Parshat HaShavua – Chayei Sarah
Contributed by: Rabbi Nissim Mordechai Makor
Chayei Sarah in a nutshell: Sarah dies and Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpela as a burial plot for his wife. Abraham’s servant travels to Aram to find a wife for Isaac. Isaac marries Rebecca. Abraham dies.
Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life. (23:1).
Rashi explains that the apparent redundancy of the “years” of Sarah’s life divides her life into three parts, each with its own distinctiveness. At the age of one hundred, her level of sin was equal to that of a twenty-year old – an age when a person does not yet suffer Heavenly retribution. At the age of twenty, she still possessed the wholesome and natural beauty of a seven-year-old. As an aside, Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, adds that the Torah is not glorifying Sarah’s unusual physical beauty. Rather, it is expressing the idea that just as the beauty of a seven year old is pure and innocent and is never used to cause others to sin, Sarah’s breathtaking beauty as an adult manifested similar purity and innocence. All who beheld her felt a sense of reverence and awe.
Sarah is not the only righteous woman whose life and death is recorded in the Torah. Yet, she is the only one whose age is divided into three groups. We wonder why the Torah repeats itself when it says, “shnei chayei Sarah,” “the years of Sarah’s life.” This question is especially significant concerning Avraham Avinu, for whom the Torah does break his age into three groups – alluding to his purity from sin throughout his life – as the Torah does not end the narrative with the words, “shnei chayei Avraham,” “the years of Avraham’s life,” as it does with Sarah. Apparently, this “closing” has special meaning in the context of Sarah’s life.
In a homily regarding the concept of yesurim, suffering, the Piazcesner Rebbe, zl, cites chassidic tradition: While a moderate degree of suffering may benefit an individual’s spiritual development, excessive tribulation is beyond endurance and, hence, unacceptable – and may even be harmful. His point of refrence is the famous Chazal that questions the juxtaposition of Sarah’s death upon the Akeidah, Binding of Yitzchak. Chazal say that she died as a consequence of the Binding of Yitzchak and her son’s near-death. This trauma was too much for her to handle.
One might argue, suggests the Rebbe, that Sarah’s taking the Akeidah so much to heart to the point that it killed her – was a deliberate act she performed on behalf of Klal Yisrael. It was her intention to supplicate the Almighty that her descendants would not be able to endure an excessive amount of suffering. For even if, by the grace of G-d, an individual were to endure the tribulation and live, nevertheless, a part of his strength, mind and spirit would be broken and forever lost. This is consistent with the Talmud in Bava Kama 65a which inquires, “What difference does it make if one is killed outright or beaten halfway to death?”
This concept explains the Torah’s repetition of the phrase, “these were the years of Sarah’s life.” Her life was unique. Every aspect of her life was exemplary. From her pristine physical beauty to her lofty spiritual purity, she stood out as the example of righteous womanhood. When one considers her sudden death and its underlying cause, it appears that Sarah might have sinned by shortening her own life span. Perhaps, had she not taken the Akeidas Yitzchak so much to heart, she might have continued to live. Since her action was taken on behalf of Klal Yisrael, the Torah reiterates, “These are the years of Sarah’s life,” Thus, the Torah is conveying to us that all the years of Sarah’s life were equally good – even those years that she might have lived beyond age 127. Even the willful sacrifice of those years was good.
This is a powerful statement, one that only an individual of the spiritual stature of the Piazcesner Rebbe can present. He understands Sarah’s death as a quasi-suicidal protest against excessive suffering. Accordingly, he feels that the Torah ratifies this protest specifically because it was taken on behalf of Klal Yisrael. This explains why Sarah Imeinu succumbed to the shock of almost losing her only child, while Avraham Avinu, who was on a lower level of nevuah, prophecy, withstood the test. The statement is that of an individual who, as Rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto, was privy to the suffering and grief that goes beyond human endurance. In his merit and in the merit of all of those who have suffered throughout the millennia, may Hashem in His infinite compassion take pity on us and all of Klal Yisrael, speedily bringing about our spiritual and physical salvation.
And Avraham said to his servant, the elder of his household who controlled all that was his. “Place now your hand under my thigh.” (24:2)
Chazal tell us that Eliezer was not an average servant. He was “z’kan baiso,” defined by Chazal as having similar ziv ikunin, facial features, to Avraham. He was also “ha’moshel b’chol asher lo,” “ruled over everything” – even his yetzer hora, evil-inclination, just like Avraham. Others contend that he ruled over the Torah of his rebbe, Avraham. He was called Damesek Elizer, because he was doleh u’mashkeh, drew up the waters of Torah and gave others to drink. The Midrash goes so far as to state that Eliezer was one of nine people who did not die, who, rather, ascended to Heaven – alive.
