Synopsis of the Sidra
Sarah dies at age 127 and is buried in Machpelah, (a cave in Hevron where she is living), which Abraham acquires after bargaining with its owner Ephron the Hittite for 400 shekels of silver. Abraham acquires it as a family tomb.
Abraham's servant, Eliezer, is sent away from the land back to Haran, to the family of Abraham, laden with gifts in order to find a wife for Isaac. He is instructed not to take Isaac out of the land of Canaan, nor should Isaac marry a woman from the locality.
At the well outside the city of Nahor, in Aram Naharaim, Eliezer asks God for a sign: when the young women come to the well, he will ask for some water to drink; the woman who will offer to give his camels to drink as well as himself shall be the one destined for his master's son.
Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham's nephew Betuel, appears at the well and fulfils the requirement he has set in his own mind.. Eliezer is invited to their home, where he repeats the purpose of his journey to find a wife for Abraham. Rebecca is asked if she would like to return with Eliezer to the land of Canaan, and she chooses to do so straight away. On the journey home they encounter Isaac praying in the field. Isaac marries Rebecca, loves her, and is comforted over the loss of his mother.
Abraham takes a new wife, Keturah and fathers six additional sons, but Isaac is designated as his only heir. Abraham dies at age 175 and is buried beside Sarah in Machpelah by his two eldest sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
Sarah’s death is recorded unemotionally and briefly – her age, her location, and then the focus is on Abraham who came to mourn her and to bury her appropriately
More interesting is that it her death is recorded in the context of her life. We are told
“And these were the lives of Sarah. A hundred years and seven years and twenty years were the years of the lives of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba--the same is Hebron--in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Gen 23:1-2)
Linguistically this announcement is a strange construction, and we can’t help wondering about it, and seeing it in its immediate context of the story of the binding of Isaac – that Sarah’s reaction to Abraham’s treatment of Isaac, her only son whose wellbeing meant everything to her, was to be living away from Abraham and ultimately to die of her distress.
It may be that Sarah did die of the heartbreak occasioned by learning of the Akedah, of what Abraham was prepared to do to Isaac in order to pass a test of loyalty from God. But her death is of much less relevance here than her life – more specifically in the Hebrew text, her lives.
Rashi (famous medieval French Rabbi and biblical exegete 10:40-1105) tells us that this odd construction means that at one hundred years old Sarah was like she was at twenty in respect of sinning, (meaning that she did not sin till she was one hundred, since before the Torah God did not punish the sins of those under 20 years) and at twenty she was as beautiful as an innocent and perfect young girl of seven. And Rashi further tells us that the repetition of the word “years” indicates that all the years of her life were equal in value. (Rashi, Tractate Shabbat 89b).
This may not exactly resonate with us, but the thought behind it does – that Sarah’s life was made up of different segments, and each period, though maybe not quantitatively long, is of equal value to other times of our lives. Also, that we carry elements of each episode of our lives with us, building up a portfolio of memories and experience to contribute to who we become.
Sarah was a woman who lived a long and complex life. Married to a half brother with an orphaned nephew (Lot) to bring up, she travelled extensively away from Ur of the Chaldees through Canaan to Egypt, then back, and seems to have live in Philistine territory and also in Beer Sheva and finally Hevron. She wanted a child but did not conceive until old age, and then she fought hard for that child (Isaac) to receive his inheritance. Twice she entered the harem of the ruling king in order to protect Abraham from death, and twice she was returned to him. She was clearly not a doormat however – It was Sarah who decided to bring God’s prophecy about by giving Hagar to Abraham in order for him to conceive a son. Sarah was the one who told Abraham then to remove that son Ishmael from proximity to their own child Isaac, and an unhappy Abraham, protesting to God, was told to obey her. Sarah was a woman fully in control of her own life and pretty controlling of others lives too. By the time of her death the only thing she did not seem to have, was a relationship to Isaac, possibly because in her destroying the relationship between the two half brothers, she also destroyed the trust between herself and her son.
But her life was clearly full and fulfilled. While clearly not perfect, she was a woman who contributed to her world extensively – one might also note here that when Abram and Sarai had their names changed in order to signify their new position in relation to God, Abram had the letter ‘hay’ added to his name to make it Abraham, and to add the letter used to describe God to his own name, whereas Sarai had the ‘yod’ in her name removed and a ‘hay’ returned. in effect a letter worth the numerical value of ten was removed, half was given to her husband and half to her (‘hay’ has the numerical value of five) – from which one might deduce that all the godliness that came into Abraham’s life came to him from Sarah, who had a surfeit.
Be that as it may, Sarah’s life was made up of a number of lives, and each of them had value and impact. Each of us too has a number of lives, as children, in different work or leisure roles, in different family constructions and so on. For some of us we go on and on, adding shorter and longer sections to the span of our time on earth, for others that span is cut short through illness or accident or war. But what is important is not the quantity of years we live, but the quality and richness of the experiences we have while we are living. Our lives are not to be measured and judged simply by length of time, but about how we live the years given to us. A shorter but well lived life is a triumph and a complete whole in itself. As we mourn our war dead in this week of remembrances, and are pained to remember lives cut cruelly short, we might also try to remember that the life that was lived had the same value as longer lives, contributed as much, and was in a very important way, completed and whole.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild