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Chaye Sarah. Bet Shalom Zoom

11/14/2020 10:18:25 AM


Irene Stern Friedman

The portion called the Life of Sarah begins with her death. Presumably, it is because you cannot evaluate a person’s life until it is ended. Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her (v’livkosah). The Ba’al HaTurim notes that the word v’livkosah is written with a small ‘kaf’, indicating that Avraham did not cry as fully as he might have. Why?


While the death of a private citizen always brings bereavement to the family, the death of a person of public stature is a loss both to the family members and to the public.


Sarah is the name given to Sarai in recognition of her public role. Abraham understood that the purpose of the public eulogies was for the people to appreciate their loss. He curtailed his sorrow in public so that her public role would be properly emphasized.


Sarah’s life had ups and downs. Her sorrows included infertility and jealousy. Many people find some years awful. and wail or complain. When Sarah was unhappy she took action— first urging Abraham to have a child with her maidservant, then urging him to send away that child. Taking action—whether it turns out to be brilliant or flawed, makes us feel enabled. Nowadays, choosing a mask, staying home, not staying home, whatever we think best makes us feel like we have some choices even with the virus. 


To be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised. It means, simply, to have done what you were called on to do, to have made a beginning, and then to have passed on the baton to the next generation. The Talmud says “The righteous, even in death, are regarded as though they were still alive” (Berakhot 18a) because the righteous leave a living trace in those who come after them.  The Parsha is all about marriages and births and deaths and the world continuing. 


After Sarah dies Abraham makes his first purchase of land so he can own her burial plot. After Sarah’s death, Abraham attends to the task of finding a suitable wife for Isaac. The death of a spouse makes the patriarch realize that he has to attend to business. This wake-up call happens to many people, and it would be better if couples could realize and make these plans beforehand, together.


When Abraham’s chief of staff undertakes the task of seeking a bride for Isaac, we get to hear a shalshelet— a wonderful wavering trope note that is only used four times in the entire Torah. Vayomer —he said—but Eliezer said it unwillingly because he had hoped Isaac would marry his daughter. 


At the end of the Parsha, Abraham dies and the boys, Isaac and Ishmael, come together to bury him. If only we could all come together and live in peace. If only Sarah and Hagar could have had a better relationship, maybe the world would be different. There’s a lesson here, folks. 


Scholars debate why Sarah dies when she does. Was it because she heard what Abraham had done and was so angry that he would sacrifice their son? Was it because of relief breaking her heart when she heard that he had not actually killed Isaac?


People discuss what Sarah would have done if she had been told by G-d to take her son, her some whom she loved…. Rabbi Brad Artson of AJU envisions that she would have responded— “Out of loyalty to the G-d I love, I will not do what You require. Who are You?”   I totally relate to this and fear that I would have not have been able or willing to do as Abraham did. 

In Rabbi Artson’s Midrash, when Sarah says, "Out of loyalty to the G-d I love, I will not do what You require. Who are You?” G-d was stunned into silence. No one had ever spoken to G-d in this way. Not really knowing what to do, and uncertain that any approach would work with this determined but puzzling mother, G-d retreated, muttering something about not understanding women.  

Seeking familiar ground, G-d sought out Abraham. “Abraham,” G-d called, and Abraham answered, “Here I am.”

“Now that’s more like it,” thought G-d. Still, the Holy One couldn’t silence the echo of Sarah’s troubling question: “Who are You?” Turning it over and over, G-d was at a loss. After all, as the Source of everything, G-d was entitled to unquestioning obedience. Yet Sarah presented her refusal to obey G-d as an act of loyalty, not of rebellion!

“Women!” G-d muttered, although with a tremor of doubt in the thunderous voice. Still, at least his servant Abraham was proving himself to be a resolute and unquestioning servant. In silence, obedient to the divine decree, Abraham prepared the altar, placed the wood on it, bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Relying on every bit of his fear of G-d, Abraham grasped the knife to slay his son and raised his hand high in the air.

And at that moment, G-d understood. “Aha!,” G-d exclaimed, “I know what she was asking me.”

“Who am I? I am the G-d who delights in life, whose service constitutes choosing life. I can’t ask my faithful to betray their commitment to life and to each other, since that’s how they serve me most faithfully.”

And G-d said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” 

Then Abraham named the site “Adonai Yireh.” He said to Isaac, “I was going to name this place “Yirat Adonai”, the fear of G-d because that was the faith that summoned me to sacrifice you. But now I see that our G-d wants life. And I love that G-d! So I shall call the place “Adonai Yireh” which means “G-d sees.” Because G-d sees that our finest service is motivated by love.

And an angel from heaven, so pleased that the men now shared the angels’ unending love for G-d, called out the promise: “G-d will bestow blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore.  

But Sarah never lived to hear that blessing. When G-d realized the answer to Sarah’s question, G-d sent an angel to bring her to the heavenly court.  There, G-d placed her on the throne of mercy, and instructed her to plead on her children’s behalf whenever G-d forgets Sarah’s question: “Who are You?”


Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782