By: Sarah B. Schweitz
Genesis 23:1- 25:18
Parashat, Chayei Sarah the span of Sarah’s life came to 127 years. Sarah died in Kiryat-arba now Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Gen.23-1-2) After Sarah’s death, Abraham was busy with finding a Burial Place for his wife. The Torah describes in great detail how the purchase took place. At the end Abraham paid 400 shekels of silver a very high price to Ephron-Son of Zohar the Hittite for the Field, the Cave of Machpelah, and the Trees. This was the First purchased possession of the Land of Israel to be passed on legally to the Children of Israel. Abraham now realized the First Divine promise of land. The other half is Progeny. The “Life of Sarah” is at the core of this Parashat.
Who was Sarah? And what was the cause of Sarah’s death. Sarah was a noble woman, a princess, and prophetess, the first Matriarch of our People. She was the wife of Abraham our Patriarch. We think of the women as being absorbed with the problems of bearing children. Three of our “Mothers” Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel had problems with bearing children, only Leah bore more than two children. Our “Mothers” and especially Sarah were not always preoccupied with the activities of Motherhood. Sarah was a Feminist equal partner with her husband Abraham in matters of Faith.
The Torah tells us that the idea of “Motherhood” in Judaism is a profound connection to the future with those who will come after. Another feature of a Jewish “Mother” is the prophetic ability. Sarah had this ability and she was called a prophetess. Women such as Sarah played an important role in the destiny of the Jewish People that is by combining their prophetic ability with their power in the family. Sarah, our “Matriarch” had no children until she was 90 years of age. Sarah was the wife of a chieftain, equal to him in rank, who did not spend her time milking the goats. Midrash tells us that Sarah worked as a “Spiritual Leader”. She taught women about the One God, while Abraham taught the men. Abraham was the force that overthrew Paganism but Sarah’s work was equally important. She was very successful at drawing people to her that when they worked in a new location Abraham set up her tent first (Bereshit Rabba-Gen-12:8). She was a spiritually powerful person.
I was blessed to come from a family of very strong spiritual Jewish women. My Mother Alice Tova Barouh, Grandmother Sarina Rousso, a mother of nine children who had time to take care of her family prepare the kosher wine, bake the bread and be active in social action and her Temple. I am proud to be named after her. Both my mother and grandmother were very beautiful. Our Matriarch Sarah’s beauty was legendary.
It was Sarah who gave Hagar to her husband so that Abraham would have an heir. Later on she asked Abraham to banish Hagar and her son Ishmael because he was a threat to her beloved son Isaac. The Torah tells us, God told Abraham “All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Gen. 21:12) This is a piece of advice that Rabbi’s give to husbands before the wedding. Women have a greater degree of intuition in many circumstances. Rashi, a great commentator, tells us that women are Superior in Prophesy than men. Sarah was equal to her husband. Had it not been for Sarah our ancestors might have been slaves in Egypt earlier.
Finally, at the age of 90, Sarah had a son. She named him Yitzchak. He was a source of laughter and joy for her. The birth of her son from her own body was for her an affirmation, that the One God, worked in this world in miraculous ways. The birth of Isaac at the age of 90 was for Sarah the sealing of the Covenant with the One God.
Death, births, marriages, the Parashat is titled “The Life of Sarah”. In a sense “The Life of Sarah” is at the core of this whole reading. “The death of Sarah” is narrated after the Akedah because as a result of the tidings of the Akedah, that her one and only son Isaac had been fated for slaughter and had been all but slaughtered, her soul flew away and died. Sarah is the true victim of the Akedah. Rashi chooses one Midrash from “Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer.” “When Abraham and Isaac were coming down from Mt. Moriah, Satan went to Sarah in the guise of an Old Man. “Ah Sarah, have you heard what is happening in the world? She replied “No” He said your old husband has taken the boy Isaac and sacrificed him as a Burnt Offering while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness. Immediately, Sarah began to cry and wail. She cried Three sobs corresponding to the Three Tekiah notes of the shofar and she wailed Three times corresponding to the Yevava Staccato notes of the shofar. Then she gave up her ghost and died. Abraham and Isaac came and found her dead as it is said. “And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”
In this Midrash, Sarah died from a stroke or a heart attack, which seems natural after receiving the bad news. Except for her cries and wails which are transformed into the Shofar wails. Our sages tell us that Isaac’s death cries express the anguish of a human being facing overwhelming forces. Sarah’s cries and wails are re-enacted in the Liturgy during the Rosh-Hashana for redemption. The Shofar blasts are to transform Sarah’s death into Atonement, because the Teru’ah-the broken Shofar tone is groaning and wailing. The Shofar, the Rams horn evokes the substitution of the Ram for Isaac. Isaac is saved and the Shofar announces the possibility of redemption. Sarah is not saved, and in her mind Isaac is not saved and her cries and Isaac’s despair are retained in the Liturgy as an Atonement for Sarah’s descendants.
The point of this Midrash is the impossibility of full joy in this world. Abraham is the example of a terrible and painful testing, he passes the test, his son Isaac is saved. Abraham has everything for a brief moment and then Sarah dies. The connection between the Akedah and Sarah’s death is the Meaningless within our lives. Sarah dies from Panic that only can contribute to cardiac arrest. Total unhinging of one’s self-suspense in mid air. The word for panic in Hebrew is “Behala” express unhinging vertigo, which is central to existential philosophy. Psalm-89-16, “Happy are the people who know the Teru’ah (note in the Shofar) Oh Lord, they walk in the light of your presence.” To know the hallow resonance of the Shofar, is to sharpen one’s hearing for the affirmation of faith.
Abraham ascended the mountain Moriah with Isaac driven by faith. The Torah was given in a hollow wasteland founded on the promise of justice. Sarah’s voice and laughter echo through the ages, and is the foundation of faith for all Jewish mothers. In the words of the poetess (T. Frankiel) Sarah, noble woman, why did you leave your homeland? What did you know, what did you see ahead, you who saw the destiny of our people? Sarah, Prophetess, you saw us before you, your daughters lost in a land yet farther away. Speak to us from Machpelah, comfort us in our struggles, laugh with us, that we may share the joy of the impossible.
I can see all your mornings of Torah study has paid off.