Ḥayey Sarah – The Life of Sarah and the Death of Avraham

The Life of Sarah

A short introduction

Rabbi Levi Wolff of Central Synagogue (Sydney Australia) talked about this Ḥayey Sarah in 2010, while I was stationed in Canberra.  His Drash had a profound impact on me and a source of inspiration.  A week after the October 2018 massacre in the Pittsburgh Etz Ḥayim Synagogue I gave a Dvar Torah on this Parasha.  A recording of it is available here.

The very first verses of Hayey Sarah

The Parasha takes it name from the first meaningful words at its start:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים

The New Living Translation translates this to: “When Sarah was 127 years old…”.  The New American Standard (a modern derivative of King James Bible), as well as the Christian Standard Bible translate the same to “Now Sarah was one hundred and twenty-seven years”.  Several other translations follow the same concept.  I must concur that conceptually, this is an accurate translation.  An even more precise translation would read: “Now Sarah was a hundred year, and twenty year and seven years”, noting the use of singular rather than plural form for the word Year.  This statement would be similar to me saying: “When I was sixty-three years old I became a Rabbi.”

Pausing there for a second, the reader expects to read what happened with Sarah at that milestone.

And then – Boom!

Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba – which is now Ḥevron

וַתָּמׇת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן

Wouldn’t it be much simpler and shorter to start the Parasha with “Sarah died in Kir’yat Arbah – now Ḥevron – at the age of 127…”?  After all, naming the Parasha “The Death of Sarah” is more appropriate to the story the Parasha tells us.  It is odd to spell out her age in such a way, and then to follow it by the fact that she died.  Most likely, a profound message is hiding here that we need to reveal and bring forward.

Let’s go back to the end of the previous Parasha, VaYera (Genesis 22:20-23).  We learn there that Avraham’s brother, Naḥor, had 8 sons, the youngest is Betu’el.  It is obvious that each of these eight sons had a family, with many kids.  Yet, Torah finds it important to tell us the Betu’el gave birth to Rivka.  Oddly enough, Torah does not mention her mother’s name, nor the names of her brothers.  Midrash (Genesis 23:1:3, Kohelet Rabbah 1:5:1) referred to these verses with a quote from Ecclesiastes 1:5: ‘the sun rises and the sun sets’.  In this case, it means that the sun of Rivka rose above the horizon before the sun of Sarah set down.

I don’t think it alludes to incarnation, that Sarah was reincarnated in Rivkah.  I’d rather see it as a manifestation of “L’Dor VaDor” – from Generation to Generation.  Imagine a chain with interconnected links, each link transfers its strength to the next one.  It means that values, traditions and stories transfer from one generation to the next generations.  From father to sons and grandsons, from mothers to daughters and daughters-in-law.

The Sages (Midrash Breshit Rabbah 60:16) use verse Genesis 25:67 to explain the idea of L’Dor VaDor:

Yitzḥak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rivka as his wife. Yitzḥak loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death

וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ

‘All the days that Sarah was alive, a cloud (representing the Divine, the Shekhinah) was present at the entrance of her tent.  After Sarah died, the cloud (Shekhinah) disappeared.  During her life, the entrance to her tent was always wide open to accept and welcome the strangers.  Once she passed away, the tent closed.  The Shabbat candles that she lit on Erev Shabbat burned miraculously until the next Erev Shabbat.  Those candles ceased to light after her passing away.’ 

Upon their arrival, Eli’ezer, Avraham’s household manager, reported to Yitzḥak a detailed account of his experience with Rivka.  Yitzḥak knew of her hospitality and eagerness to help and serve the stranger.  Itzḥak then brought Rivka to his mother’s tent, still unoccupied as a sign of mourning and irreplaceable loss.  The first thing Rivka did was to light Shabbat Candles.  Then the cloud of Shekhinah returned and the candles continued burning for the whole week, until next Erev Shabbat. 

Seeing that Rivka continued the traditions and values of his beloved mother turned Yitzḥak’s heart to love Rivka.  He found comfort with her and came to terms with the passing away of his mother.

We follow our mothers and grandmas, them being our role models, when we light Shabbat candles.  Just as they did, following their ancestors, all the way back to Rivka and Sarah.  I will bet that on Friday November 4th, 2072, Erev Shabbat of this Parasha, at precisely 4:28pm in Tel-Aviv (4:29pm in New York) thousands upon thousands will kindle Shabbat Candles.  This is, in my opinion, the real meaning of Ḥayey Sarah – the life of Sarah.

