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Drash on Chayei Sarah 2022

Drash on Chayei Sarah
Rabbi Esther Jilovsky, PhD
Temple Sinai, Wellington, NZ


It's well known that Moses lived to one hundred and twenty. After all, when we wish someone a happy birthday, we say: biz hundert un tsvantsik! But it’s perhaps less known that Sarah lived to the age of one hundred and twenty-seven. Sarah lived the lifespan of Moses plus an additional seven years, perhaps echoing the seven days of creation, the seventh day of Shabbat, or even the seven matriarchs and patriarchs, thus recognising her place in the centre of Jewish tradition.

Although this week’s parasha is named Chayei Sarah, literally meaning ‘the life of Sarah,’ it opens with her death. The Torah states: ‘Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her’ (Genesis 23:2). That the Torah uses two different Hebrew verbs to describe how her husband Abraham deals with her passing: that he both mourns her and weeps for her, hints at how devastated he is at losing his wife, his companion and life-partner. Since the Torah introduced the two of the them as they set out from Haran on their journey together, Sarah has been a constant presence in Abraham’s story.

Yet, there is one episode where she is conspicuously absent. Immediately preceding Chayei Sarah, in Genesis 22, we find the story of the Akedah. In this narrative where God tests Abraham’s faith to see whether he will go through with the sacrifice of his son Isaac, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, does not figure at all. We don’t know where she is. Did she know what was happening, as Abraham almost went through with this terrible task? Or was she oblivious?

According to Midrash, it was the shock of learning about the Akedah that caused Sarah’s death.[1] As our great medieval commentator Rashi explains: ‘she received a great shock (literally, her soul flew from her) and she died.’ It must have been a tremendous shock indeed.

Yet in this parasha that begins with loss and devastation, there is also renewal and hope. Isaac, now a grown man, meets and marries his wife Rebekah, and thus lays the groundwork for a new generation. In one of the most poignant verses in the Torah, we read: ‘Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death’ (Genesis 24:67). Isaac has lost his mother, but found his wife. By bringing his wife Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent, zichrona livracha, he creates his own family as a continuation of his birth family.

The Torah rarely touches on feelings, but in these two verses that capture Abraham’s and Isaac’s emotions after Sarah’s death we find a breathtaking snapshot of their grief for her. A grief that pierces time, woven into the stories of our ancestors, but familiar to anyone who has walked the path of loss.

[1] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 32

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