lithograph, Marc Chagall
This week’s parsha begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. Sarah and Abraham were partners in their lives. They were ten years apart in age. They probably grew up together- Abraham told King Avimelech that they were married but they were half siblings- they had the same father.
The Torah focuses on Abraham. He follows Gd’s instructions and leaves his birthplace, he makes a covenant with Gd, bargains with Gd, travels throughout the land, and agrees to circumcision as a proof of his allegiance to Gd. Throughout all this Sarah is at Abraham’s side, almost a silent partner.
Sarah was a beautiful woman. “Behold now, I know you are a beautiful woman to gaze upon…” (Genesis 11: 11) Abraham was afraid he would be killed if another leader wanted to marry Sarah. They discussed it. Sarah agreed to say she was Abraham’s sister. “And it came to pass that when Avram came to Mitzrayim [Egypt], the Mitzrim [Egyptians] beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes of Par’o saw her and commended her to Par’o and the woman was taken to Par’o’s house.” (Genesis 11: 14, 15) Abraham had been correct. Sarah was very beautiful and she was taken by the Par’o- and that happened twice! (Spoiler- Gd intervened each time and she was returned to Abraham by each of the two rulers)
Sarah, etching by laya Crust
The point is that it seems Abraham and Sarah were true partners. They started their life’s journey together and discussed things as situations arose. They stayed together as a couple even though Sarah was barren. She accepted Gd’s word. When she understood that Abraham needed to have a son to build a nation she offered her handmaid Hagar to Abraham. Her understanding of situations was broad and deep. She said, “…when she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived , I was despised in her eyes.” (Genesis 16:5) Sarah realised at that point that Hagar would not allow her son to be raised by Sarah and Abraham in order to be an appropriate leader with Gd’s message. Instead Hagar felt superior to Sarah and would, in that case, naturally retain the molding of her baby’s character and behaviour.
It is hard to understand the breakdown in communication when Abraham is directed to take Isaac to Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice Isaac. How could Abraham not have discussed this with his wife, the mother of their son, the visionary always at his side?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that Sarah did know what was happening. He suggests that Sarah heard Abraham in his preparations early in the morning. When she looked and saw Abraham packing a knife for “shechita” (ritual slaughter) and planning to take Isaac with him, she was concerned. Rabbi Riskin writes, “Sarah demands to hear G-d’s precise words, saying: “He didn’t say that you should slaughter our child; He merely said to lift him up, to dedicate him to Divine service. G-d could not possibly have commanded you to slaughter an innocent child!”“
drawing by Laya Crust
While Abraham and Isaac were climbing up the mountain for the sacrifice Sarah went in another direction. She went to Kiryat Arba/ Hebron to the place where, according to midrash, Adam and Eve were buried. There she prayed to Gd to stay Abraham’s hand and save her son.
She died there. Neither Abraham nor Isaac saw her again.
Abraham and Isaac didn’t see each other again after the “akeida” (binding of Isaac), and Gd didn’t speak to Abraham after that incident. It seems Abraham lived out the rest of his life quietly with no further leadership moments. He remarried, had 12 more sons and was buried beside his beloved Sarah by Isaac and Ishmael.
Sarah was the partner, the sounding board and support to Abraham. She accompanied him from their birthplace steeped in idol worship to a new land. She established a home open to visitors and partnered in nurturing a new belief system. Sarah knew how fragile their mission was. She did all she could to shield her son- the future of the nation- from negative influences. When she died the matriarch of Gd’s new nation died, and Abraham was left without his equal and partner.
At the end of “Chayei Sarah” we read that Isaac married Rebecca. “And Isaac brought her (Rebecca) into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)
And so it goes. And the story continues.