Sarah’s story gives us strength, comfort and joy

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.


The biblical story of Abraham and his wife, Sarah, culminates in this week’s portion Chayei Sarah.  Their status as patriarch and matriarch are supreme among other biblical characters.  

The very first prayer of the Amidah (Standing Prayer), said three times daily in many congregations worldwide, begins: Blessed is the God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob. The Tradition later added a feminine counterpart: Blessed is the God of our mothers, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Lea, and God of Rachel.  

“The repetition of the word God before each name symbolizes the unique relationship each person has with the Divine. This prayer ends with: Blessed are You Shield of Abraham and Sarah’s Help. The word in Hebrew for “help” (ezrat) can refer to one who gives assistance and support in times of hardship and distress, one who provides relief.  

There are many vignettes of Abraham’s relationship with his God as he journeys toward a place of mystery. Sarah’s story can be found only in the subtext of those chapters. Here in Chayei Sarah, it records that Sarah endured 100 years, 20 years, and seven years. Sarah lived. Sarah died. 

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The S’fat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, teaches that each stage in life has a particular tikkun (repair) associated with it. The text doesn’t hint at what Sarah might have needed to fix in her childhood. There are in her story, though, frightening, painful, and demoralizing episodes in her youth and as she ages. There were times in need of repair and times when help was essential.

Sarah endured a lifetime. She left her birthplace, her home and her family. She left an urban life to become a sojourner, an outlander, as she and Abraham moved from place to place.  Taking down tents and setting them up may be routine, but in all the moves I’ve made in my life, I’ve left someone or something behind. Sarah made her own sacrifices as Abraham offered his.

When a famine drove her and Abraham into Egypt, Abraham beseeched her to lie and say he was her brother. The ploy worked as Abraham was unharmed when Pharaoh’s men kidnapped her and delivered her to the king. Sarah was pragmatic enough to know that while her capture was inevitable, Abraham’s death was not. She was delivered through Divine intervention. Abraham’s Shield was Sarah’s Redemption.  

Sarah endured years of childlessness. In the ancient world and in many places today in a modern world, the only social services available are provided through progeny. Adult children care for the elderly, take on the business and create a legacy of new generations. Sarah had no offspring to rely on, no legacy, no future to imagine. 

When Sarah truly understood her inability to conceive, she offered her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham as a wife. Perhaps, she thought, (Abraham and) I can be built up through her. Hagar enters Abraham’s tent as a surrogate and within a short time gives birth to Ishmael and a lasting bitterness in Sarah.

In a poignant assertion of her rightful place in her camp, Sarah faces her husband. All my affliction is from you. I trusted you, and look at how ridiculed I am, how shamed by this situation.  Let God be the judge in this. And so, as painful as it is to read, Hagar and Ishmael are eventually sacrificed for Sarah’s honor. Abraham is told by God, Listen to Sarah. Abraham’s Shield was Sarah’s Advocate.

The opening verse for Chayei Sarah teaches us that we are not the same at 20 as in childhood. Our true character can only be revealed through the tests of time. It is during the last hundred years of Sarah’s life that the full measure of her courage, patience, insight and fortitude emerge. This was her beauty. This is why her memory endures as an abiding blessing and why,  through her, we feel blessed.

Each Shabbat, we tell our children, May you be like Sarah — who found strength and courage, comfort and joy in her Sacred Source of Help. That same Source is there for each of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery. She is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.