In Parashat Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), we learn that our biblical matriarch Sarah lived 127 years, she died, and Abraham purchased her burial cave in Hebron (Gen. 23:1-20). Sadly, the only Torah portion named after a woman provides few hints about her life or final days. As Dr. Carol Ochs notes, “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” (Ochs, "Sarah’s Obituary"). In this midrashic monologue, we imagine Sarah at the end of her life, recounting a most difficult experience, and her unheralded role in it (adapted from a modern midrash by Faith Rogow in Taking the Fruit, Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible). We can imagine Sarah thinking:
“I remember lying quietly in our tent. Abraham had fallen asleep beside me. My mind drifted, back to my favorite memory of the day when three guests came to tell me I’d soon be pregnant. After so many years! I actually laughed in disbelief until the Source of Life reassured me it was true. With Isaac, God gave me one of my life’s great joys.
“Suddenly, Abraham began stirring and called out, ‘Hineini, Here I am.’ He began to talk with God. As I often did, I pretended to be asleep to listen in.
“At first what I heard made little sense. Though I could only hear Abraham’s responses, I sensed that God requested something involving our son Isaac.
“Abraham’s steady voice suddenly quivered. I thought I heard him say the word, ‘sacrifice.’ Had the Eternal One just commanded that my husband sacrifice our only son?
“Now why would God, who had given us Isaac, take this special gift from me now? And without even speaking directly to me! For a moment I wondered if this was my punishment for our treatment of Hagar (Ramban on Gen. 16:6).
“Through cracked eyelids, I saw my husband overcome with sadness. I had never seen him so sad, not even when we were commanded, lech l’cha, ‘go forth,’ to leave his land and his father’s house (Gen. 12).
“Strangely, I could see in Abraham’s face that he truly believed that God wanted him to sacrifice our son. I wanted to urge Abraham to challenge to God as he had before at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19). But Abraham’s eyes burned fiercely and for the first time he excluded me from contemplating God’s message (Zohar on Gen. 12:5; Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, p. 27). I felt powerless to insert myself in what had passed between them. Finally, Abraham fell back asleep, though fitfully as if struggling with a demon.
“I would give up my life before I would let Isaac be harmed! ‘I would not offer my first born for sacrifice’ (‘I Will Not Offer,’ Ra’aya Harnik in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary). The Merciful One who had blessed us with a child would not now take him away.
“I needed air. I stepped outside to think. I walked aimlessly around the camp’s altar and spied Abraham’s special knife. I trembled as I thought of that knife sliding against Isaac’s throat.
“What was God looking for? Why would God suddenly seek reassurance of our commitment? I remembered God’s promise that our offspring would inherit this land and become a great nation (Gen. 12:2). I always assumed that Isaac and his future bride would follow in our footsteps to lead as heads of the tribe, but I never considered just how they would inherit our commitment to serving God. Abraham and I were not getting any younger. If we were to pass on the covenantal responsibility, it would have to be soon. Perhaps God was hinting that it was time for a journey together, to meet God on a mountaintop and begin the transition of spiritual leadership to the next generation?
“My heart began to pound as I realized Abraham had misunderstood (Rabbi Paul Kipnes, "Sacrifice My Son? What Was I Thinking"). God was commanding an offering to help transmit leadership to Isaac. A sacrifice of the finest of our flocks was called for, not a sacrifice of Isaac. I realized then, that the future of our people depended upon me. I had to prevent a nonsensical death, and ensure our continued covenant with God. It was on me.
“I hoped Abraham would figure this out himself. But in case he did not, I had to intervene. So I went back to bed and with my eyes closed, I planned my next step.
“Abraham got up early, gathered his supplies, and took off with Isaac. He didn’t even try to wake me. No explanation; not even a kiss goodbye.
“As soon as they were gone, I gathered my supplies and took our finest ram. I followed carefully, hiding in the shadows. At dawn on the third day, as they slept, I hurried up the mountain, releasing the ram into the bushes.
“The rest happened so quickly. Abraham was holding the knife, about to sacrifice Isaac. He seemed to be in a trance. So in my voice that he often called ‘angelic,’ I called out, ‘Avraham, Avraham.’
“That broke the trance. Realizing what he was about to do, he dropped the knife. He looked up, saw the ram that I brought for him to sacrifice instead, and stepped toward it. Relieved at having saved my son’s life, and grateful at having ensured the survival of our people, I was exhausted. I cried and cried.
“Then I lay down on the ground for what I sensed would be a long, long sleep.”
Rabbi Paul Kipnes, MAJE, a popular lecturer on raising spiritually balanced, emotionally whole children, is the leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, and a former camp director and North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional advisor. Michelle November, MSSW, is director of admissions for de Toledo High School, the second-largest American Jewish high school. She was director of what was then the UAHC College Department. Together, Rabbi Kipnes and Michelle November co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Rabbi Kipnes and Ms. November start their discussion of Parashat Chayei Sarah with Dr. Och’s observation that modern readers feel disappointment when a portion named “the life of Sarah” begins with her death. We are not the first to be disappointed; the medieval commentator Rashi tried to expand on her life through the unusual structure of the Hebrew. Our translation hides the rationale behind his comment to Gen. 23:1. Where we read “Sarah lived to be 127 years old—such was the span of Sarah’s life,” a hyper-literal translation of the Hebrew would read “The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years: the years of the life of Sarah.” Rashi tells us that it is broken out like this so that we can learn that at 100 she was as sinless as when she was 20, that when she was 20 she was as beautiful as when she was 7, and that all of her years were equally good. This perspective is not feminist nor one that Sarah would have had; as our midrashic monologue shows with deep pathos, the idea that all her years were equally good is laughable. But for generations we have wanted more about Sarah in her eponymous portion.
The portion mostly describes how Rebekah becomes Isaac’s wife. When they meet, we read “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah; he took Rebekah, and she became his wife and he loved her. Thus did Isaac take comfort after [the death of] his mother” (Gen. 24:67). Again, our translation is hiding the strangeness of the Hebrew; the beginning and the end are not so clear. Literally those phrases read “to the tent Sarah his mother” and “after his mother.” In order to make sense of the text, additions need to be made, usually “of’ and “the death of” respectively.
The Zohar takes an unusual route:
Rabbi El’azar said, “… This is a mystery, for even though Sarah died, her image never departed from the house, becoming invisible from the day of her death until Rebekah arrived. As soon as Rebekah entered, Sarah’s image became visible, as is written: Isaac brought her to the tent; immediately Sarah his mother appeared. No one saw her except Isaac when he entered, so Isaac was comforted after his mother—after his mother manifested, which is why the verse does not read after his mother’s death. (Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. II, Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 250; Zohar, 1:133a)
From Rabbi El’azar, we learn that the beginning of our portion may not be as ironic as it seems because when Sarah appears for Isaac, her life is continued through Rebekah. Just as our midrashic monologue shows that Sarah’s concern is for Isaac and for the survival of the people, it is through Rebekah that Isaac is cared for and that the people survive. Instead of portraying merely Sarah’s death, our portion shows how an enduring legacy can prolong our life from generation to generation, giving our children direction and hope after we are physically gone.
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
Haftarah, I Kings 1:1–31
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 338−340; Revised Edition, pp. 169−171