Our ancient sages raised two interesting questions about the very first verse of this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. First, why was this portion, which mentions the matriarch Sarah only to tell us that she had died, entitled Chaye Sarah, which means "the life of Sarah"? The portion tells us nothing about her life but only about her burial and then the story of her son's marriage.
The obvious answer, of course, is that Torah portions take their names from the first important words in the opening verse, in this case: "The life of Sarah was 127 years." But that was much too prosaic an answer for the sages, who were always looking for moral teachings in the verses of Scripture.
What moral did the rabbis find in the title "The life of Sarah"? They taught that "the righteous are called living even after death, while the wicked are called dead even in life." And so Sarah, the righteous mother of Israel, still lives because her example continues to inspire acts of goodness among her descendants.
The second lesson that the rabbis took from that same verse can only be perceived in the original Hebrew. The English translation tells us that Sarah lived to the age of 127. (Don't be put off by the fantastic ages given for many characters in Genesis. That might be a subject for another commentary.) But the Hebrew informs us that "the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty and seven years." Why this strange choice of language?
According to Rashi, it was to teach us that at any age of the one hundred Sarah was as beautiful as she was at twenty, and at the age of twenty she was as sinless as at seven. Fanciful, yes, but a lovely tribute to our matriarch.
The chapter goes on to relate how Abraham, the grieving widower, mourned and wept for Sarah and how he provided a burial place not only for her but for himself and for their descendants as well. He bought land from the Hittites, a large burial cave named Machpelah. Muslims and Jewish tradition locate that cave in today's volatile town of Hebron, where it is enclosed in a mosque, the site of a bloody massacre on Purim 1994. We pray for the day when the descendants of Abraham, Muslim and Jewish, will make Hebron into a place of life and peace, a worthy resting place for our patriarchs and matriarchs.
Rabbi Simeon Maslin is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania .
This week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, contains two major narratives: Abraham's acquisition of a burial site for Sarah, his wife, and the story of how Abraham arranges for the marriage of his son, Isaac. As Rabbi Maslin points out, though this parasha is called the "Life of Sarah," we learn little about her life.
Or do we? "Sarah had lived to be one hundred years and twenty years and seven years old. These were the years of Sarah's life. Sarah died in Kiryat-arba, also known as Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her." (Gen. 23:1-2) If we read this literally, we would assume that Abraham was somewhere else and came to Hebron to bury Sarah. Almost every commentator has asked from where was Abraham coming from when he came to mourn his wife. The great medieval commentator Nachmanides gives us an unexpected answer. Nachmanides posits that if Abraham had been coming from somewhere else, the text would have stated that directly. Rather, Abraham, already in Hebron, came to where Sarah died (in her own tent) in order to mourn and weep for her there. Nachmanides points to what Abraham needed to do: mourn, cry, spend time in her space, rage, rest. What Abraham did by coming to her tent - mourning, weeping, and then making complex arrangements to bury her - tells a great deal about the life of Sarah. By mourning and weeping, Abraham manifests universal and particular response to the death of a loved one. When he mourned her, Abraham mourned her departure from the world. When he wept, he wept as a result of the personal loss he sustained (or hachayim). Abraham cried because he lost his partner. I picture him crying as he reviewed Sarah's life's narrative to himself: "She wandered from land to land with me. She went hungry with me. She spent most of her life childless and struggled with my need for an heir. And in her last days, she had to confront the fact that I would bring her son up to Moriah as a sacrifice to God. " Maybe more than that, Abraham weeps because of the courage and audacity with which Sarah met life. She had the tremendous capacity to meet the challenges and tests in her life with confidence, bravery and not a small amount of chutzpah. (Remember, God tells her that she will bear a child at the age of ninety, and she laughs - outloud.)
Sarah, our first matriarch, is a woman of substance. Rashi tells us that all her years were good because no matter what occurred, she looked upon them as good. Abraham recognizes that, as he mourns for her in her tent. As he tells and retells her story, maybe he begins: "Chaye Sarah, this is the life of Sarah...."
Sarah's story suggests the following questions:
- How do we actively sustain and carry on our loved ones' lives after they die?
- How do I want those around me to tell my story when I am gone?
- What is the substance of my life's story?
At the time of this writing in 1996, Kyla Epstein Schneider, R.J.E., was Adjunct Faculty, Cleveland College of Jewish Studies.
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132