Commentary for Chayei Sarah

30 Nov

In this week’s parshah Sarah dies at the age of one hundred and twenty-seven, and becomes the first person recorded to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs (some midrashim state that Adam and Eve were buried there first). In Gen. 23:2 the Torah records that Abraham gave a eulogy for his wife. In this verse the letter kaf in the word “eulogize” (livcotah) is written smaller than the other letters. The letter kaf has a numerical value of twenty, so Peirush HaRokeach explains that this extra-small kaf is meant to draw a connection between Sarah and her grandson Jacob- the last person buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs- who lived to age one hundred and forty-seven, twenty years longer than his grandmother.

Jacob and Sarah are two of the four people in the Torah to have their names changed by God or one of God’s emissaries. Sarah’s name was changed to Sarah from the original Sarai, and Jacob’s name is changed to Israel. Both names have their root in the Hebrew verb root S.R.R., meaning one with authority. Both are also noted for doing things that seem disagreeable to us today, but which were ultimately in accordance with God’s will and necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish People.

It is interesting to compare Sarah and Jacob to the other two people who had their names changed, Abraham and Joshua. Unlike Sarah and Jacob, their actions tend to be a bit more agreeable to our modern sensibilities. Joshua is admirable for his leadership, courage, and optimism, while Abraham was noted for his kindness and intercession on behalf of others, only doing things we today find distasteful (such as banishing Hagar and Ishmael or preparing to sacrifice Isaac) after a direct order from God. Instead of being modified by changing letters as with Sarah and Jacob, and being linked by a common root, Abraham and Joshua’s name changes were achieved by simply adding in a letter. In the case of Joshua the letter Yud was added to change his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua, and in the case of Abraham the letter Hay was added to change his name from Abram to Abraham. The letters Yud and Heh together are commonly used as an abbreviation for the Tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter Name of God which we today translate as “the Lord” and read as Adonai (or on rare occasions, Elohim) because we are not completely sure of the vowelization and it would be blasphemous to mispronounce it.

The Tetragrammaton is used in the Torah to emphasize God’s mercy, so when viewed in this context, it often seems to us today like Sarah and Jacob are getting the short end of the stick. For that reason it is important to remember that all of these changes were approved by God, and Sarah and Jacob’s actions were just as much in accordance with God’s will as Abraham and Joshua’s. While compassion and optimism are laudable traits, it is important to remember that sometimes a broader, more long-term view is called for, and we must act not in what seems to be the nicest way to act right now, but in a way that will ultimately result in the best possible outcome for all involved later on down the road.

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