(Bereszit 23:1 – 25:18)
She was beautiful; jealous of her husband; she wanted to have her own place under the sun. She agreed to give up a peaceful, routine life in comfortable conditions for the dangers of a nomadic life with her beloved husband, who said that he talks with God. She was a mother who wanted the best for her child, and for his good she was even ready to act with cruelty.
” Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty–seven years…” (Bereshit 23:1).
Why is the parsha called “Sarah’s life” rather than “Sarah’s death”? The name “Chayei Sarah” refers to the time when she lived, but the parsha describes only events after her death.
“Of the dead nothing but good is to be said”, but the tradition of learning and commenting the Torah tells us to disregard this rule, since it’s better to learn from someone else’s mistakes. She wasn’t really a perfect woman. In the situation with Hagar and Ishmael she said to Avraham: „Throw out this slave and her son, for the son of this slave will not inherit along with my son Itzhak„. We could try to explain her position. In the future this decision was supposed to prevent a fight over inheritance between Ishmael and Itzhak. But let’s look at this situation with more empathy. After all they lived near a desert! Sending a woman and a child to the dry areas around Beer Sheva was basically a death sentence. Why not send them to some distant relatives. Not on foot of course, but on camels in the company of some household members. Avraham himself keeps quiet and fulfills his wife’s will, he sends away Hagar and his first-born son, giving them only bread and water for the road.
If in the case of “sacrificing Hagar and Ishmael” God ordered Avraham to listen to Sarah, then in the story of sacrificing Itzhak which we read in the previous parsha no one asks for her opinion. Fate turns against Sarah. The same father who sent his older son along with his mother to the desert, now takes also Sarah’s only son, for whom she waited for so long and whom she loved more than life itself. Did you ever wonder what she felt that day? Did she get out of bed? Was she able to eat? Did she cry? Scream? What thoughts were running through her head: “What did I do, what did I do!”?
There are many different meanings hidden in these lines. A Midrash (Bereshit Raba 56, 8) reinterprets the Torah’s words and says that it only seems to Avraham that God expects him to sacrifice his son. Avraham actually didn’t understand what God was asking him to do:
“The Holy One, blessed be His name, told him: “Avraham… I didn’t say “kill him” [shechatehu], I told you “elevate him!” [haalehu]”. You lifted him up and you tied him to the altar, and now bring him down again!”.
The world play with עָלָה [alah], which has several meanings – to elevate, lift up, bring up a sacrifice – lets the Midrash suggest that Avraham’s trial was both successful and unsuccessful. Avraham proves that he is a man of faith, but he fails, because it turns out that his understanding of God’s nature is incorrect.
This story gives us a paradoxical lesson about life. It tells us that true faith is when someone is ready to sacrifice that which is most precious to them: their own life and their children’s lives. But at the same time God commands us: [u-vacharta ba-chayim] „Choose life”! (Devarim 30:19).
Could Sarah look her husband in the eyes again after they came back? How could she trust him. Did he even love her? On the one hand this is a normal question, but on the other hand – it’s too anachronistic. After all we’re talking about a time when a woman was viewed in a sense as an object which can be taken or purchased. Sometimes the one making the purchase wasn’t even the fiancee himself, as we read in our parsha, when Avraham sends his slave Eliezer to find a wife for Itzhak. It looks as though in Biblical times love was not the basis of marriage. However, this statement is not completely accurate. The Torah states that Itzhak started to love Rivka, after they were married of course, but still…. Itzhak is the only one among the forefathers who didn’t take neither a second wife nor a concubine. This shows his faithfulness, which is one of the most important elements of family life.
Parsha “Chayei Sarah” marks the end of a certain era: the period of Abraham’s and Sarah’s life ends and it opens the chapter of Itzhak’s and Rivka’s life, the era of sons, of successors. Avraham was a man of faith, sometimes blind, he was a dreamer who created something new. Itzhak’s task is to go further, to continue his father’s ideas. Most of the time he is passive, he walks straight on his path, he doesn’t stray neither to the left nor to the right. Which isn’t actually surprising, that’s how he was brought up, these were his parents’ expectations. How should a transition from one era to the next one look like? What should a successor be like? Today’s generation is focused predominantly on self-fulfillment, finding themselves and their own abilities. But it’s worth remembering that it’s no less important that we find worthy successors who will be able to continue the path that we’ve set out, but who at the same time should be free from our expectations and their own harsh destiny.
None of the protagonists of the book of Bereshit is perfect, and neither are we. The main conclusions that we draw from it are the fundamental ideas regarding the essence of human beings, the relationship between man and God and between two persons.
The Torah – “it is not in heaven” (Devarim 30:12, Bava Mecia 59b) and it shouldn’t be treated as a history or biology handbook. The stories and events we read about in the Torah will never lose their relevance, because in the layers of symbols and allegories deep meanings, morality and wisdom are hidden, whose aim is to educate and protect our society.
May there be a will…. for us to learn from the successes and well-being as well as from the mistakes and weaknesses of our foremothers and forfathers. May we be worthy successors of the good that was inside them. May we pay attention to the people who surround us, may we open our hearts, eyes and ears to see and hear their cries and tears. May our faith never be blind, so that every day we can “choose life” anew!”.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka