Parshat Chayei Sarah

Torah Reading for Week of November 13-19, 2011

“A Mother’s Wail”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, ‘11

Sarah is the only woman whose name is embodied in the title of a parsha, and she is our first matriarch.  What does Sarah’s life have to teach us?  According to Sefat Emet, all Sarah’s 127 years were perfect and without blemish.  Rashi elaborates her goodness through the use of numerology.  But there is a paradoxical quality to her life: her years were equal in goodness and she died because she thought that her son “had almost been slaughtered.”  The nature of her relationship with her son shaped her life.

Sarah was singularly absent in the episode of the binding of Isaac.  Rashi speculates on verse 23:2 that the death of Sarah occurred because she had heard about the akedah; that her son almost died caused her soul to flee from her and she died.  Certainly the death of a child is the single, deepest pain a mother can face.  Similarly, the death of a mother can decimate a child.  We also learn that Isaac felt close to his mother.  When he brings Rivka, his bride-to-be into his tent, he “thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67).

Sarah’s love for Isaac was seminal in her life because she waited so long to have him, he was a miracle child, and he was her only child.  Sarah is a pivotal presence in the life of her son. In her book on Genesis, Aviva Zornberg introduces the comment from Midrash Tanhuma  in which Isaac instructs his father as Abraham raises the knife, “Father, don’t tell my mother when she is standing at the edge of a pit or on a roof, lest she throw herself down and die” (p. 133).  Sarah is also on Abraham’s mind when he follows G-d’s command to take his only son up to Mt Moriah because he leaves early in the morning “lest Sarah change her mind about letting them go” (p.133).  Both father and son anticipate Sarah’s dramatic reaction, even her death, in the episode of the binding.

But Isaac did not die; he was saved by an angel instructing Abraham not to kill him.  However, Rashi points out in his commentary on Genesis 22:14 that Isaac’s “ashes remain piled on the altar.”  Sarah and Isaac are permanently changed by this event.  Although Isaac walks away from the sacrifice, his near death mortally wounds Sarah’s heart; Sarah envisions his ashes before her eyes and she cannot live with this image.  She was analytical and clear thinking. She was able to see in Ishmael, a child who played with idols and/or was capable of murder and cast him out. This clarity caused her mortal pain in imagining Isaac’s end.   The midrashic tradition has the wail of her anguish embodied in the six Teki’ah notes of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.  The death of a child does precipitate a wail of anguish, despair within the parent.  If we glimpse something of G-d’s relationship with us through the metaphor of the parent child relationship, then in Sarah we can also hear G-d’s wail at our loss.

As Chaim Stern wrote:

It is a fearful thing to love
What death can touch.

A fearful thing to love,
Hope, dream; to be –
To be, and oh! To lose.

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