and foremothers (Imahot) play a significant role in religious Jewish life. They aren’t limited to their stories in the Torah, but rather are evoked in many prayers, teachings, and blessings. Their lives serve as a source of wisdom and learning opportunities.
Whenever the Jewish people feel down, unsure of their worth or merit, they invoke the Avot – that’s why they are mentioned in the prayer Amidah or many Yom Kippur prayers. They are our connection to God, who introduced Himself to Moses as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”.
We have three forefathers and four foremothers. Even though the Torah is deeply grounded in the context of its historical surroundings, and as such men seem to play the leading roles, the women are not passive or silent. Each one is a character to explore. Let’s meet them.
Sarai – Sarah
We meet Sarah when she is still called “Sarai”, and her husband is called “Avram”. We don’t know many details about their childhood or young lives, but we know they come from Ur Kasdim in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. Sarai is Avram’s aunt and together with the rest of the family, they travel along the great rivers of the region to Haran (today’s Syria). If it weren’t for the call from God, they would probably stay there.
When the couple leaves for the land of Canaan, they are elderly and childless. They go with quite a lot of people – helpers, workers, and servants with all their families and flocks.
Sarai knows that God had promised her husband to become a great nation. But they were both old and childless, so how is that supposed to happen? She doesn’t doubt God’s promise but believes in being proactive. She doesn’t wait for a miracle, but rather figures out another way to create a progeny for Avram: she makes her servant, Hagar, into a secondary wife.
This practice was nothing strange back then. Hagar would be kind of a surrogate. The child would be legally and socially recognized as a child of the masters. But as we know, a miracle happens and the old Sarah gives birth to a baby boy. He is called Itzhak, as she laughed when heard she was to become a mother.
We know Sarah is beautiful, but it’s her character and strong will that is truly impressive. She’s not afraid to do what is necessary to provide for her son. When she feels the position or safety of her son is endangered, she sends Hagar and her son, Ishmael, away. In the cruel world of patriarchal power and dynasty building, it’s the mothers who often took the stand for their sons right to the throne.
After Sarah dies, Avraham decides to find a wife for his son. But he doesn’t want a woman from the neighboring nations, but rather a girl from his extended family. He makes his most-trusted servant, Eliazar, travel north to Haran, to find an appropriate woman for his dear Itzhak.
The encounter between Eliazar and young Rivkah is a wonderful story and an inspiring model of promoting chesed (goodness and love). Rivkah offers help and invites the stranger into her family home. His story and lavish gifts make a huge impression on everyone. Rivkah’s family doesn’t want her to go right away, but when asked her own opinion, she clearly states that she wanted to go. This short exchange is a lesson that you can never force a woman into marriage, but she must do it willingly.
When Itzhak meets Rivkah, he is comforted after the death of his mother.
For a long while, they also can’t have children, until Rivkah finally is pregnant with twins. The two boys couldn’t be more different: Yaacov (Jacob) is a quiet boy who enjoys spending time in the camp, while Esav (Esau) is a wild-tempered hunter, running the hills all days.
When the time comes to give the extremely important birthright blessing to the older Esav, Rivkah steps in. As Sarah before her, she is not a passive one waiting for fate to happen. She is the one to create fate herself. She knew Yaacov should be the leader and the one to inherit the mantle after his father. Rivkah forces Yaacov to trick his blind father to think he was Esav and receives the highly valued blessing. To avoid the wrath of his wronged brother, he escaped to his maternal family, to Haran.
Rachel and Leah
When Yaacov arrives at his family, he falls in love with Rachel. But he isn’t the rich Eliazar who came for Rivkah a generation ago. He’s got nothing to offer for his wife except his own body. He promises to work for her for seven years. But when the night of the wedding comes, Rachel’s father tricks him: under a thick veil hides the older sister, Leah, not Rachel.
But it’s not her that Yaacov wanted. And so, he promises to work for another seven years to marry Rachel, too.
Torah, later on, forbids marrying two sisters. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was as the result of this tragic story. The two sisters never exchanged any warm and loving words between themselves. Their married lives were filled with jealousy, rivalry, bitterness, and sadness.
Rachel was the one loved by Yaacov, Leah was the one loved by God. To sweeten a bit her tragic marriage, God gifted Leah with children. Back then, having children was a sure way to climb up the societal ladder. Especially, if the children were male. But Rachel couldn’t bear any children. Angry and bitter, she gave her servant to Yaacov for a secondary wife, just as Sarah did two generations back. Finally, she had a son – even though she was not the one to give birth to him, she was the one to name him.
But Leah wasn’t one to step aside in this rivalry. She gave her servant as a secondary wife, too. Their marriages were battleground and Yaacov didn’t seem to have much to say in it all. Now he had four wives: two main ones, Rachel and Leah, and two secondary wives (sometimes called concubines): Bilhah and Zilpah.
Finally, after many years of waiting, Rachel gives birth to her first son: Yosef (Joseph). Many years later, she will have one more son, Binyamin (Benjamin), and soon after she dies.
All four foremothers are real people. They are not two-dimensional white-washed perfect role models. They struggle, they fight for their position and the positions of their sons. They don’t question the patriarchal system around them but rather find their way around it to make the best of it.
To this day, Jewish girls are blessed with the words “May you be like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah”. Our role models are achievable and relatable. They aren’t just pretty background, but important actors in the early stages of Jewish history.
Be inspired – Inspire others!
The Jewish Matriarchs can be with us at all times. Seeing their names can be a reminder to encourage us to act. We are their daughters and sons, we should make our fates the way Sarah or Rivkah did. To be kind and helpful like Rivkah. To fight for your good fortune and happiness.
I’m deeply inspired by the fantastic women of the Hebrew Bible. I have created a series of designs celebrating them, their strength, activism, courage, faith, perseverance, leadership.
Below you can see examples of dozens upon dozens of products that can be decorated with the Matriarchs’ names. The added variety of colorful backgrounds adds to the collection. They are perfect ideas for yourself or to present as a gift – especially for a young girl or a woman.