Rosh Hashanah: When God made special visit to Sarah

Rosh Hashanah

First day

Genesis 21:1-34

I Samuel 1:1-2:10

Numbers 29:1-6

Second day

Genesis 22

Jeremiah 31:2-20

My grandfather did not need an English translation of the Bible. He first learned the Hebrew Bible as a little child in the old country. Whenever he needed help with difficult Hebrew words, his teachers translated them into Yiddish. As a teenager, he came to England and began to learn its language, but by then, he must have felt comfortable reading the Bible in Hebrew.

He, therefore, probably avoided some of the confusion about the meaning of the first verb in today's Torah reading, pakad. Although translations often smooth over complexities in the original language, in this case, oddly enough, the verb makes sense in Hebrew, while the English translations actually make it harder to understand.

My copy of Alexander Harkavy's 1938 English translation of the Bible, a bar mitzvah present from my grandfather, renders the beginning of today's Torah reading as "And the Lord visited Sarah" (Gen. 21:1). Now that verb "visited" seems odd. Visited, as in, say, "stopped by for tea and cookies"? It seems disconcerting to imagine the Omnipresent Creator paying a social call.

John Wyckliffe uses the same word in translating the verse in his English Bible way back in 1382. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary lists this verse in Wyckliffe's Bible as the earliest use of the verb "to visit" in the English language.

The old Jewish Publication Society translation (1916) has "remembered Sarah." The verb "remembered" seems even more odd. Remembered, as in, "It's been a while since I thought about my old friend, you know, the one who lives near Philistia, what's her name — Abraham's wife — oh, of course, Sarah." Does the Eternal One then forget?

Perhaps we can figure out the meaning from the context. A year earlier, a divine messenger had foretold to Sarah the good, but apparently ridiculous, news that she would give birth to a son (Gen. 18:10). Sarah, who had never become pregnant during her fertile years, was now way past the age of childbearing. She reacted to the stranger's ludicrous prediction with a stifled laugh (Gen. 18:12). Now, a year later, God arranges for Sarah to bear a son.

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, a 19th-century biblical commentator, uses close readings of the biblical text to differentiate dozens of pairs of apparent synonyms in Hebrew. He explains that pakad means "to remember by taking appropriate action, either rewarding or punitive." The verb thus means acting to fulfill a commitment, a threat or a contractual obligation.

And that, I think, is what the old translations meant by "remember." We scarcely encounter "remember" in this sense any more, but, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, since the 1400s "to remember" has meant, "to bear (a person) in mind as entitled to a gift, recompense, or fee, or in making one's will." By extension from that meaning, "remember" has also meant to make a gift, especially in fulfillment of a previous obligation. In that sense, "God remembered Sarah," enabling her to have her promised son.

Incidentally, the new Jewish Publication Society (1962) has "took note of." That fits in well with other Hebrew words derived from the root. From the same root, pakeed means someone who keeps records in an office, a clerk, for example, and tafkeed, a responsibility, something one has to keep track of. In the Rosh Hashanah prayers, envisioning divine justice as it operates on the Day of Judgment, we recite, "Who is not accounted for on this day?" using a word from this root, nifkad.

So, we note in today's Torah reading, God takes stock of his commitment to Sarah, and discharges that responsibility. In the prayer book, we envision God accounting for us and all other human beings, taking the measure of our deeds and our destinies. Similarly, I think, we have the responsibility to take account of ourselves, to see what commitments we have made and not fulfilled, and what we are making of our lives. When we have done that, we then should take appropriate action.