Abraham kills Sarah — Chaye Sarah — 2 lessons from a bold midrash

My headline is intentionally provocative, indeed misleading.  I distort a midrash from Tanchuma and Pirke d-Rabbi Eliezer, cited and popularized in RaSHI’s commentary.  The midrash teaches that Sarah died when she found out that Abraham offered her son to God.  

This midrash is one among many that link sections to teach a lesson, known as s’michut parshiyot.  Last week’s parashah concluded with Abraham’s offering of Isaac on Mount Moriah; this week’s parashah opens with Sarah’s death.  This midrash offers causality. To repeat, my headline is intentionally provocative and misleading.  There is a difference between dying as a reaction as opposed to assigning responsibility or even blame. 

Misleading, provocative headlines have been standard malpractice for many news organizations for many years.  To sell, they need to grab attention, even if the facts don’t support it.  But pattern also reveal inflammatory and destructive bias.  

The most egregious recent example is Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza.  My phone text with CNN’s headline may have been the worst of the worst:  “Israel hits hospital and school in Gaza …”  It was followed by “lethally blasted by Israeli airstrikes …”  (October 17, 2023, Updated 1:48 pm.)  Other media usually added that its source was Hamas.  CNN presented it without its uncredible source, as if it were an indisputable fact.

As the facts became clear, (1) that Israel did not strike the hospital, (2) that it came from a rocket fired from within Gaza, (3) that the rocket targeted Israeli civilians, (4) that the rocket hit the parking lot, (5) that the casualties were inflated — the same media lost interest.  The story is the same.  The “crime” was only a newsworthy crime when the media thought Israel / Jews had done it.   Selling news in a headline is not the main issues; it is perverted bias and sloppy journalism.  But that is not my only point here.

Although some present Midrash as authoritative, this is not the view of many others (except for midrash halachah, law) or mine.  But neither can midrash be casually dismissed.  It does not pretend to be the p’shat — the intended contextual meaning of the Torah narrative.  It is deliberately creative and has much to teach:  Abraham’s act of religious faith affected others. 

My thoughts this week went to Lone Soldiers, a consequence of a series of events and personal encounters. “Lone Soldiers” refers to young men and women who enlist in the IDF (Israel’s Defense Forces) even though they had no parents living in Israel.  Some had lived in Israel, but their parents had moved to the US, Canada, and elsewhere.  Their child enlisted, even though he/she may not have been required to serve. 

The previous Sunday, our congregation hosted a program called Shaving Israel.  They raise money for personal items that soldiers do not receive from the Israeli government, like sundries.  A rabbi spoke about his and his wife’s experience as parents of two sons serving as Lone Soldiers.  Parents in our congregation have a Lone Soldier son.  Their emotions were brought to new places as a result of Hamas’ massacre and their son’s service.  In addition, I happened to speak with a former congregant from Long Island, NY; he told me that their congregation has two Lone Soldiers.  When I took my customary Shabbat stroll this week, I ran into a neighbor.  We spoke about his children, one who was a Lone Soldier who enlisted at the same time that one of our sons did.

These Lone Soldiers, like our youngest son, had American-born parents and grandparents.  American and Canadian Jewish youth have a much different mentality than Israeli youth.  They are raised in a vast country, with a peaceful neighbor; enemies are oceans away.  Furthermore, only a small percentage of Americans enlist in the US military, many with family military backgrounds.  Enlistees are extraordinary souls, volunteering to risk their life, to serve.  Yet, there is no clear expectation that they will experience action.  American youth grow up more innocently, secure, driven by career goals or pleasures.  They are not prepared for war.

By contrast, almost all Israeli youth have parents and extended family who have served, and actually fought in wars.  As teens they know they will serve for three years, and their mindset is reinforced by their peers who know they will be called to serve.  News of threats, and actual bombs or shootings, are part of their daily life.  

I have not forgotten the brief exchange I had with my 17-year old son when he told me he wanted to serve in the IDF.  His decision came as a complete surprise. I asked him “Why?”  He, not verbal (like his father), succinctly answered, “I want to defend the Jewish people.”  I then asked, “Aren’t you afraid of being killed or wounded?”  He said, “I assume they will train me.” And that was that.

The midrash highlighted Sarah’s reaction to a frightening but noble act.  Hers was after the fact.  My emotional reaction, and the parents of the Lone Soldiers, are before the fact and continue.  

Perhaps my reaction is not typical. I was purely proud.  Of course I knew the risks, but fear never dominated me.  My religious faith coupled with knowing the extraordinary act that my son was willing to undertake filled me with so much pride, that fear had only a small nook in my soul.  His mother, however, was shaken.  I suspect that hers was a typical reaction.  Parents of Lone Soldiers are no more mentally equipped for their child’s decision than the young adult. 

Great acts profoundly affect others — and that is the gift of this midrash.  Where another midrash could have gone, but didn’t, is that Abraham may have known that Sarah would not take this well.  It might further suggest that that is the reason why she was not included in the process.  That in itself could be seriously debated. 

But if we follow my proposed addition based on the midrash — if Abraham sensed how Sarah would feel if she knew — then Abraham bore an even heavier burden.  So too with our Lone Soldiers.  They may feel overpowering dedication and may sense that their parents will experience great anxiety.  Their dedication may be even greater, if possible, than we may realize.  

Am Yisrael Chai!

About the Author
Rabbi Seth D Gordon received his rabbinic s'michah from Rav David Weiss Halivini from the UTJ and has served congregations in Annapolis, Maryland, Bethpage, New York, and St Louis, Missouri. His emphasis is Jewish education. Rabbi Gordon has worked across the board, co-founding a day school in Annapolis, and founded the now defunct African American-Jewish coalition of Anne Arundel County. He also taught in a Jewish Day School on Long Island, NY. He serves on the executive board of the UTJ and is the past Chairman of MORASHAH, its rabbinical organization. He and his wife are blessed with five children and eleven grandchildren; two of their sons, their wives, and five of their grandchildren live in Israel.
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