In short, Eliezer was a special person. He was a scholar, pious and virtuous. Yet, Avraham felt the need to make him take an oath that he would assure that Yitzchak did not marry a pagan. Could he not just have simply asked him? Did he have to make him swear? Moreover, why does the Torah emphasize, specifically in reference to seeking a wife for Yitzchak, that Eliezer was a man of noble, saintly stature?
Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, explains that essentially Eliezer was truly an individual of exemplary spiritual repute. Avraham Avinu trusted him with everything – well, almost everything. His son was a different story. He was to be the link to the next generation. Avraham was not simply looking for a shidduch, match, for his son. He was building the future of Klal Yisrael! Eliezer was to be believed in regard to all physical/mundane areas. When it pertained to the spiritual dimension of the future of the Jewish People, however, there was no room for error or compromise. It had to be a perfect match. Eliezer had to submit to an oath that he would execute his master’s request to the fullest extent.
Rav Sholom cites a practical analogy he heard from the Brisker Rav, zl: A person comes to a town in search of a place to stay. He stops at an inn whose owner also has a little restaurant. Hungry for a good meal, the traveler first must ascertain the kashrus of the restaurant. He goes out to the street to find a passerby and inquire if he knows his host. Is he trustworthy? As soon as he hears a positive response, he immediately returns to the inn and has a large meal. After all, the Rabbinic dictum of “eid echad nee’man b’isurim,” “one witness is sufficient regarding prohibitions,” i.e.: kashrus, apparently applies in this circumstance.
If we think about the situation, we note an apparent inconsistency in this individual’s “blanket trust.” Imagine if his host were to offer him a business deal whereby he must invest a sizeable sum of money, he would certainly not rely on the “man on the street” to check out his host’s integrity. He would probably spend days checking him out before investing his hard-earned money with him. Yet, when it involves his neshamah, soul, he has no compunction about trusting his kashrus, because the man on the street verified his reliability.
Interestingly, a similar incident occurred with Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, when he was on a trip. He stopped in a community and was immediately asked by someone if he was proficient in the laws and practice of shechitah, kosher slaughtering. Rav Yisrael did not immediately respond. A few moments later, he asked the person if he could borrow five rubles from him. “How do you expect me to lend money to someone whom I do not know?” was the immediate response. Rav Yisrael looked at the person and said, “Listen to what you are saying. You are willing to let me shecht your animals, but when it comes to lending me money, you do not know me! Is this not a double standard? You seem to be more concerned about your wallet than your neshamah!” Avraham Avinu was different. When it came to matters of the household, he relied totally on Eliezer. He was his trusted servant and confidante, but only in the realm of gashmius, the physical/material aspects, the mundane matters of his life. When it concerned ruchniyos, spiritual matters; when the future of Klal Yisrael was at stake, Avraham did not simply “rely”; he demanded an oath from Eliezer to insure that his request would be executed to the letter. Selecting a wife for Yitzchak would determine the course of generations. The right wife would enhance Yitzchak’s spirituality. The wrong one would destroy him, undermining the foundation for the future of his descendants.
Avraham Avinu had his priorities – just as we all do. His spiritual dimension dominated everything else. Regrettably, many of us are far from this perspective. True, the world of spirituality has an eminent position in our lives, but it is secondary to our “other” interests. Rav Sholom cites a story that has become a classic: the story of Meirka. This narrative should underscore how we view things and their prioritization in accordance with what is important to us. One day Rav Sholom was sitting in his home in Yerushalayim. Suddenly, he heard a scream from the alleyway outside his window. In a moment, his rebbetzin ran into the house yelling that little Meir, the grandson of the gabbai, sexton of the shul, had fallen and was bleeding profusely from a gash over his eye. They both ran outside, Rav Sholom scooping up the child while his wife held a wet towel over the cut to stop the bleeding. Rav Sholom began running with the child in his arms through the alleyway to the main street, rushing as fast as his legs could carry him, on the way to get the child to a doctor. As they rushed up the hill, a pious elderly woman who was walking toward them called out in Yiddish, “Rav Sholom, Rav Sholom, ess iz nisht doh vos tzu daigin,” “There is nothing to worry about. You need not rush.” “Der Eibeshter vet helfen,” “The One Above will take care of him.” As soon as Rav Sholom and his wife passed directly in front of the elderly woman, however, she looked down and realized that the bleeding child was none other than her own grandson. She began to shriek uncontrollably, “Gevalt! Meirka! Gevalt!” And she fainted!