Let’s go back to the presentation of Sarah’s age: Hundred year (singular) and twenty year (singular) and seven years.  The synthesis of the many interpretations to this call out is that her life was filled with good deeds.  So much so that God counted her years one by one, so as to extend His pleasure of her life.  This story seems not to relate at all to the L’Dor VaDor story.  Let me add yet another story that might connect the two.

Ehud Ben-Dror, nicknamed Adi, was born in Israel in 1950.  At the age of 26 he was diagnosed with total kidney failure and went on dialysis.  Twice during that time, he was summoned to the hospital for a potential transplant, and twice the families of the deceased refused to donate the organs.  At the age of 28, he finally received a donation of a kidney, that his body rejected shortly after.  During that time, he came up with the idea of creating a donor card, that people will carry with them, indicating their intent to donate organs after their death. 

After he died, his parents and brother took Adi’s idea as his will.  They organized an operation that promoted his idea, getting people to sign and carry with them this donor card.  Today, this operation is handled by the Ministry of Health, with about one million carriers of ADI card.  Each one of the carriers of this card knows Adi’s story and actually participates in his vision.  Much more so, Adi lives in the hearts of all those who received organ donations thanks to that card.

It is in our hands to extend the life of our departed loved ones, by telling their stories and follow their footsteps.  We can actively engage in their particular passion, or supporting those who are doing the work.  Teaching their wisdom to others – especially to our children – is yet another way to make their memory live on.  Or maybe adopt some of their habits, sayings, cooking recipes and hobbies as a reminder of them.  Making donations in their memory donations to organizations they held dear is yet another way.  Remembering to light a yahrzeit candle and say Kaddish on the date of their passing away will bring us comfort. 

Sharing their memory and stories with others will influence the souls of many.  Then, our loved ones will continue living much longer, within us and all those that were touched by those memories.  It may even extend beyond our own life span in This World.  Our departed loved ones may continue living long after we will be gone.

Avraham Later Days

After Yitzḥak became a family by marrying Rivka, Avraham also takes Ktura as his second wife. Most commentators identify Ktura as Hagar.  The name Ktura comes from the word that means nice smelling incents that are used in sacred work.  According to Rashi her name signifies that she was a good person doing mitzvot.  She was loyal to Avraham and didn’t engage with other men despite the fact that Avraham expelled her and Ishma’el.  She forgave Avraham, probably loved him, and returned to be with him after Sarah died.  Ktura conceived six more sons to Avraham, one of them is Midyan, the ancestor of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro. 

The Parasha starts and ends with death and burial.  These two bookends teach us the utter importance of the mitzvah of funeral and burial of the dead.  One bookend elaborates about the death of Sarah and the procurement of a gravesite for her.  The other bookend deals with the death of Avraham and his burial. 

When Avraham dies, both Yitzḥak and Ishma’el burry him in the family’s grave site, Me’arat HaMakhpela, next to Sarah.  None of the six sons that Ktura gave birth to showed up at the burial.  Both Yitzḥak and Ishma’el had very good reasons to be absent.  After all, this is Avraham who cast Ishma’el out and abandoned him to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14).  And it was Avraham who almost slaughtered Yitzḥak (Genesis 22).  Both sons could have found a convenient excuse to stay away, to let someone else bury their father.  And then, we know that “Avraham gave all that he owned to Yitzḥak”, which means that Ishma’el got nothing.  And yet, both present at their father’s burial.  

There is no stronger way to tell us how important it is to take care of those who depart.  Attending to the needs of the deceased is called Ḥesed Shel Emet – an act of true, ultimate, lovingkindness.  There is no reward to be expected from the deceased. 

We, Muslims and Jews alike, especially those who live in Eretz Israel, need to learn this lesson   from our ancestors.  Ishma’el and Yitzḥak, two siblings, offspring of Avraham overcame their differences.  When it came to the moment of absolute truth, they did together the Ḥesed Shel Emet and buried their father.   It is so important for all of us to remember that our ancestors buried together our common forefather.  Putting aside all the “rational” reasons not to do so.

The Abraham Accords is a step in that direction.  May the One God, regardless the Name we call Him (Adonai, Allah) help us all expand it even further.

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