Including the Matriarchs
On Saturday, December 23, 2017, Hazzan Elisheva Dienstfrey gave the following sermon on why Agudas Achim will begin to include the Imahot (matriarchs) in our text.
Imahot: Why Should We Add Their Names?
A Sermon on Discovering My Mothers by Hazzan Elisheva Dienstfrey
One of our B’nai Mitzvah recently reminded me that we have a limited memory of our ancestors’ names. We may know the names of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and maybe even our great great grandparents, but after that, it is less likely we know the names of our relatives. This is why it is so important, I think, for us to constantly remember the names of our community’s ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, of course, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The most common place we see these names listed like this (in Hebrew), is when we say a mi shebeirach: “Mi Shebeirach avoteinu Avraham , Yitzchak v’Ya’akov, v’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel V’leah….” Also, when we recite the blessing over the children on Shabbat evening, we invoke the names of our matriarchs: “Y’simech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, V’Leah.” However, just about every other time we mention the names of our ancestors, we really only mention three: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Library Minyan of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, a self-identified “participatory and egalitarian congregation of observant Jews affiliated with Temple Beth Am” was the first to add the matriarchs to the Avot blessing, the first paragraph of the Amidah, in 1990. Rabbi Joel Rembaum did an extensive investigation of halakhic sources before he came to the conclusion that the addition of the names of the matriarchs in that blessing is not only permissible, but recommended. Rabbi Rembaum wrote an official tshuvah, or responsum, for the Rabbincal Assembly which was approved and adopted by the committee of Jewish Law and Standards in March of 1990, nearly 30 years ago.
But for me, mentioning only the patriarchs did not bother me, because I knew that by saying the names of our patriarchs, we were really bringing attention to our ancestry in general – not just the forefathers, but our foremothers and all those who came after them. I heard the names of the matriarchs within the names of the patriarchs. I visualized the people who helped create our history – not just three or even seven, but the millions of people who contributed to our becoming a Jewish people today. And it was enough.
Especially, I reasoned, since I, as a woman, was chanting the names of these patriarchs. This gave the women – all the women in our history - a voice, literally. So, I felt it was unnecessary to add any more to the traditional prayers.
Many questioned my decision. Some of you and some of my colleagues could not understand why I was so comfortable with the status quo. But I held my ground. I felt comfortable and confident in my decision.
And then something changed. We got new siddurim. Our previous prayer book - Siddur Sim Shalom - did not list the matriarchs. Even Siddur “Slim” Shalom which we used in the Flax chapel on Friday nights and holidays, though it included the names of our matriarchs, printed them on a separate page as an “alternative” text. The matriarchs were out of sight and out of mind. These new siddurim were different. Siddur Lev Shalem included the matriarchs in an alternative text, but side by side, on the same page as the ‘traditional’ text.
I still didn’t question my decision to use only the patriarchs’ names, but the names of our mothers were right there, every time I looked. And they were there whenever any of you were following along. And then the questions came, again and again. Now that we had a siddur with the matriarchs right there in front of us, why didn’t we include them? Weren’t the matriarchs just as important? But my mind was made up, until…
I was having a conversation about this with a good friend who was named after her grandmother because she died right before this friend was born, and her daughter was named after her mother because her mother died before her daughter was born. And for the first time, it struck me how important the names of our mothers are.
I’ve always loved going through the names of my own maternal line: Margalit (which means pearl) is the daughter of Elisheva Rebecca who is the daughter of Mina Jo who is the daughter of Pearle who is the daughter of Rebecca who is the daughter of Mina. And I was blessed with knowing almost all of those women. What if I hadn’t known any of them, or only my mother? Or only my daughter? At least I would have their names, and those names would be something I could pass along to the next generation.
It was an ‘a-ha’ moment. I have always loved names, but I could never really explain why – now I knew. A name is a way of knowing someone, even if you never meet them. Even God knew that naming was important to establish relationships with others, which is why he gave Adam and Eve the great task of naming the animals.
I started to add the matriarchs’ names into my own praying to see how it felt. I thought it would be strange and awkward, and it was, a little, but then it became more of a pleasant surprise and less of an awkward memory test. It’s still not what I do automatically – I still have to really think about what I’m reading – I still have to remember to look at the page, not go on auto-pilot. But, it’s a start. I’m getting to know my matriarchs the way I have always known the patriarchs.
In addition, the mentioning of our ancestors in liturgy is more than finding a relationship between us and our ancestors, it is about nurturing our relationship with God. On p. 185 in Siddur Lev Shalem, there is a beautiful explanation of the section of the Amidah that speaks to the relationship between our ancestors and God, and, by extension, our relationship with God:
God of Our Ancestors
God can be perceived in almost infinite ways. Certainly each of our biblical ancestors experienced God differently, and the Kabbalists understood their personal stories as reflecting different understandings of the Divine. In their thinking, Abraham’s kindly love and compassion, demonstrated by his welcoming of strangers and his defense of the righteous who may have been living in Sodom, came to personify God’s love and kindness. Isaac’s binding personifies the perception of an aspect of God as awe-inspiring and as placing limits on existence. Jacob was able to achieve balance: he led a troubled life yet survived, and was able to experience joy and fulfillment at the end of his life. In Kabbalah, that balance was understood to be at the very center of the nature of the Divine.
Added to these, we might imagine other human traits that are also Godly. We can picture Sarah as someone who perseveres and then appreciates her blessing and guards it carefully – emulating the God who is a protector and redeemer; Rebecca as one who takes the lead, knowing what needs to be done – the mover of history; Leah as a woman who suffers in life yet sustains a family – symbolizing the God who is with us in our suffering; and Rachel as one who has a short but passionate life – reflecting the God who loves deeply. Each of us experiences the universe and the presence of God differently. Our biblical ancestors reflect different ways of walking with God – and provide us with different models for our own journeys.
This passage speaks to me and opens my eyes even further to the value of adding the names of our matriarchs. If we do not name our mothers, we cannot fully appreciate their contributions to who we are. It is important for all of us – women and men – to hear their names over and over again, just as we hear the names of our patriarchs.
Rabbi Rein & I, together with the Ritual Vice President, Nancy Hailpern, have discussed when would be a good time to begin embracing this practice as a community, and I am pleased to begin doing so today. I know it may be strange and awkward at first, but strange and awkward is much better than out of sight and out of mind.
Are you interested in reading Torah?
Has it been a while since you've read? Perhaps you're looking for a new year's resolution this Rosh Hashanah? Terrific! We are assigning available Torah readings for Shabbat for the next few months and would love to have you join our enthusiastic and talented volunteers. My name is Margot Carter, and I'm honored to be the new contact for Torah readings (replacing Barbara Elkin). Please feel free to e-mail me , or, if you're more of a phone person, you can call me at (202) 680-0904. We can set you up with a reading, and, if you haven't read in a while, you'll get a chance to hone your skills and practice with Hazzan Elisheva Dienstfrey. I look forward to hearing from you!