Chayei Sarah: Beyond Death

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Our patriarchs and matriarchs did not have easy lives. Each faced problems of famine, of wandering from place to place, of foreign rulers, and of course, problems with their children. Our founding mothers and fathers often disagreed, sharply at times, on the most basic of decisions relating to the raising of their families. The dispute between Abraham and Sarah as to the place of Yishmael in their household was so fierce that G-d had to intervene, instructing Abraham to listen to Sarah (whose insight was apparently much better than her husband's). Sadly, the banishment of Yishmael is the last time we see Sarah and Abraham together. Immediately thereafter, Abraham (alone) enters into a peace treaty with Avimelech, and that episode is followed by a description of Abraham and Isaac walking together to the Akeidah. It is only at Sarah’s funeral that the family comes together one last time.

These disagreements amongst our founding families should not be mistaken for arguments. Abraham and Sarah form an inseparable unit; following the passing of Sarah, we hear almost nothing of the remaining 38 years of Abraham's life. What little we do hear—his marriage to Ketura, the birth of their six children, and his subsequent death—serves to highlight the deep distinction between the mission of Abraham as carried out in conjunction with Sarah, and (if we may say so) the relative insignificance of Abraham's life post-Sarah. The lives and times of, say, Yakshan, Medan, and Yishback, children of Avraham Avinu, do not much interest the Torah. There were no arguments recorded between Abraham and Ketura (or Abraham and Hagar, for that matter) because there was little worth arguing about.

The Torah spends almost twice as many verses describing Abraham’s funeral arrangements for his beloved wife Sarah as it does in describing Abraham's last 38 years. No death in the Chumash, with the possible exception of Yaakov Avinu’s, is described in such length and detail. Up until this point, people just died without any fanfare. Sarah's funeral is the first one mentioned in Chumash. Yet it is much more than a description of the honour a devoted husband paid to his beloved wife.

The death of Sarah, so appropriately described as part of Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), is a lesson about how to lead one's life. While the written Torah is busy describing the death of Sarah, the Oral Law is deriving the manner in which a Jewish couple marries. The Torah, in detailing Abraham’s purchase of Efron's field as a burial plot and in describing the laws of marriage (and divorce) in Sefer Devarim, uses the same terminology of "acquisition" (literally, “taking”). Our Sages thus derive the insight that, just as Abraham paid money to “acquire” the field, a husband-to-be must give his bride money (or the equivalent, i.e., a ring) in order to actualize the marriage. This gezerah shava (word comparison), known in rabbinical literature as "Kicha kicha m’s’dei Efron" appears strange, if not insulting, to modern women. Does one acquire a wife like one acquires a field?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains beautifully.  He points out that when a Jewish couple marries, the husband obligates himself to shower love on his wife beyond their years together. The honour due a wife extends to the grave and beyond. If Abraham was willing to spend a small fortune to bury an empty shell, imagine how one must treat a spouse while he or she is alive!

In a strange way, the bond between Abraham and Sarah continued to grow, even after death. The Kli Yakar also explains the anomaly mentioned above—namely, that Abraham, in contrast to the norm, first eulogized Sarah and then cried over her loss.   It is human nature to cry upon the death of a loved one, he suggests, and only afterward to be able to eulogize her. We cry bitterly upon the death of a loved one; but the passage of time allows the raw emotions to dissipate, and gradually, the crying stops. Thus, our Rabbis note, "three days for crying and seven for eulogizing". However, in the case of Abraham and Sarah, things were different. With each passing day, Abraham felt the loss more and more acutely. His crying increased over time, long after the eulogies were given.  Time allowed him to realize, with ever-greater clarity, Sarah's indispensable role in the covenantal community.

Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish couple, serve as a model for all subsequent Jewish couples. Fierce independence combined with loving interdependence through life and beyond; working together, each in his or her own way, to ensure the strength of the Jewish people.