This week’s Torah portion, named Chayei Sarah, “Sarah’s Life,” begins as follows:
(א) וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
(ב) וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ
- Sarah lived one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.
- Sarah died in Kiriat Arbah, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her.
From where has Avraham come to eulogize Sarah? And why does the word “וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ”, which means, “to cry for her,” have one of its letters written smaller than the others?
Below is a copy of the verse as it is written in the Sefer Torah, the Torah scroll. When HaShem dictated this verse to Moshe, He instructed him to write that letter smaller than the others (the circle is inserted for clarification).
One of the ciphers to understand the Torah is the unusual placement of a topic. The Torah sometimes places two seemingly unrelated topics next to each other to indicate to us that they are indeed related. The very last event described in Vayera, last week’s portion, is the binding of Yitzchak, the Akeidah. Our Sages teach us that that is where Avraham was returning from, the Akeidah. Why was it that immediately upon the completion of that test that Avraham came to eulogize his wife? The Midrash informs us of the circumstances of Sarah’s demise; but before we can appreciate what happened with Sarah after the Akeidah, we need to know what happened to Avraham before he overcame that tremendous challenge.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera, Chapter 22) reveals Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s extraordinary challenges on the way to Mount Moriah. It took three days to get there, time to let both of them contemplate what was about to occur. This act of supreme faith was not impulsively done in a moment of inspiration. And, if that was not difficult enough, the Satan, the angel whom HaShem created to challenge us and try to distract us from doing HaShem’s will, upon realizing what he had to lose if Avraham would successfully complete this test, focused all his efforts on deterring Avraham from fulfilling HaShem’s commandment. The Midrash supplies some of the hurdles that Avraham and Yitzchak had to overcome along the way:
מדרש תנחומא וירא
ויקח את שני נעריו עמו. אמר, עד שאקרבנו ישמרו הם את הכלים. קדמו השטן בדרך ונדמה לו כדמות זקן. א”ל לאן אתה הולך? א”ל להתפלל. א”ל ומי שהולך להתפלל? למה אש ומאכלת בידו ועצים על כתפו? א”ל שמא נשהא יום או יומים ונשחט ונאפה ונאכל. א”ל זקן לא שם הייתי כשאמר לך הקב”ה קח את בנך וזקן כמותך ילך ויאבד בן שנתן לו למאה שנה לא שמעת המשל מה שהיה בידו אבדו ומבקש מאחרים וא”ת יהיה לך בן אחר תשמע מן המשטין ותאבד נשמה שתחייב עליה בדין א”ל לא משטין היה אלא הקב”ה יתברך היה לא אשמע ממך הלך מעליו ונדמה לבחור ועמד על ימינו של יצחק א”ל לאן אתה הולך א”ל ללמוד תורה א”ל בחייך או במיתתך א”ל וכי יש אדם שילמוד אחר מיתה א”ל עלוב בר עלובה כמה תעניות נתענית אמך עד שלא נולדת והזקן הוא השתטה והוא הולך לשחטך אמר אעפ”כ לא אעבור על דעת יוצרי ועל צווי אבי חזר ואמר לאביו אבי ראה מה אומר לי זה א”ל אל תשגיח עליו שאינו בא אלא ליעף לנו מיד ויאמר יצחק וגו’ ביום השלישי וכי מאחר שהדרך קרובה למה נתעכב שלשת ימים כיון שראה שלא קבלו ממנו הלך ונעשה לפניהם נהר גדול מיד ירד אברהם לתוך המים והגיעו עד ברכיו אמר לנעריו בואו אחרי ירדו אחריו כיון שהגיע עד חצי הנהר הגיע המים עד צוארו באותה שעה תלה אברהם עיניו לשמים אמר לפניו רבש”ע בחרתני הודרתני ונגלית לי ואמרת לי אני יחיד ואתה יחיד על ידך יודע שמי בעולמי והעלה יצחק בנך לפני לעולה ולא עכבתי והריני עוסק בצוויך ועכשיו באו מים עד נפש אם אני או יצחק בני טובע מי יקיים מאמרך על מי יתייחד שמך א”ל הקב”ה חייך שעל ידך יתיחד שמי בעולם מיד גער הקב”ה את המעין ויבש הנהר ועמדו ביבשה
“The Satan stood in Avraham’s way and appeared to him in the guise of an old man.
