“Who Was the Matriarch Sarah?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, the matriarch Sarah, Abraham’s wife, passes away. The authors of the Midrash, who always try to find a connecting theme to the previous parasha, explain that Sarah passed away on the heels of the Akeidah (the end of parashat Lech Lecha), because she was told by Satan that Abraham had offered Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah, neglecting to tell her that Isaac actually survived. Upon hearing this report, she cried out in grief and passed away.

The opening verse of parashat Chayei Sarah is structured in an odd manner (Genesis 23:1): “Va’yeeh’yoo cha’yei Sarah, may’ah sha’nah, v’es’rim sha’nah, v’sheh’vah shah’nim–sh’nay cha’yei Sarah.” And Sarah’s life was 100 years, 20 years and 7 years–the years of Sarah’s life. Rather than simply say that Sarah lived 127 years, the word “years” appears after each number. Rashi says that this odd structure comes to teach that each set of years–the hundreds, the tens and the units, needs its own interpretation. Says Rashi, “Bat may’ah k’bat es’rim l’chayt,” When Sarah was 100 years old she was like 20 years old, with respect to sin, “Mah bat es’rim lo chot’ah, sheh’ha’ray ay’nah bat ohn’shin,” just as one who is 20 years old is considered as if she had not sinned for she is not liable to punishment, “af bat may’ah, b’lo chayt,” so too when Sarah was 100 years old she was without sin. “Ooh’bat es’rim, k’bat shevah l’yofee,” and Sarah was like seven years old with regard to beauty.

Furthermore, the apparently superfluous phrase, “The years of Sarah’s life” teaches us, says Rashi, that Sarah maintained her saintliness throughout her lifetime, even beyond the age of 100. “Koo’lahn shah’vin l’tovah,” they were all equal for goodness.

Some contemporary rabbis explain the somewhat perplexing Midrash cited by Rashi as follows. There are advantages to being old, as older people usually posses vast experience. As a result, older people often have a far broader perspective on life, resulting in a greater sense of balance. They are, therefore, able to speak with greater authority based on their experience. On the other hand, youth has its advantages as well: enthusiasm, courage, and fastidiousness. Sarah, we are told, was able to meld the advantages of being both young and old. When she was 20 she had the broad perspective and sense of balance of a more mature person, and even at age 100, she maintained her youthful enthusiasm.

Furthermore, while it is true that Rashi interprets the text, “Sh’nay cha’yei Sarah,” to mean that Sarah’s years were all equal for goodness–we know that Sarah experienced significant hardships and great pain during her life. After all, until she was 90 she had no children, but because of her faith in G-d she was able to maintain a sense of equanimity and happiness. When she encountered hardships, she would bless G-d even for the difficulties, accepting the hardships with love.

An additional oddity found in the opening verse is that Sarah’s death is described as “Chayei Sarah,” Sarah’s life. The rabbis explain that this is because Sarah’s years were truly filled with life.

The Bible provides us with relatively few details about Sarah’s life. Already in Ur Kasdim–Ur of Chaldees, Abram takes Sarai (their names had not yet been changed) as his wife. She journeys with Abraham to Charan and enters the promised land, Canaan, with him. She was an exceedingly beautiful woman, a fact that gets her into trouble twice. By agreeing to say that she is Abraham’s sister rather than his wife, she is taken hostage by local rulers, once in Egypt and then G’rar. She is childless until age 90, and expresses her skepticism when she is told by an angel that she would give birth. Although she herself had pleaded with Abraham to take Hagar as a wife, she subsequently expels Hagar.

While Abraham becomes the “world renown” theologian and the international pioneer promoting monotheism, and is responsible for taking hold of the land of Canaan for the future generation of Jews, Sarah is depicted as being his full partner. She leaves what probably was the good life in Ur Kasdim, one of the great cradles of civilization, to travel with Abraham 1,000 kilometers to Charan. At age 65 she endures another 750 kilometer journey, this time to Canaan. In her advanced age, Sarah finds herself a stranger in a new land. When she becomes a mother, she is zealous for her child, and even becomes cruel for his sake, casting out Hagar and Hagar’s son, Ishmael.

Sarah is said to have left a great legacy for her family. When Isaac, Sarah’s son, finally takes a wife, the Midrash cited by Rashi (Genesis 24:67) indicates that as long as Sarah was alive, a lamp burned in Abraham’s home from one Sabbath evening until the next Sabbath evening, that a blessing would be found in the dough, and that a cloud would hover over the tent. But when she died, they stopped. However, when Rebekkah arrived, the blessings were restored and revived.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne (Tradition, Spring 1978), notes the twofold purpose of the hesped– the funeral oration. Primarily, it is to make people weep, to feel sorrow and distress when confronted with the finality of death, but it is also meant to be informative and instructional. What can we learn from the life of the deceased?

Only at the end of a human career, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, at the end of the life story of a man or woman, do people become inquisitive. Who was he or she? “A while ago people simply did not care. Now they are concerned; now they do care. Yesterday the question could have been easily answered. It could have been addressed directly to him or her. Today we know not of whom to inquire, we know not who is in a position to answer this question.”

While none who are alive today had the opportunity to know Sarah the matriarch personally, she has nevertheless become an integral and vital part of our lives. Metaphysically, she has become a mother of the Jewish people, a mother for you and me, and because of that, we need to mourn and cry bitterly over the fact that she is no longer alive. Even more, though, we must learn from the values that Sarah established in conducting her life. We need to value the priorities that she established for herself and imbibe the lessons that she has left for us, her future generations.

The name Sarah means “princess,” and she is truly the primary princess of the Jewish people.

May you be blessed.