Chayei Sarah: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Sarah’s Death
This week we will be reading from parashat Chayei Sarah. Chayei Sarah is one of the more ironically named Torah portions, as it literally translates to ‘the life of Sarah.’ Yet, it is really about the death of Sarah and the subsequent aftermath of her life. The portion begins, “Sarah lived to be 127 years old – such was the span of Sarah’s life. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”
Sarah’s spirit infuses much of the Torah portion, from Abraham’s determination to honor her by purchasing land for burial. To his later efforts to find Isaac a wife in Rebecca. All that being said, there is actually little we know about Sarah from the Torah text. We know she accompanied her husband from Haran, the center of civilization to the backwater land of Canaan. She was childless for much of her life, and she made the difficult sacrifice by offering up her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, running the risk he would replace her, just so that Abraham would be able to have children.
We know Sarah was found beautiful by powerful men who sought to possess her. The rabbis in later tradition focused a lot of energy on Sarah’s beauty describing her as one of the four most beautiful women in the Bible along with Abigail, Rahab and Esther. We also know that Sarah conversed with God, or at least God’s messengers. According to the Midrash Sarah was one of seven women who were prophets along with Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther.
Sarah led a complicated and fraught life with little say over it. Yet, she held tremendous sway when it came to Abraham, who clearly loved her and was devoted to her as is indicated in part, by his grief. That beings said, we cannot help but notice how much of Sarah’s life is defined through the men who encountered her whether it was through her relationship with Abraham, her son Isaac, the kings who sought to possess her, or her own barrenness; there is little here about the inner life of Sarah.
So much has been lost because of the failure or unwillingness to save and share the stories of so many of the women of our tradition. Thankfully there is an effort since the 1960s to start to rectify this critical oversight. Women began to be ordained starting with Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, only 50 years ago, followed shortly by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso in 1973 in the Reconstructionist movement. Nowadays, “As more women rabbis and cantors serve as role models, it has become commonplace for women to accept all the religious responsibilities and to enjoy all the religious benefits that were formerly the domain of men.” Not only this, but through greater participation and the rise of egalitarianism, we are creating and re-discovering so many old and new rituals. We are telling new stories, and we are connecting in new ways not just with our patriarchs, but also with our matriarchs.
Because of this, there are so many stories still waiting to be told and uncovered. We may never be able to fully reconstruct the life of Sarah, but what we do know is that our nation and our tradition was born because of her. Sarah may have lived only 127 years, but her life continues to live on through us. That may not be enough, but it is a start. And it is a reminder that our tradition is made up of more than the stories of the great men we celebrate. It is also because of the many whose names we do not know, or whose lives we barely understand. Their decisions and actions are just as important, and should be both acknowledged and celebrated as well.
Because Sarah lived, we now live. Her life is now a part of our lives. And her legacy is now ours to cherish, celebrate and to embody, and what a great legacy this is to receive.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
The Reform Temple of Rockland
Upper Nyack, NY