In an ironic twist, the portion dealing with the death of Sarah is called Chayei Sarah, "The Life of Sarah," but on second thought, it is not really so strange. We celebrate a person's life only when it has been rounded out, or to paraphrase Nicomachean Ethics I 1089a18, do not count people happy until their death. But instead of a eulogy, the portion begins with a long passage describing Abraham's acquiring the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. The following chapter tells the story of Abraham's servant finding Rebekah and bringing her back to become the wife of Abraham's son Isaac. Notably, Isaac brings Rebekah to the tent of his recently deceased mother, where "he took Rebekah, and she became his wife and he loved her. Thus did Isaac take comfort after [the death of] his mother"(Genesis 24:67).
It is disappointing that Sarah's life is only hinted at in the portion that bears her name, and we are left to fill in the blanks only from events as told from Abraham's perspective. We cannot know whether Sarah has truly lived the life she meant to live-kept her values, lived up to her integrity-until we see the whole of her life. So let us try to reconstruct her life based on what we know.
When Abraham was called in Lech L'cha to leave his father's house, Sarah naturally went with him. She, too, was taken from her home, her kindred, but to a land that would be shown to her husband, not to her. We know she was barren and that it grieved her enough to offer her servant Hagar to her husband so that he could have a son. We know that she is twice called beautiful, but Abraham used her beauty for his own purposes. He put her at great risk by passing her off as his sister, because he feared that if the Egyptians knew that she was his wife, he would be killed. So he did not object when Pharaoh took her as his own wife-that is, until God afflicted Pharaoh with plagues (Genesis 12). Abraham repeated this ruse with Abimelech (Genesis 20). We know that Sarah longed for a son and was finally blessed with the birth of Isaac, which seemed to answer her distress and give meaning to her life. One midrash suggests that her fear for Isaac's life during the Akeidah caused her death ( Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 31). With hardly any other clues, we are left to discover, if we can, who Sarah was in herself and in her relationship with God.
Some of the most important traces of Sarah can be found in the life of her son. When Rebekah first sees Isaac and he is meditating in a field, it is evident that Sarah had helped him develop his own relationship with God. Isaac, as the Torah points out, loved his wife, and unlike the other patriarchs, he was monogamous. Also he is the only one of the three to pray to God on behalf of a barren wife (Genesis 25:21). With the death of his mother, Isaac exhibited both a capacity to mourn and a capacity to be comforted. Abraham was the first and the great innovator of the faith. Jacob grew to be the ancestor of the twelve tribes. Isaac merely re-dug his father's wells. But his faithfulness, modesty, and humility say much about him and about his mother, who raised him. We have been led to believe that greatness comes from carrying out flamboyant deeds and taking courageous stances. Today we recognize the deeper courage that lies in endurance, in day-to-day faithfulness granted not for recognition, wealth, or power, but for its own sake.
If we regard the Torah's depiction of Isaac as a text that sheds light on the life of Sarah, we recognize a woman who had to fashion her own relationship with God. She was capable of abiding love and fidelity to her spouse and son. Also, she could endure the harshness of the land, even in times of famine, and the deeper harshness of her husband's silent ways. We celebrate the life of Sarah not simply because she passed on the line of the covenant, but because in the values she passed on to her son, she exerted a tempering influence on the severe ways of patriarchy. Because of her, Jewish wives can expect to be loved, exclusively, by their spouses. They can expect a relationship that is mutual and that is shaped by a shared relationship with God. And they can know that through their own fidelity and endurance, they contribute significantly to the line of the covenant.
At the time of this writing in 2007, Dr. Carol Ochs was director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.