Dvar Torah, Parshat Chaye Sarah

Nov. 26, 2005

Myrna Rabinowitz


Parshat Chaye Sarah 'The Life of Sarah' begins with Sarah's death.

Why then is it called the life of Sarah? Perhaps this signifies that Sarah lives on through Itzhak and Rivkah and the continuation of the Jewish people. Sarah's son Itzhak continues as the father of the tribe and Rivka the mother. 

The final paragraph of last week's parsha Vayera mentions the geneology of Abraham's brother Nahor and his wife Milkah naming their eight sons. And then the text states, "Uvithuel yalad et Rivkah, And Bethuel begot Rivka" the only female mentioned. This special mention of Rivka is an indication that she was selected by God to continue in Sarah's lineage. The rabbis say that the Torah records the birth of Rivka, Rebecca, before the death of Sarah in line with the tradition that a righteous person is not taken from the world until his or her successor has been born. Some of the commentaries conclude that Rivkah was also Sarah's great niece since they considered Sarah to be Milkah's sister as we will see later in my dvar Torah.  When Itzhak takes Rivkah to his mother's tent, we can imagine that Sarah gave them both her blessing.


The parsha begins with "Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah's life", a peculiar way to say 127 years old. Rashi explains that at 100 she was as sinless as she was at 20 and at 20 she had the pure, natural beauty of a seven year old.

Sarah's death follows immediately after the Akedah in the Torah. The sages teach that this indicates Sarah died as a result of receiving news that Avraham had almost sacrificed her only son Itzhak.


This parsha is filled with many rich insights and accounts. We read about the first experience of burial and mourning of our people. We also read about Abraham's death and that both Itzhak and Ishmael bury him. However, for the major part of my dvar Torah today I chose to examine the life of Sarah. I hope you will sit back and relax. I read and studied for several months and I'm afraid I have a lot to say. I hope you will indulge me.


Before we look at Sarah's life,  I would like to talk about the significance of the shalshelet, the rare trop or cantellation symbol in today's parsha. The shalshelet only occurs three times in the Torah and is, therefore, noteworthy. In Chaye Sarah, the shalshelet appears on the word 'Vayomer' in Chap. 24 verse 12, when Eliezer speaks to God and asks God to give him a sign when the appropriate wife for Itzhak comes to the well. This is the first prayer to God in the Torah asking for divine guidance. It comes from the heart and from a servant, which for me indicates that we are all capable of accessing this and asking for divine guidance in our lives. The shalshelet here indicates profound faith.

The first shalshelet in the Torah appears in last week's parsha, Vayera, on the word 'vayitmama' meaning lingered or delayed in the context of Lot delayed when the angel told him to leave Sodom. Lot was spared but Lot's wife delayed too long and turned around looking back and turned to salt. Lot was lacking in faith. I believe the message is that we should not delay or hesitate too long when we receive a sign. My parents escaped from Poland after Hitler invaded because they read this as a sign and, as a result, were spared from the holocaust. I believe we all have access to this within ourselves. We all have intuitions about things that happen in our lives which often lead us to make major changes.

The third shalshelet occurs in Vayeishev on the word 'vayema-en', refused, in the context of Joseph refused the advances of Potiphar his master's wife. The shalshelet here indicates adamant refusal. Joseph was absolute in his refusal and did not hesitate as Lot did. Joseph had a strong sense of what was right and wrong. He was loyal and grateful to his master who treated him well and he wouldn't sin against God. He had strong faith like Eliezer and his strength of character is a model for us.


And now the life of Sarah.

Who was Sarah? What do we know about Sarah from the Torah?

The first mention of Sarah is at the end of Parshat Noah, Genesis 11. Terah had 3 sons, Avram, Nahor and Haran. Haran had a son Lot. Haran dies in his native land, Ur Kasdim or Ur of the Chaldees, a Babylonian royal town and centre of moon-god worship. Genesis 11 verse 29 says, "Avram and Nahor took wives, the name of Avram's wife was Sarai and the name of Nahor's wife was Milkah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milkah and the father of Iscah."

From this text, the sages conclude that Iscah is Sarah.

First the text says that Haran had a son named Lot with no mention of his sisters. Then the text states that Nahor marries Milkah the daughter of Haran and adds "the father of Milkah and Iskah." Milkah is mentioned here because she is the future ancestor of Rivka. Rashi concludes that Iskah is mentioned because she is Sarah, that Sarah was also called Iscah from the word "sokhah" meaning to see and to gaze. To see because she could see into the future by divine inspiration. And to gaze because all gazed at her beauty. Iscah also means aristocracy or royalty from the word nesikhut and her name Sarai means "my princess."


From this we can conclude that Sarai could very well have been a princess living in the Babylonian royal town of Ur Kaskim. In all ancient pagan societies such as Babylonia, royalty and priesthood were linked and it is highly likely that Sarah was, therefore, also a priestess. And if we add to that the fact that she was Iscah, Haran's daughter  and granddaughter of Terah, we can conclude that she may have been a prophetess as well as the name Iscah "seer" denotes.

