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The fullness of Sarah

Losing Sarah stops Abraham in his tracks and gives him permission to acknowledge his own loss, his abiding love for his wife (Chayei Sarah)
Abram’s Counsel to Sarai, by James Tissot, circa 1896–1902. (Wikipedia)
Abram’s Counsel to Sarai, by James Tissot, circa 1896–1902. (Wikipedia)

The parsha opens with the finality of death, with Sarah’s death. “Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to 127 years.” 

How does one sum up a life? 

Here a life is measured by the years lived, each number a treasure. Rashi shows us how to pull back the numbers to reveal greater symbolic meaning: each number reflects how well Sarah lived, her extraordinary qualities — beautiful, and blameless. 

Startling in its simplicity, the verse also breaks from the norm of Sarah’s narrated life. From her debut at the end of Parshat Noah, Sarah’s life is thinly drawn. She is Abraham’s sidekick, a critical partner to his journeying, who bravely sets up home time and time again. She listens in on Abraham’s relationship with God, understands before he does that the promise of progeny must come from them both. She is the elderly mother of Isaac, who fights for him to thrive in her home. 

But who is she really, this woman whom God directs Abraham to listen to her voice? What does she think and feel? How does she absorb the multiple twists and turns in her family life? Taken by two kings, kept waiting for a child for too many years, locked in oppressive struggle with her maidservant. Doesn’t it seem that just as the Bible focuses on Sarah’s experience, the moment passes too quickly? The spotlight might shine on her momentarily, but her life is largely kept in the figurative “ohel,” tucked into the interior of the narrative.

And then, when her life has drawn to a close, the verse neatly organizes Sarah and her life, offering a space to rest in the fullness of Sarah. There are no fraying edges to her tale, no peripheral vision to the landscape. For a moment, at least, without Abraham as the mediator, Sarah commands all of our attention.

The “full-stop” quality of the verse has its parallel in Abraham’s reaction to Sarah’s death, indeed in Abraham’s life trajectory overall. 

“Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead.” 

When Sarah dies, Abraham is fully there with her, for her. She is called “his dead”; the act of removing himself from mourning for her warrants mention. It is a full-body, full-sensory experience. He eulogizes her — for others to know her. He cries for her — for himself, for his life with her slipping away. 

Abraham’s sudden and complete turn towards Sarah at this junctured is significant because quite often, his gaze does not fully rest with Sarah. A man of generosity, with overflowing chesed, kindness, he is outward-oriented: towards the strangers at his tent, the city of Sodom, his estranged nephew. Sarah does not personally benefit as often from his loving spirit. Perhaps she is too close to him? Does that obscure his view of her, just beside him?

But there is another reason why his absolute turn to Sarah now is noteworthy. Just before Sarah’s death is recorded, Abraham is summoned for the test of the Akedah, by far the most difficult trial of his life. The climax to his religious journey, in which he demonstrates his intoxication for God, and his willingness to violate his most basic emotional instincts. Sarah is famously absent from the tense and terse account: missing on the morning of their departure, unaccounted for on the three day journey to Mount Moriah, and nowhere to be found when the ordeal is done. The Akedah is unequivocally Abraham’s story. As readers, we are drawn in to this tale, lost in the drama of God-Abraham-Isaac, and shocked into recognition of Sarah’s absence, only when we read of her death. 

The Midrash draws a straight line from the Akedah to Sarah’s death. Sarah may be absent from the surface of the text but in the Midrash, the Akedah — and its aftermath — are infused with Sarah’s presence. Hearing about what almost happened brings Sarah to a tragic death. Her cry — the yelalah — rings with an impossible sadness, the inability to comprehend the incomprehensible. In the midrashic reading, then, Abraham’s mourning may be laced with guilt; falling at her feet, yearning to explain, to soothe and embrace.

But if we don’t accept the midrashic reading, the juxtaposition between the Akedah and Sarah’s death has a different valence. Her death is not caused by the Akedah, just as Abraham’s life is not defined by the Akedah. With Sarah’s death, Abraham’s world shuts down. Or as James Kugel describes it, “the background music stopped.” All other matters lose their urgency, and Abraham submits completely and totally to Sarah.  

This man of outward commitments, who feeds the stranger, protests divine justice and sublimates paternal love, has a breakthrough when Sarah dies: he finally allows himself to feel his own pain. Losing Sarah stops him in his tracks and gives him permission to acknowledge his own loss, his abiding love for Sarah. And in those quiet, lonely moments with Sarah “his dead, beside him,” he seems to commit himself to securing the legacy she fought for: her family’s future. Through his grief, he recovers her narrative and gets busy right away: buying a burial plot for her and for the family’s future, and finding a wife for her son, for their son, Isaac.

About the Author
Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is the chair of the Tanakh department at the SAR High School in Riverdale, NY, and is the founding director of Makom Ba'Siach at SAR, an immersive adult education program for parents. She has taught Bible for the Wexner Heritage program, and she is also an adjunct faculty member of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where she teaches the Pedagogy of Tanakh. Tammy received her BA in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, is a graduate of the Drisha Institute's Scholars Circle, and completed her PhD in Midrash at the University of Pennsylania in 2010 as a Wexner Graduate fellow. Dr. Jacobowitz is currently at work on a parsha book, geared towards parents reading to young children. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband, Ronnie Perelis, and their four children.
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