Chayei Sarah

D'var Torah - Parshat Chayei Sarah 5768 - Nov. 3, 2007

Bat Ami Segal


1  Life of Sarah


           So, who was Sarah? We know that she was our first matriarch, and obviously more than just the woman who prepared the meals for Abraham's guests. Muslims, Christians and Jews pay homage to her. You can find her in art forms in the main east window in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Poitiers. The window was made at the end of the twelfth century. And then again in a panel of window behind the altar, in Houston's St. Martins Episcopal Church. There her face is framed by gold stars representing God's promise to multiply her seed. And every Shabbat, when we recite the Amidah, we are reminded of Sarah, by the words. "Magen Abraham, ve ezrat Sarah".


         Sarah was born around 1200 BCE. Sarah was 13, when she met Abraham in Chaldea. Some say she is the sister of Lot, and the daughter of Aran, Abraham's paternal uncle. According to others, she was the daughter of the King of Haran, and her mother was the daughter of Kutba, King of Babylon, and yet others say she was a daughter of Terah, Abraham's father, and Abraham's half- sister.


          In Sarah's time, a woman's place was still at the centre of the family, in family life, women had great power and authority, even though it was a patriarchal society. The book of Genesis tells us how Abraham's family took part, each in his own way; men by their military conquests, and women by their fertility and compassionate commitment to God's chosen people.


         Sarah worked alongside her servants, and often went hungry when there was not enough food for both of them, and when Abraham asked Sarah to leave with him to go to a place she did not know, she willingly agreed.


         In this new land, Sarah had to face many challenges. Among them being a barren woman. (of which I will later speak more about it) but in spite of this, she devoted her life to the spiritual task of teaching women about the existence of God. To teach about Monotheism was highly dangerous. At this time the norm was to worship many Gods. Sarah still longed for a child, and her shame could not be hidden. To be infertile in Mesopotamia, was indeed a sign that Sarah must have sinned. Sarah, no longer being able to bear this torment, went to Hagar her handmaiden and asked her to lie down with Abraham, to help sire a son. Against this background, we must understand Sarah's hatred of Hagar, and consequent jealousy of Ishmael. Through having her child, Sarah was furthering God's plan. A text from the New Testament, in the "Epistle to Hebrews", Sarah is praised for her faith. "Through faith, Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age. Because she continued to be faithful to a God who had made a promise" (Hebrews: 11:11)

         Sarah saw that the key question, strangely topical today, was going to be, who is the true inheritor of Abraham? G"D said clearly that his covenant would be with Isaac. Yet Ishmael posed a grave threat to Isaac's life then, and even today, over 3 millennia later, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael continues to stir up hostile feelings among Muslims.




2  Genesis: 24:1 ๑25:18   (meaning of the Parasha )


         This week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, contains three major narratives. Abraham's acquisition of a burial site for Sarah, his wife, the first acquisition of a portion of the land of Israel, and the story of how Abraham arranges for the marriage of his son Isaac. All of these events reflect Sarah's lifework. Firstly, as a woman she endeavoured that the pledge G-d gave to Abraham, that the land of Israel become the heritage of the Jewish people. This transpired with the purchase of the cave of the Machpela. From that point on, the Jews owned a portion of the holy land. She desired that her son Isaac marry and perpetuate her family. This is reflected in the choice of Rebecca as wife for Isaac.  And when Abraham distributed his inheritance, he gave everything he had to Isaac.


         The names of Parshiot are significant. Although the name of a given parasha is derived from the first few words of that parasha, it usually captures the theme of the Parasha as well. This parasha begins with a strange irony. It is called Chayei Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, but the first event is Sarah's death. Yet, if Sarah's life is significant, what does this parasha recording of her death, tell us about her life?


         One answer is found in a midrash on the cause of Sarah's death. Although Sarah dies at the age of 127, presumably of natural causes, the midrash is interested in the fact that her death immediately follows the "Akedat Yitzchak" the binding of Yitzchak. There is, according to this midrash, a connection between these two events. Sarah dies of grief, when she learns of what Abraham nearly did to Yitzchak, child of her old age. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arbah, Abraham came to mourn and weep for her. Abraham cries because he lost his life partner. Abraham grieves for her, because she had the audacity to meet all the challenges, and tests in her life, with confidence and Bravery, and not a small amount of Chutzpah! Abraham is truly mourning the loss of Sarah and all she did during her life span.