The claim that Sarai was Haran's daughter, the granddaughter of Terah, is substantiated somewhat in the Torah in Genesis 20 when Avraham explained to Avimelech King of Gerar that Sarah was his sister, the daughter of his father but not the daughter of his mother. There are instances in the Torah where the words "son and daughter" are used to denote a grandson or granddaughter. So although Avraham was using an imprecise definition of the word sister as we know it, he was likely telling the truth and Sarah was very likely his father's granddaughter which means that she was Avraham's niece. The suggestion that Sarah was Haran's daughter also fits the historical period in that when a man dies, his brothers would marry his daughters and offer them protection and position. And so when Haran died, his brothers Nahor and Avram married his daughters Milkah and Iskah or Sarai.

In any case, we can presume that Sarai "princess", priestess and possibly prophetess held a position of high status and power in her culture.


We then read that Terah took his son Avram, his grandson Lot and Sarai, Avram's wife, who was also his granddaughter and Lot's sister and they set out for Canaan. But when they reached Haran, they settled there. After Terah died, God called on Avram to journey to Canaan with promises of blessings and of becoming a great nation. Sarah gave up her status and position in her native land and followed Avraham. This indicates to me that she not only loved Avraham and respected him, but also that she must have shared his faith in God. The text says that Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot and all the wealth that they had amassed and the souls (hanefesh) that they had acquired in Haran and they set out for the land of Canaan. "The souls they acquired" refers to the men and women they had converted from idol worship to worshipping the one God YHVH. The commentaries explain that Avram proselytised the men and Sarai proselytised the women. Thus Sarah was also a teacher.


Adin Steinzaltz says of Avraham and Sarah that they were a team, two people working in harmony, that Sarah was not only a personality in her own right but was an important balancing factor in Avraham's life. In contrast to other great women of the bible who did great deeds but were subservient to their men in terms of their role and status in society, Sarah enjoyed a special position not only as a function of her independent personality but also of legal-formal recognition.

Steinsaltz says of Abraham and Sarah that they were partners. Decisions were made together and in fact God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah's voice. They worked together for a common goal. The strange episodes where Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister in order to save his own life also indicate that this was a joint prearranged decision. Indeed Ramban says that it was the custom of the Egyptians and the Philistines "to bring the king a very beautiful woman and to slay her husband through some charge they would contrive against him." Abraham and Sarah came from a Hurrian cultural background and a Hurrian could adopt his wife as his sister, thereby giving her special status, in terms of inheritance and family bonds. Abraham, therefore, asked Sarah to mention her privileged "sister" status in order to provide assurance that both of them would be treated with respect. Most of the commentaries consider that given Abraham's honesty, his motivation was to protect Sarah as well as himself. However, it is interesting to note that Ramban comments that Abraham committed a great sin to put his righteous wife in a situation of sin and danger, that he should have trusted that God would save both of them. Indeed, God afflicted Pharoah and his household with severe plagues "al d'var Sarai" which can be translated as "because of the matter of Sarai" meaning because of the wrong done to Sarai or "al d'var Sarai" could mean by the word of Sarai, meaning that Sarah had asked God to punish Pharoah. Either meaning indicates a relationship between God and Sarah.


This relationship between Sarah and God continues with the covenant. It is clear that God's covenant with the Jewish people must come through Sarah for it is Sarah's firstborn, rather than Avraham's firstborn, who will carry it on. It is interesting to note that this is the root of why the Jewish tradition adopted the practice of matrilineal descent.

In Genesis 15, God speaks to Avram, changes his name to Avraham, clarifies the covenant and the rite of circumcision. God says of Sarai "As for Sarai your wife, do not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. I will give you a son through her. I will bless her and she will give rise to nations; and rulers of nations will rise from her. ...Your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name Itzhak ....I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. ....As for Ishmael, I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous...and I will make of him a great nation. But my covenant I will maintain with Itzhak whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year." Although Ishmael is blessed and will father a great nation, it is through Sarah's son Itzhak that the covenant would be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah together are the parents of the Jewish people. To this day, Jews by choice are called to the Torah as son of or daughter of Avraham and Sarah because they are both the ideological ancestors of the Jewish nation and all those who join that nation are their children.


Not only is Sarah the only woman in the Torah who has a parsha named for her but she is also the only woman in the Torah who is granted the privilege of having a name change. Adding the "Hey" from God's name "Yud Hey Vav Hey" to a name, signifies change in the whole essence of one's being, a profound transformation which involved Avraham and Sarah both equally and together. Sarai meaning "my princess" became Sarah "princess". According to the commentaries, she became  "princess to  all the nations of the world". Just as Avraham and Sarah were transformed at this time in their essence and in their new roles and destiny, so I believe it is possible for us to achieve transformation. The possiblity is always there throughout our lives.


The most difficult part of the Sarah narrative for me, and I expect for many of us, is Sarah's treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. For years I struggled with the portrayal of Sarah in all the commentaries as Sarah the righteous one, the pure one, caring for the stranger. Yet how could our matriarch be so harsh and cruel to Hagar and Ishmael? In order for me to accept that Sarah was righteous, I had to comprehend what was behind this narrative, struggle with the text and see if I could understand her behavior.


