This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, Genesis 23:1 – 25:18.
Chaye Sarah means “Sarah lived.” Yet, it is her death that we read about in the first verse of the portion: “Sarah lived to 127 years, such was the span of Sarah’s life.” It’s ironic that we learn more about Sarah in her death than during her lifetime.
Through the stories of the midrash, we learn that Sarah was wise and kind and beautiful. The details of her life, mostly left out of the Torah, are described in the commentaries. In the Torah, Sarah’s role appears to be a means of protecting Abraham and bringing Isaac into the world. But she is much more than this.
Sarah is a conduit from one generation to the next. Sarah is the means of the transmission of tradition and wisdom. This is evident in the manner that Abraham mourns for her and Isaac lives his life.
After Sarah dies, Abraham gets up from his mourning and approaches the Hittites to buy the cave of Machpelah. He does so to have a burial place that he may visit at any time. The Hittites offer to give him the land. Abraham insists on purchasing it for a fair price so that he has control over it and a say in Sarah’s burial.
This act shows kavod, respect, for Sarah. In her death, Abraham shows more kavod for Sarah then he demonstrated in her lifetime. It is as if Abraham finally wished to honor one of Sarah’s qualities that she exhibited especially toward Abraham — hishtavut hanefesh, meaning equanimity, inner calmness, an even temperament.
Sarah followed Abraham through his trials and tribulations. She accepted Abraham’s lies to others to protect his life and even told him to have a child with her maidservant when she could not conceive. Isaac demonstrated Sarah’s best qualities. When Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac, Isaac wanted to meet her before agreeing to marry her. Isaac married Rebecca for love, not just for tradition and honoring his father. He wanted what his mother did not have.
Isaac’s relationship with his Rebecca is as close to a modern day love-match that is possible in Torah through a matchmaker. In Isaac we see Sarah’s quality of hishtavut hanefesh demonstrated from one human being to another in a loving spousal relationship.
How did Sarah die? The midrash, in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, relates that when Abraham was at Mount Moriah with Isaac, Samael, prince of demons, was trying to sway Abraham from fulfilling God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.
Enraged at his failure, Samael appeared to Sarah and told her that Abraham had just killed Isaac. Upon hearing this, Sarah let out three wails and died. In her last act, Sarah reminds us to shake our fist and teach humanity —and even God — that needless suffering must never be permitted in this world.
Even in this Torah portion that teaches about her death, we learn more about Sarah than we do in her life in the Torah. It is through the first verse we learn the lessons she wished to pass on in her death.
Questions for discussion
What are the qualities that you wish to pass on to others?
How may those qualities be demonstrated in our world?
What is a means of showing kavod to others?
Jennifer Weiner is rabbi educator at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield.