Commentary for Chayei Sarah

14 Nov

This week’s parshah is called Chayei Sarah (“life of Sarah”), which at first glance seems like a very inappropriate title for a parshah in which Sarah dies in the very first verse. The second verse shows us Abraham’s reaction to his wife’s death: “Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her (Gen. 23:2).” These two actions seem to be, in essence, the same thing, but Kli Yakar comments that Abraham “mourned for Sarah” by giving a eulogy for her in which he talked about her positive attributes. The Zohar states that “when a righteous person departs, he is present in all worlds even more than he was in his lifetime.” This is because our positive traits affect all of those around us by setting an example for them, and for generations to come.

Sarah’s praiseworthy traits began to show from a very early age. When she was born, she was given the name Yiscah, which means, “to see.”   The Gemarah (Megillah 14a) gives two explanations for why she was given this name. The first is that, as a prophetess, she was born with a special spiritual sight, a gift which is later temporarily granted to Abraham’s servant Eliezer when he prays to God to send him a sign to direct him towards a worthy bride for Isaac, and is drawn to Rebecca immediately upon the completion of his prayer.

The second explanation of her original name is that she was so beautiful that everyone could not help but look at her. Benayahu teaches that the reason Sarah ceased to be known by this name was that she herself changed it out of modesty, not wishing to be treated differently from anyone else either for her physical beauty or for her spiritual insight. Rebecca (who was Sarah’s great-niece), displays this same modesty, donning a veil before meeting Isaac so that she would not be judged for her beauty.

As a prophetess, Sarah was also renowned for her spirituality and her connection to God. Not only did she hear God’s word and receive insight from God, but she would even converse back and forth with God. Her son, Isaac, carried on this closeness to God, not just conversing with God occasionally, but making sure to set aside time every afternoon to do so (Berachot 26b).

Sarah was also known for her generosity and her kindness. After Sarah’s death, Abraham looks to purchase a burial cave for her. Ephron the Hittite offers to give him a very expensive cave free of charge, but from the hints he drops about the actual price of the cave in their conversation, it is clear that he would really rather not give the cave away for free, and is only doing so because the other Hittites insisted that Abraham be given a choice burial place for free. Abraham picks up on this, and kindly insists on paying full price for the cave anyway. When Eliezer first meets Rebecca, she displays her generosity by not only letting Eliezer drink the sip of water he asks for, but also offering to draw water for his camels as well, which convinces Eliezer that she is a worthy wife for Isaac.

While Sarah might have died in the first verse of this parshah, the title “Chayei Sarah” (life of Sarah) fits the parshah perfectly, as the admirable traits she embodied shine through in the actions of those who knew her, whether personally or merely by reputation. As it was with Sarah, so it is with all of us: “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2).” Our good deeds inspire others to do more good deeds, even long after we have passed on.

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