The Torah tells us that Sarah gave her shifchah or slavewoman Hagar to Avraham as a wife (ishah) so that she would have a son through her. Ramban says that the fact that Sarah gave Hagar to Avraham as a wife rather than as a concubine reflects the ethical conduct of Sarah. According to Judith Antonelli, in the book "In the Image of God", "Sarah, who was married but childless and gave her female slave to her husband for childbearing, fits the description of a noncloistered Naditu....a priestess from a wealthy, high status family in Babylonia. According to the Hammurabi Code of the time, "If a naditu gives her slave to her husband for childbearing and the slave becomes arrogant to her mistress after bearing children, the naditu may not sell her but may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among her slaves. A naditu can sell the slave if she does not become pregnant."

According to the Torah's account that Hagar had shown Sarah disrespect, Sarah had the right to count Hagar as a slave again.

The Torah says that when Hagar conceived, her mistress was lowered in her eyes. When Hagar behaved disrespectfully to her, Sarah dealt harshly with her and Hagar fled from her.

Nevertheless, Ramban says that Sarah committed a sin when she afflicted Hagar and that Avraham sinned as well by permitting her to do so.

An angel of G-d tells Hagar to go back to her mistress and place herself under her mistress's hand. The angel also tells Hagar that she will have a son and she should name him Ishmael. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael when Avraham is 86 years old right at the end of Genesis 16. Genesis 17 begins with "When Avraham was 99 years old, YHVH appeared to him" and that is when the name changes take place and the covenant is declared. Thirteen years go by and we are told nothing about what happened between Sarah and Hagar. The next mention of Ishmael is that Avraham was 99 when he circumcized himself and his son, Ishmael, who was 13.

Then Sarah gives birth to Itzhak a year later when she is 90 and Avraham is 100. Itzhak grew up and was weaned (probably at the age of 3) and Avraham held a great feast on the day he was weaned. The next statement is "Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian "metzachek" and as a result of that, Sarah said to Avraham, "cast out that slavewoman and her son for the son of that slavewoman shall not inherit with my son."  But what was it that Ishmael who was 17 was doing that would have angered Sarah so? Ishmael metzachek. The translation given for metzachek is playing or mocking or making sport. The rabbis try to vindicate Sarah and vary in their interpretation of metzachek, saying that Ishmael was guilty of idolatry based on the way the verb is used in Exodus 32, or sexual abuse as it is used in Exodus 39 meaning adultery, or murder as it is used in Samuel Chap. 2 indicating that Ishmael's behavior was corrupt and evil. However, other commentaries say that Ishmael was playing at being Itzhak as if he were Avraham's heir and successor to the covenant.


Sarah's motivation is stated clearly - she does not want Ishmael to inherit with her son. In fact an ancient Near Eastern law of the time indicates that a father may grant freedom to a slave woman and the children she has borne him but they would then not be entitled to an inheritance. Whatever it was that Ishmael was doing while he was metzachek or playing, gave Sarah cause to worry that he might take Itzhak's inheritance away and that was the reason she wanted to "cast them out". I accept that Sarah wasn't just referring to Abraham's wealth, but was concerned with his succession to the covenant and to the lineage of patriarchy of the Jewish nation. In fact, when Avraham expresses concern about sending Ishmael and Hagar away, God reassures Avraham that he should listen to Sarah because it is through Itzhak that Avraham's lineage would continue and that Ishmael would also become a great nation. With the knowledge that Ishmael and Hagar would be taken care of by God, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off with no more than a skin of water and some bread. Surely Avraham could have provided them with a great deal more in way of food and protection.

How could Avraham and Sarah be so cruel, heartless and so unhospitable? Where is their compassion? And what about God's role here? What are we to make of these injustices?

The stories about our matriarchs and patriarchs reflect the difficulties of the human condition. We are human beings with human emotions and we often make errors which are very hurtful to other people. I concur with Elie Wiesel that our ancestors are, "neither infallible saints nor angels. They are human beings.. They love, they fear, they hate..., they try to go beyond their condition and share in God's vision of creation. When Sarah is hurt, she admits it, when she is jealous, she shows it. Because she suffered, she inflicted suffering. Maybe she was wrong but we love her nonetheless".


I believe that the lessons of the Torah, of our ancestors, are there to make us examine our own behavior, to remember that transformation is always possible and that improving ourselves and our character is work that is ongoing throughout our lives.


I would like to acknowledge and thank all of you for being here today - to those who travelled from Berkeley, California, from Hornby Island and Bowen Island. I want to thank God for all the blessings I have in my life, for my wonderful children and husband, for my family and dear friends, for my teachers and for the Or Shalom community which nurtures me so much. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity and time to study and come closer to the Torah. Our tradition is so rich in text and thought and this process has allowed me to open the first door.

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu Melekh Ha'olam Shehekhiyanu v'kiymanu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.




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