Parshat Chayei Sarah

Torah Reading for Week of October 20-26, 2013


“When Love Slips Away”
By Rabbi Yehuda Hausman, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics

“And Sarah died at Kiryath Arba that is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan. And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Gen. 23.2) To an attentive reader, it would appear that Sarah has died alone. In fact, the Torah records specifically that Abraham dwelt in a different a city, Beer-Sheba, on the outskirts of a different land, “the Land of the Philistines.” It is here in Beer-Sheba that Isaac was born and raised, it is to here—their family home—that Isaac and Abraham return after the ordeal of the Akedah. So how, just a few verses later, without segue or sequitur, does Sarah come to dwell and, ultimately, die in Hebron? How does she become separated from Abraham, so far away it would seem, that he must journey to her? “And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.”

If physical distance is a metaphor for psychic distance, then at the end, Abraham and Sarah were miles apart. The Hizkuni (13th century commentator, France) suggests that Abraham originally “sent her away so she would not sense the Akedah.” The brief comment provokes wonder. Does Abraham send Sarah away because he cannot face her, much less the prospect of returning to her without Isaac? Or in a more modern vein, does Sarah leave him, for how can she even look at her husband, this stranger, who would contemplate the murder of her one and only son?  

Either way there is a vast chasm between them. But one wonders if this distance, to some extent, existed all along. Consider Abraham’s public habit of claiming Sarah as a sister instead of a wife. “This is the kindness that you can do for me: in every place to which we come, say of me, you are my brother.” (20:13) If the act of marriage is a public declaration that affirms relationship, what would repeated public denials affirm—if not its absence?

One might add Abraham’s eventual preference for Hagar and Ishmael. After G-d’s promise to Abraham that Sarah (not Hagar), would be the mother of his elected heir, Abraham retorts, “Would that Ishmael might live in your favor!” (Gen. 17.18) It is “G-d who remembers Sarah,” and Abraham who forgets.

Perhaps the best illustration of their emotional estrangement is again depicted in geographic terms. We read last week, at the start of Parashat Vayera, how on a sweltering day, three messengers appear at the entrance of Abraham’s tent. The Torah tells us twice that Abraham seats them and serves them outdoors ‘beneath the shade of a tree.’ But if the sun was so terribly strong, why not forgo the shade of a terebinth and move the repast to the much cooler tent?

Noticing something amiss, one guests inquires, ‘“Where is Sarah your wife?” Pointedly, the Hebrew word used for “where” –ayyeh— is the same interrogative used to question Adam in the Garden: Where are you? (ayeka); And the same used to question Cain: Where (ayyeh) is Abel your brother? This is not an innocuous, ‘Is your wife home?’ Instead it is a question for Abraham’s soul, ‘Where is Sarah in your life? Why is she not aside you? How long must she remain behind you, hidden from kings and messengers and, above all, hidden from you. “And Sarah was listening at the tent flap, which was behind him.” (Gen. 18.10)

This week we read the Torah Portion of Hayyei Sarah, literally translated, “The Lives of Sarah.” Naturally, Abraham must mourn the life that was lived, but there is too a mourning for a life that was not; a life with Sarah in one city and Abraham in another. Sarah could have died with a husband by her side, instead she died alone.   

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