In his lectures over the years, Rav Sholom transformed that scream of “Meirka” into a catchword lesson. He would often say, “If it is not my Meirka, it is easy to say do not worry. Nothing is wrong. Hashem will help. When it is my Meirka, however, when the problem affects me personally, it is an altogether different story.”
People act similarly when it comes to their personal issues. For some, their spiritual dimension takes preeminence over everything. For others, regrettably, it does not.
And thus was Yitzchak consoled after his mother. (24:67)
Yitzchak Avinu could not be consoled over the loss of his mother, Sarah Imeinu. This is a remarkable tribute to the relationship between a son and his mother. He did not feel the void, however, because he missed her as a mother. If he had, Rivkah, the wife, would not have been able to replace Sarah, the mother. Rather, he intensely missed the unique virtues and attributes, the exemplary character traits and moral refinement for which Sarah, the Matriarch of the Jewish People, was known. Rivkah Imeinu manifested a moral/spiritual identity that replicated the virtues Yitzchak experienced in his mother. The void was filled and now Yitzchak could be consoled.
When an individual sustains the loss of a loved one, the duration and intensity of the grief is usually relative to the deceased: his age, and his relationship to those whom he has left behind. At times a grievance, and even anger, is coupled with the grief. For the most part, these emotions are undirected and unfocused. If the tragedy is especially great, some will lose themselves and unknowingly direct their criticism at the Almighty. Perhaps the following narrative might help ameliorate that criticism.
Due to his incredible brilliance and high moral/spiritual plateau, the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, had little tolerance for the mundane. His sterling character set the standard for emes, truth/integrity. Thus, he could not brook anything or anyone who deviated from the absolute truth. At first, for a number of years, he remained secluded, spending his days plumbing the depths of Torah and delving deeper into the profundities and secrets of the mystical and spiritual aspects of Torah. Yet, he found time to reach out, to guide, to respond, and to comfort those that came to benefit from his unique blend of practical advice and spiritual guidance.
Once, Rav Menachem Mendel, the rav of Zedunska/Walle, came to him, brokenhearted and forlorn over the tragic death of his young daughter. He could not reconcile himself with the terrible loss and he had a difficult time accepting the bitter Heavenly decree. The Kotzker gave him shalom, welcoming him to his home, and immediately proceeded to share with him a difficulty he had with a passage in the Talmud. Rav Menachem Mendel was quick to respond and elucidate the words of Chazal. The Kotzker then asked him a compelling question on Rashi’s exegesis. Once again, Rav Menachem Mendel presented a brilliant response to his query. The Kotzker then questioned Tosfos, which Rav Menachem Mendel continued to resolve.
When Rav Menachem Mendel concluded his explication of the entire passage of Talmud, Rashi and Tosfos, the Kotzker Rebbe looked at him with penetrating eyes and said, “If the Talmud is correct, and Rashi’s explanation is validated, and Tosfos’ comment is satisfactory, then surely Hashem is justified.”
Rav Menachem Mendel understood the profound message and was comforted. We are able to justify everything in life because we want to. It serves our needs. Why should we not do the same for Hashem? We should also give Him the benefit of the doubt, trusting that He knows and does what is ultimately for the good.
Questions on Chayei Sarah
1. Why did Avraham bow down to Bnei Cheis? Was it not Efron who sold the property to him?
2. Who else made his son swear to him, similar to the way that Avraham made Eliezer swear to him?
3. Did Avraham have any daughters?
4. Why does the Torah enumerate the names of Yishmael’s twelve children and their dwelling places?
1. He bowed down in gratitude to indicate that it was in their honor that Efron agreed to accede to his request (Sforno).
2. Yaakov made Yosef swear to him that he would not bury him in Egypt.
3. “Avraham was blessed bakol.” According to one opinion in Chazal, “bakol,” – “everything,” refers to a daughter that was born to Avraham. A second opinion contends the opposite. The Ramban explains that Avraham would have been unable to find a suitable match for his daughter due to the harmful environment.
4. This is based upon the Chazal that only the descendants of Yitzchak are considered Avraham’s “seed.” Thus, the various prophecies that the Torah makes regarding Avraham’s “seed” inheriting Eretz Yisrael, do not apply to Yishmael (Brisker Rav).
Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland