Urgent message:

Given the most challenging situation in Israel at this time, I urge all to pray for the bereaved families, the hostages, the missing and the many casualties. Please try to perform additional mitzvot, send funds to help the needy and grieving families, and attend the rallies that are being organized in support of Israel.

May the Al-mighty protect the State of Israel, its citizens and bless it with peace!

“Who was the Matriarch Sarah?”
(updated and revised from Chayei Sarah 5764-2003)


by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, the matriarch Sarah, Abraham’s wife, passes away at 127 years of age.

Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchumah, Genesis 23:1, (whose authors always try to find a connecting link to the previous parasha), that maintains that Sarah passed away on the heels of the Akeidah, found at the end of parashat Lech Lecha, Genesis 22. According to the Midrash, Sarah was told by Satan that Abraham had offered Isaac up as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah, but neglected to tell her that Isaac actually survived. Upon hearing this report, she cried out in grief and passed away.

The death of Sarah, that is reported in the opening verse of parashat Chayei Sarah, is structured in an odd manner. The verse reads, (Genesis 23:1): וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים,  שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, 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 submits that this odd structure comes to teach that each set of years–the hundreds, the tens and the units, have its own message. Says Rashi, בַּת ק’ כְּבַת כ’ לְחֵטְא, when Sarah was 100 years old, she was like a 20 year old woman, with respect to sin, מַה בַּת כ’ לֹא חָטְאָה, שֶׁהֲרֵי אֵינָהּ בַּת עֳנָשִׁין, just as one who is 20 years old is considered as if she had not sinned for she is not liable to punishment, אַף בַּת ק’ בְּלֹא חֵטְא, so too when Sarah was 100 years old was she without sin. וּבַת כ’ כְּבַת ז’ לְיֹפִי, and Sarah was like a seven years old girl with regard to beauty.

Furthermore, says Rashi, the apparently superfluous phrase, “The years of Sarah’s life,” teaches, that Sarah maintained her saintliness throughout her lifetime, even beyond the age of 100. כֻּלָּן שָׁוִין לְטוֹבָה, they were all equal for goodness.

Some contemporary rabbis explain the somewhat perplexing Midrash cited by Rashi as follows. There are definite advantages to being old, as older people usually possess wisdom gained from their 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 also has its advantages: 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, שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, 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 deep faith in the Al-mighty she was able to maintain a sense of equanimity and happiness. Even when she encountered hardships, she would bless G-d for the difficulties, accepting the hardships with love.

An additional oddity found in the opening verse is that Sarah’s death is described as חַיֵּי שָׂרָה–“Chayei Sarah,” which literally means, Sarah’s life. The rabbis explain that the missing mention of “death,” is because Sarah’s years were truly filled with life.

The bible provides 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 Abram to Charan and enters the promised land, Canaan, with him. As an exceedingly beautiful woman, she gets into trouble twice. By agreeing to say that she is Abram’s sister rather than his wife, she is taken hostage by local rulers, both in Egypt and then Gerar. She is childless until age 90 and expresses her skepticism when she is told by an angel that she will give birth. Although she herself had pleaded with Abraham to take Hagar as a wife, she subsequently expels Hagar.

While Abraham becomes the ‘world renowned’ theologian–the international pioneer promoting monotheism who 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, Isaac, and becomes seemingly 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, finally takes a wife, the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 60:16), 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 always be found in the dough, and that a cloud would hover over the tent. But when she died, they stopped. But when Rebeccah 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 of us alive today had the opportunity to know Sarah the Biblical 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 for me. And because of that, we need to mourn and cry bitterly over the fact that she is no longer alive.

But even more, we must learn from the values that Sarah practiced while conducting her life, we need to value the priorities that she established for herself and her family, and imbibe the lessons that she has bequeathed to us, her future generations.

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

May you be blessed.