D’var Torah: Torah portion pays tribute to Sarah

Rabbi Hyim Shafner


This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, “The life of Sarah,” begins with Sarah’s death following the story of the akedah, binding of Isaac, at the end of last week’s portion. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as RASHI, a famous 11th century French commentator on the Torah, is bothered by the strange juxtaposition of the almost slaughtering of Isaac by Abraham, and the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother. RASHI explains this by quoting the Midrash, an ancient rabbinic commentary on the Torah: “The death of Sarah follows the binding of Isaac because when Sarah heard (from Isaac) that he was bound and almost slaughtered she died.”

This Midrash moves us to ask several questions: Wasn’t the binding of Isaac a good thing? We know that it is considered the greatest test of Abraham’s faith and for it he is rewarded with blessings and children “like the stars of the heavens.” Sarah should have jumped for joy at her husband’s faith – not died of shock; and if Isaac was standing before her telling her the story, why does she die? She should instead feel relief that he is alive.

The key to unlocking RASHI’s paradoxical comment perhaps lies in discovering who Sarah is and how she and Abraham are different. Sarah’s relationship to Isaac was distinctive. At the end of our Torah portion when Isaac marries Rebecca the Torah tells us (Genesis, 25:67): “And Isaac brought her (Rebecca) into the tent (of) Sarah his mother and he took Rebecca to himself for a wife, and loved her, and Isaac was comforted about (the death of) his mother.” RASHI comments: “Isaac brought her into the tent and she was Sarah his mother, meaning to say she was like Sarah, for while Sarah was alive her Shabbat candles (miraculously) burned from one Friday to the next, there was a blessing in her dough, and a (Divine) cloud rested upon her tent. When Sarah died these things disappeared but when Rebecca entered Sarah’s tent they returned.”

Sarah possessed powers that Abraham did not. Her tent, the place in which Isaac grew up and was nurtured, was a Divine place. Abraham could not sustain these miracles, only Sarah, and ultimately her replacement Rebecca, could. Another Midrash tells us that when Sarah nursed Isaac, she had so much milk that mothers from around the country brought their infants to drink from her breasts and that who ever drank her milk ultimately reached Mount Sinai to receive the Torah (Berashit Rabah 53:9). Isaac received his spirituality, literally, “in his mother’s milk”.

Abraham spreads the idea of one G-d, welcomes guests and ascends the mountain for all to see that he has faith like no one else in the world. Abraham’s method of spiritual life is very different than Sarah’s. The binding of Isaac is a profound act of faith, a Divine command that brings Abraham close to G-d, but such is not Sarah’s path. Hers is the tent-the private, deeply spiritual, palpable place of the Divine. There G-d is transmitted through the very intimate process of nursing and nurturing. Feeding Isaac from herself, she gives of her Divine and holy self.

Sarah is so different from Abraham that she and Abraham’s akedah (binding of Isaac) cannot coexist in the universe together. Isaac realizes how much Sarah’s unique take on spiritual life is central to who he is and who the Jewish people are and finds Rebecca to replace her. Rebecca, according to RASHI, becomes Isaac’s mother Sarah for him and for the world. Rebecca is the Sarah for her generation, who will now nurture the Jewish nation with her Shechinah cloud, her candles, her bread and her milk.

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.