The first pasuk in this week’s parsha begins with a character we have not heard much about from the text itself yet. “This was the life of Sarah: one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah” (Bereishit, 23:1). 127 years. And maybe seven pesukim about her. I exaggerate, I haven’t counted. But what do we know about the mother of the Jewish nation? There is less in the pesukim about Sarah than there is about Rivka, who is proactive and involved from when we first meet her – later in this week’s parsha – by the well (Bereishit, 24:17). There is less in the pesukim about Sarah than there is about Rachel and Leah. Why? Of all the imahot, why does Sarah seem to be so almost… dare I say it… invisible?
So what do we know about Sarah? We know her name. Sarah’s name means princess (Rashi, Bereishit, 11:29), suggesting dignity and refinement. And Rashi also links her name to the word “srara”, meaning “authority” (Rashi, Bereishit, 11:29). She is the authority in her household. When she tells Avraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away, G-d tells him “all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice” (Bereishit, 19:12). And, from this pasuk, we know that she was a prophetess – Rashi tells us Avraham was “tafel” – “secondary” to Sarah in terms of nevuah.
We know she represented gevurah. Whereas Avraham represents chesed and unlimited giving, bringing people in and offering them hospitality, Sarah sends people away, representing gevurah and self-constraint. She acts as a balance to Avraham’s giving, in order to protect her son (Bereishit, 21:10). And this is linked to her tzniut, which we know about (Rashi, Bereishit, 12:11; Rashi, Bereishit, 18:9). When she and Avraham go to Egypt, the midrash describes how Sarah was hidden in a box so the Egyptians would not see her (quoted by Rashi, Bereishit, 12:14). The box represents gevurah, self-constraint. Tzniut is a manifestation of this, of imposing boundaries. Tzniut (not only in the way we talk about it today, referring to the right skirt length and covered elbows) means taking up the right amount of space in the room (and applies equally to men and women). Sarah exists within a self-contained realm, within her own box. She has tremendous impact on the world around her but she rules, quietly and with dignity, from her own space. She does not spill out into the text. She represents gevurah.
Akeidat Yitzchak, one of the foundational stories of Judaism, is often discussed in relation to Avraham and Yitzchak. It was a tremendous test for both of them; Avraham willing to sacrifice his son, Yitzchak willing to be slaughtered, asking to be bound and restrained so that his father could properly fulfil the word of G-d (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera, 46:10). Both these acts are manifestations of gevurah, of control and self-containment, of strength and self-discipline. And both Avraham and Yitzchak learnt this quality from Sarah. Maaseh imahot siman lebanim. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer, explains that Sarah’s death is juxtaposed to the story of akeidat Yitzchak because it was when Sarah heard about the akeida that “her soul flew from her and she died” (Rashi, Bereishit, 23:2). When Avraham and Yitzchak overcame the test of the akeida, when Sarah saw that her middah had been inoculated within and passed down to the next generation, that was the moment Sarah died. Her mission was complete. She had passed on her quiet dignity, her ability to sacrifice in order to serve Hashem, her capacity for gevurah and mesirat nefesh, her unbelievable strength, to Yitzchak.
This week’s parsha is called “Chayei Sarah” – “the life of Sarah” – despite the first event of this parsha being her death. But Sarah did not die. Her strength lives within each one of her children. This parsha deals with her legacy. When Yitzchak marries Rivka, he brings her into the tent of Sarah (Bereishit, 24:67). When she enters, the three miracles that had been ongoing for Sarah– the Shabbat candles remaining lit, the challah staying fresh all week and a cloud of glory resting over the tent (Rashi, Bereishit, 24:67) – returned. And Yitzchak was comforted after the death of his mother. Rivka inherited and continued the legacy of Sarah. And Yitzchak was comforted because he realised that in his wife he had found a woman as strong, as influential and as inspirational as his mother had been. To him, and to all of her children. To all of us.