I just realized that, lately, I had unconsciously changed the way I say goodbye, particularly when I am speaking with women. As a younger person, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to say “Take care!” when parting with people. What’s more? It’s happening even when I have casual interactions. I started thinking about where my new-to-me phrase comes from and where I’d heard it before.
I was out walking my dogs when one of them (the young, spry Setter mix) kicked me in the shin. I looked down, in pain, when I saw that she, too, was surprised. She’d slipped on the slick sidewalk and certainly hadn’t meant to hurt me. A man at the bus stop remarked how icy it was, and I agreed. I said, “Take care!”
Later, my household was in bed when we heard an ominous thump outside. My husband made a joke, we laughed and went to sleep. In the morning, I saw a thoroughly smashed car, its front end bashed in. It faced the wrong way on a busy street near our home. Across the intersection, there was a truck, also facing the wrong direction, somehow wedged into someone’s yard. It was slippery, indeed.
Often the habit of suggesting people take care is aligned with another statement though, something like, “Things are more dangerous these days.” However, our Torah readings from this time of year, in Genesis, remind us that things have always been dicey out there, particularly for women and for those in positions of less power in society.
For instance, when the three strangers tell Abraham that Sarah will have Isaac, she laughs (Genesis 18:12-15). However, this is quickly followed by Abraham’s question about why she laughed and she says, “I didn’t laugh.” Why? “Because she was frightened.” Why did she lie? Well, she was an old woman. Strangers told her something ridiculous and then she was asked to take it seriously. She was afraid. Sarah wouldn’t be the first or last woman to feel threatened and unsafe. If something like this situation happened today, I wouldn’t leave until I’d said, “Take care.”
Not much further along in Genesis, Abraham bargains with G-d, asking how many people in Sodom have to be righteous for G-d to save the city. Abraham has some power here. He feels emboldened to speak out, but he also gets to stay home rather than go to Sodom to try and fix things. Instead, two angels go to Sodom.
Lot takes the angels in as his guests, but when a crowd gathers to do the visitors harm, Lot suggests an unsettling exchange. He says that, rather than let the crowd “be intimate with them,” he’ll send out his two young daughters instead. He will sacrifice his daughters to be violated by the crowd (Genesis 19:8) rather than let his male guests be endangered.
Reading Genesis, I am reminded by how these dangerous situations, and particularly ones that threaten women, are not at all new. These are issues of power, control and sexuality. In a modern political comparison: we act as though the MMIWG (missing and murdered indigenous women and girls) report and its findings are new or different. In fact, violence against women, and specifically minority women in vulnerable situations, is a bad news story played on repeat. These threats are close to home, and they remain frightening.
When I hear myself telling a friend – a single mom whose father just died – to take care, I realize who I am echoing in my head. I hear older African-American women in my Virginia neighbourhood saying goodbye to me: “You take care now, y’hear?” I hear my mom sighing as she hung up the phone (it was avocado green, with a long cord so she could cook while talking) at home when I was younger. She said goodbye with a worried expression that her friend couldn’t see, saying “Bye! Take care.”
This is the closing comment of women, all over, who know that the world can be dangerous. We’re sending out our concern to those we love. We’re acknowledging that, sometimes, we must depend solely on ourselves, because it doesn’t look like anyone (including G-d) is stepping up to keep us safe.
Sometimes, Bereishit (Genesis) offers stories to dig into. I enjoy their meaty narrative. I love interpreting what it all means. Other sections cause me to sigh just as my mom did. In a world where women still don’t have any assurance of safety from war, crowds and violence, and where those who have less power are at the mercy of the powerful, it’s hard not to feel sadness. How little things change.
This also is a continuing opportunity for social justice. We can fight for a better place for everyone. We can seek out and care for those around us, rather than choosing to discriminate or discard lives, as Lot would have done to his daughters. In the meanwhile, I’m often slipping down the icy street, worrying and wondering over how I can spread a sukkat shalom (a shelter of peace) over those I love and care for. So, I’ll say what many wise women have said before me. You take care now, y’hear?
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.