Chayei Sarah—The Life of Sarah
The Strength to Concede
Chayei Sarah, The Life of Sarah, is an interesting portion. It’s not unusual to find that a portion of the Scripture dealing with death begins with a word connected to life. Thus “The Life of Sarah” deals with the death of the matriarch at age one hundred twenty-seven; similiarly, the portion that begins, “And Jacob lived,” tells the story of the death of the aged, tortured third patriarch. It’s tempting to think that one person’s death is in essence the beginning of somebody else’s independent life. It’s only when Abraham and Sarah pass away, for example, that Isaac and Ishmael are able to come together for the funeral. In the same manner, only when Jacob dies can a real dialogue begin between Joseph and his brothers. When the old folks die, the young are free to redesign the world according to the understandings of their generation and the next.
And so, with the death of Sarah, the domineering and rather devious matriarch, a great many things became possible that couldn’t have happened when she was alive. Hagar, according to the Aggadah, changed her name and returned to Abraham’s tent as Keturah. Ishmael was able, as we noted, to reestablish his connection with his brother and childhood friend, Isaac. But the most important change was that Rebecca was brought from Aram to Canaan to be Isaac’s wife. “And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the death of] his mother” (Gen. 24:67).
However, it is not only Sarah from whom we take our leave in this week’s portion, but Abraham as well. As such, this is the right moment to take stock of the first patriarch’s hidden legacy.
The Mishnah tractate known as Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) has this to say: “Our father Abraham was tested with ten trials, and he withstood them all, to make known how great was the love of our father Abraham” (Mishnah Avot 5:3). The Mishnah doesn’t specify what the ten trials were; the text leaves the question open-ended, in effect inviting us to come and explain it ourselves. It’s almost certain that the binding of Isaac was one of these tests, since the Scripture says explicitly, “God did prove [that is, test] Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). The seminal command, Lech Lecha, “Get thee out of thy country” (Gen. 12:1), was a profound test. So was the command to obey Sarah when she insisted that Abraham go against his nature and feelings and banish Hagar and Ishmael (“In all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice”; Gen. 21:12). There were a few others along these lines. Here I would venture to suggest – and I’m not the first to do so – that burying Sarah was a major test for Abraham. To understand why, let’s review some of the previous tests.
What is the thread that connects the leaving of his distant birthplace for a new, unknown homeland, the banishing of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac? All three demand that he give up something basic and precious. In Lech Lecha, Abraham was called on to give up his native surroundings, his homeland, and to venture into the unknown. In deciding to gamble on an abstract promise he is giving up the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that constitute his natural setting and trading them all for an unknown land. In banishing Ishmael he is called upon to give up one of his great loves, his firstborn son, because of Sarah’s aloofness and hauteur. Finally, in the binding of Isaac, Abraham is called upon to give up his naïve faith in the God who promised him, “in Isaac shall seed be called to thee” (Gen. 21:12). “How can my offspring carry on my name if tomorrow I am to snuff out his life like a candle?” the old man must have wondered, simple believer that he was, as he set out at dawn for the land of Moriah. Giving up one thing after another, after another – this is the common feature in the tests of Father Abraham.
The same feature appears in the burial of Sarah. God had promised him the entire land, every spot where he set his foot from the great River Euphrates to the River of Egypt. But now, when he comes to bury the love of his life, he doesn’t listen to the natives who tell him in every possible way that this is his land and he can bury his dead wife any place he wishes. First come the Hittites – “Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us; in the choice of our sepulchers bury thy dead; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulchre” (Gen. 23:6) – offering a choice burial plot absolutely free. Next Abraham receives the same offer from the owner of the site himself, Ephron the Hittite: “Nay, my lord, hear me: the field I give thee, and the cave that is therein; I give it thee; in the presence of the sons of my people I give thee; bury thy dead” (Gen. 23:11). Again, a gift, free of charge.
But Abraham insists. He wants to pay. This is a strange way for a lord of the land to treat his subjects. When does anyone pay for property that belongs to him? But Abraham digs in his heels, in a sort of backwards bargaining in which the seller doesn’t want to take money and the buyer pressed the money on him, until finally “Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant. So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof roundabout, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession” (Gen. 23:16–18).
To understand Abraham’s action we need to understand what he was giving up, and what test he was forced to withstand in those difficult days. The easiest thing would have been to accept the forsaken cave at the edge of Ephron’s field, to bury Sarah there alongside a few other anonymous graves and be done with it. But Abraham knew even in his moment of grief that he wanted an eternal resting place, and so he gave up the divine promise and chose the alternative. It seems to me to be an improvement on Abraham’s territorial approach in his conflict with his nephew Lot. In the dispute between Abraham’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds, Abraham suggests dividing the land from left to right, saying, “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen” (Gen. 13:8). In that case he conceded for the sake of a realistic, immediate peace, but here, in the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, it is a matter of a more sweeping perspective. Abraham gave up what was his and bought part of what had been promised to him as an investment in a better world. No one understood him better than the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the author of the nineteenth-century Torah commentary Ha’emek Davar, who wrote this in his remarks on Genesis:
This was the glory of the patriarchs, that besides being righteous and pious and and loving of God as one might be, they were straightforward. That is, they treated the nations of the world, even gentiles who worshipped idols, with love and concern for their welfare, which is the foundation of creation. As we see how our father Abraham prostrated himself to pray for Sodom even though he deeply hated them and their king for their wickedness, as explained in his speech to the king of Sodom (Gen. 14:22–24). In any event, he sought their survival.
So it was in Sodom and likewise in Hebron, the city of our mothers. So it was then, and if only it were so today. If only acquiescence could triumph as the weapon of the brave in the eternal battle with the disastrous aggression of blustering, small-minded cowards.