3  Family Perspective


         The experiences of the Torah's first family can help us put our own families in perspective. Biblical stories about families are rife with jealousy, rivalry, deception, cheating, adultery, and insult. Biblical families, just like modern families, are human.  Human beings miss the mark, they mess up, even hurt each other. When we say that we value family, we must affirm that we don't mean an unrealistic ideal of sweetness and harmony. Like biblical families, our own families are imperfect. But is perfection what we seek in our own families? A successful family is a group of individuals who care for and help each other and provide the soul of a community.

         Although the parasha that bears Sarah's name begins with her death. It is pervaded by her legacy. Her strength provides the foundation upon which after her death. Abraham and Isaac will continue building the next generation of the first Jewish family.




4  Barrenness


          I want to stop and say a few words on the theme of barrenness that pervaded much of Sarah's lifetime.


         One can only imagine how Sarah must of felt to be barren for so many, many years. In those times, to be infertile was considered a mark of divine disfavour. Men could divorce their wives if no sons were produced. In Mesopotamia, the primary purpose of marriage, in a patriarchal world, was to provide a husbands family with male heirs. Sarah had to bear all the terrible feelings that came with being a barren woman, feelings of shame, guilt, emptiness, at not being a whole woman.

         Today, in modern society, barren women have the same feelings, spending millions of dollars in fertility clinics, submitting to endless tests and procedures, and spending sleepless nights, hoping, waiting, longing for a child. Women today, are still prisoners of their body's infertility. As a society, we need to listen to their pain. We need to be sensitive to their needs; to sometimes isolate themselves from families with children. These barren women must live out their lives, confronted with the daily realities of a family oriented society. For them, unlike Sarah, there is no possibility of divine intervention.


         Although women seek to give meaning to their lives beyond their roles as mothers, mothering is still a central aspect of our identity. Raising and tending to children, life projects, friendships, and all that lives with us on a daily basis belongs to the domain of motherhood. Mothers feed and nurture, even as they (sometimes) let go of and surrender to the people and projects they raise. The sacred way of Mothering is a balance of limitless loving and necessary boundaries. Barren women must forgo this identity, and seek out other endeavors to make their lives meaningful.




5  Conclusion


         My study of this parasha, has taught me so much, so many, many themes came up for me, I found myself struggling with I wanted to bring out. Sarah as she lived her life, served as a definitive role model! A few years ago, Or Shalom's very own Matriarch, Gloria Levi, led a teaching on writing an ethical will. Gloria afforded me the opportunity to think about my own life. Now,  at the age of 70, I can reflect on what I want my children to remember about me, and what I want to leave to them. I know that the deeds a person performs in life precipitate others, thus the goodness with which a person endows his family and environment creates an ongoing dynamic toward good. And this dynamic continues to bear fruit after the person's passing, helping to increase the goodness and virtue in the world. This is Sarah's legacy.  And I hope that in some small way, I will leave a similar legacy to my children.


         In conclusion, we find that the matriarchs had to overcome the same devastating obstacles women face today.  Sarah, Rebecca, Rahel and Leah, helped to lay down the foundations of womanhood in the Western world. Though these women lived many years ago, their lives bear a striking resemblance to our own - they managed to cope with betrayal, death, sacrifice and jealousy while dealing with the emerging realities of a new faith period.

          Sarah was proud and sometimes ungenerous, as we are all! Sarah's value lies not in her moral attributes, which are simply human, imperfect in fact. Her place of honour is assured because of the human dimensions of her life. Her honour lies in her devotion to the one true God whom she served always as best she could.

         Sarah's death tells us that there is no truth on the mountaintop, the near sacrifice of a son is unnecessary, there is no special holiness up there. Truth is right here, at home, in cooking dinner, taking out the garbage, holding hands, raising a child. As Moses says in Deuteronomy: "ึit (torah, truth) is not in the heavens, that you should say, who among us, can go up to the Heavens and get it for us, that we may observe it? No, the very thing is close to you, in your mouth and in your heart". In Deuteronomy, the text tells us Sarah dies knowing that truth. Sarah was a woman in God's plan for humanity. Her story of courage and endurance, leads us to hope that the world will be repaired and the gates of Eden are open to us all.




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