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This Week’s Torah Portion: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 6)

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Dëvar Torah – Parashath Chayyei Sara (Genesis XXIII, 1-XXV, 18)

Our parasha opens with the death of the tzaddeqeth, Avraham’s faithful wife, Sara. Much was said in the previous two parashoth of Sara’s modesty (XXI, 12, cf. Megilla 14a), her self-effacing humility (XVI, 3), and total dedication to helping Avraham in his mission of kindness (XII, 5, Onqëlos et Rashi ad loc.; cf. also XVIII, 6), as well as of her utterly uncompromising stance concerning the standards to be observed in her household (XXI, 9-10). Withal, she was a strikingly beautiful woman (XII, 11-12), though she never allowed that to turn her head.

The Torah summarizes this beautiful life in one verse: “And Sara’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sara’s life”; XXIII, 1). Rashi explains the unusual form of enumeration: “When she was 100 years old, she had committed no more sins than when she was 20; and when she was 20, she was as beautiful as when she was seven.” Finally, he explains the seemingly unnecessary repetition at the end of the verse as indicating that all of her years were equal in goodness.

This interpretation is hinted at in the next verse, in which we are told: “And Avraham came to eulogize Sara and to weep for her.” This passage is odd for two reasons:

1. Ordinarily, the order is reversed. The weeping over one’s loss comes first, and then the eulogy, the summing up of the life of the person who is no longer with us.

2. The second infinitive, vëlivkothah (“and to weep for her”), is written unusually in the Torah scroll, with a very small letter kaf. Why?

The great medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yoséf Albo in his classic Séfer ha‘Iqqarim (IV, 21) cites the Midrash Tanchuma “that the Holy One, Blessed is He, fills out the lives of tzaddiqim day by day and month by month,” and applies it to the life of Sara, “to teach that the 127 years which she lived were the years allotted to her life by nature … and her days were not shortened.”

Thus, Sara had lived to the end of the lifespan which had been allotted her at birth; she had not “died before her time,” but had stood the full trial in this world which had been set her. Avraham the prophet realized this, so his mourning was minimized, with a small kaf. Furthermore, the numerical value traditionally assigned to the letter kaf, 20, alludes to Rashi’s explanation supra, that on her death she was as blameless as at 20, still less reason to mourn.

This solution to the second question leads us to the answer of our first question: The hesped, the eulogy, was more important in this case than the mourning, which for the reasons cited above was perfunctory. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b) derives from our verse that “the eulogy is the splendor of the departed”; it is only after a person has left this world that it is possible for the rest of us to appreciate fully the greatness of that soul and what it meant for that person to have been in our midst.

How much more so is the case with a tzaddeqeth like Sara our mother. It is this which gives to the Jewish custom of observing the Jahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of our loved ones. In the case of great tzaddiqim, this is observed with a festive meal, words of Torah and hespedim, and is known as the yoma dëhillula, “day of praise” of that tzaddiq.

But Rashi also tells us this:

The death of Sara is placed in proximity to the binding of Yitzchaq [“Isaac”] because, due to the news of the binding, that her son was offered for slaughter and nearly slaughtered, her soul departed from her and she died.

The 18th century super-commentary on Rashi, Sifthei Chachamim, explains:

[Rashi] wants to say that first someone told her that her son was offered for slaughter, and as soon as she heard this, before he finished his words that [Yitzchaq] had not been slaughtered, her soul departed (parcha nishmathah).

We can surely sympathize with this elderly mother, receiving such a report concerning her only son, born miraculously so late in her life. Losing the only hope that her life’s work and that of her husband would enjoy continuity would constitute a mortal blow. The interpretation makes sense emotionally, but seems to contradict our earlier picture of a serene and natural end in good time.

The late mashgiach of Yëshivath Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Shëlomo Carlebach, in his Maskil liShlomo, notes that Rashi’s comment seems peculiarly displaced. While we would expect Rashi to be elucidating the beginning of the verse, he instead appends his comment to the end of the verse, “to eulogize Sara and to weep for her,” as though the comment is somehow related to Avraham’s hesped. Also striking is Rashi’s choice of words. The news of the binding of Yitzchaq is called a bësora, which usually betokens good news — hardly the way we would expect a mother to receive the news of her only son’s impending slaughter.

Additionally, the midrash (Shëmoth Rabba I, 1) tells us that Sara was not merely a prophetess, but was greater in this respect than her husband, about whom G-d Himself said, “Do I hide what I am doing from Avraham?” (Genesis XVIII, 17). Did He then hide anything from Sara? Is the popular reading of Rashi — that Sara died of shock — correct?

The great 19th century commentator Rabbi Shëmu’él Binyamin Sofér, known by the name of his principal work, the Këthav Sofér, relates a comment of his equally illustrious father the Chatham Sofér to suggest how we ought to read Rashi and the Sifthei Chachamim:

Because of joy at this bësora and cleaving [to G-d] her soul departed in sanctity and purity, and she died with the joy of a mitzva (commandment carried out) before she heard that he had not been slaughtered.

So now we have gone from Sara’s dying from grief to her dying from joy!

The Torah tells us that Sara put her foot down and demanded Yishma’él’s expulsion from her home when she came upon him being mëtzachéq (Genesis XXI, 9). As the rabbis demonstrate at some length (Tosefta Sota VI), this rather ambiguous verb is used to denote some activity so stringently prohibited that yéharég vë’al ya‘avor, “one should allow oneself to be killed rather than transgress it”: idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. She seems to have seen that he was capable of any of these, but the midrash cited supra details the specific act as one of idolatry. Yishma’él had gone to the marketplace, bought himself a little idol of his own, and was imitating the Canaanites in his play with it.

Avraham was equally upset with him for what he had done, but Sara saw the true dimensions of the problem. For some reason, Yishma’él was not subject to her influence and that of Avraham alone (to emphasize this, the verse calls him “the son of Hagar the Egyptian”). He wanted to be “like everyone else.” Though he had learned many fine qualities in this household, especially Avraham’s generous hospitality, Yishma’él would not be able to continue their mission; he could not stand against the world, as Avraham had done.   

But even more serious was Yishma’él’s potential influence on the true heir, his younger half-brother, Yitzchaq. By reason of this incident alone, he was not a fit associate for Yitzchaq and had to be removed. Avraham agreed reluctantly, only after G-d Himself had sanctioned the decision (ibid., v. 12).

Now the question gnawed at her: Had Yitzchaq been compromised or not? Up until the binding, Sara could not be sure if Yishma’él had been removed in time and Yitzchaq was still truly the heir whom they had both been entrusted.

Yitzchaq’s total willingness to accept what had been decreed and be slaughtered, thus becoming an ‘ola tëmima, a complete and perfect sacrifice, told Sara in no uncertain terms that she had won. She had successfully inculcated into her son the spirit of utter dedication and self-sacrifice which has characterized her descendants ever since. The news that Yitzchaq was fit to be an ‘ola, a burnt offering to Ha-Shem, entirely consumed on the altar, was thus a bësora to her. As the Maskil liShlomo reads the phrase parcha nishmathah, her soul blossomed (from perach, “flower”) at the report. Her faith and trust in Ha-Shem allowed her to return that soul to its source without waiting for reassurances, now that she saw her task successfully completed; however the question of continuity would be solved, it would be solved. Ha-Shem runs the world, “And G-d is not a man would lie” (Numbers XXIII, 19).

Thus, since she expired, in the words of the Chatham Sofér, “because of the joy of this bësora,” in a state of the joy of a mitzva, Avraham’s mourning was all the more perfunctory, and the hesped, outlining the shining example for generations to come of a perfect life, all the more important.