He asked Avraham, “Where are you going?”
“To pray!” answered Avraham.
“What’s the torch, knife, and wood for, then?” asked the Satan.
Avraham responded, “We may stay two or three days, and we will be able to slaughter and animal, cook it and eat it.”
To this the Satan said, “Who are you fooling! I heard HaShem tell you to take your son Yitzchak and sacrifice him! An old man like you, who got your son when you were 100 years old, you are going to kill him? Don’t you know the adage, ‘He ruined the one he had, and now he wants another?’ Are you going to listen to that imposter and become a murderer”
Avraham said, “It wasn’t an imposter; it was HaShem Himself. I am not listening to you anymore!”
The Satan left Avraham and appeared to Yitzchak, this time as a young man.
He said to Yitzchak, “Where are you going?”
“To learn Torah!” answered Yitzchak.
“When you are dead or alive?” asked the Satan.
“How could a person learn Torah when he is dead?” asked Yitzchak.
“You embarrassment, you!” said the Satan. “Do you know how many fasts your mother fasted until she had you as a child, and now this old man has gone crazy and he is going to slaughter you!”
“No matter! I will not transgress the commandment of my Creator, or my father!”
Yitzchak then turned to his father and said to him, “Father! Look what this guy is saying to me!”
“Don’t listen to him, he is just trying to tire us out!” said Avraham.
When the Satan saw that he could not influence Avraham and Yitzchak, he created a river in front of them. Avraham and Yitzchak went into the river until their necks, and at that point Avraham raised his eyes to HaShem and prayed to HaShem that He grant him the merit to do His will and complete his mission. HaShem then dried up the river, and Avraham and Yitzchak were once again on dry land.
These were the difficulties presented by the Satan, but there were other impossible questions that Avraham had, which should have presented insurmountable obstacles to him.
HaShem had specifically told him that Yitzchak would be the future of the Jewish people and would carry forth Avraham’s legacy. If Avraham was to bring Yitzchak as a sacrifice, how would this promise be fulfilled?
Human sacrifice was common in those times. In his efforts to bring people closer to HaShem, Avraham told them that a loving god does not require human sacrifices. HaShem himself asking Avraham for a human sacrifice threw a monkey wrench into all of Avraham’s principles and should have messed everything up!
Additionally, how would he explain his actions to all of his followers who accepted the line about a merciful god?
And how would he tell his wife?
We cannot fathom the enormity of this test. Yet, Avraham passed it with flying colors. He steeled himself against the onslaught of questions and difficulties and stoically stayed the course until he successfully completed the task. Nothing could deter Avraham from fulfilling his mission; his commitment to HaShem was strong and unwavering.
Our teachers learn an invaluable tactic in dealing with the evil inclination from the way that Avraham dealt with the challenges of the Satan. He simply did not respond to his questions; he turned him completely off. “Get away from me. I am not talking to you anymore!”
“But wait! How are you answering my questions? Are you a robot, going through the motions without using you brain to figure things out?” Avraham could have thought to himself.
The answer to these questions is, “I am not addressing the questions. I know that what I am doing is right, and even though I don’t have the answers, I am going to do it anyway.”
Sometimes the evil inclination uses this argument to stop us from progressing by posing questions that we can’t answer and making us feel like we are doing things robotically without rhyme or reason. This is of course not the case. Every single mitzvah in the Torah is infinitely deep and broad. Just because we are incapable of fathoming its meaning and depth is not a reason not to do it. We know it is the right thing to do because HaShem has told us to do it, and that is the greatest reason to do it.
This is now where the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 32) picks up “the rest of the story.”
“כְּשֶׁבָּא אַבְרָהָם מֵהַר הַמּוֹרִיָּה חָרָה אַפּוֹ שֶׁל סַמָּאֵל [נ”א: שטן], שֶׁרָאָה שֶׁלֹּא עָלְתָה בְיָדוֹ תַּאֲוַת לִבּוֹ לְבַטֵּל קָרְבָּנוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם. מֶה עָשָׂה, הָלַךְ וְאָמַר לְשָׂרָה, אִי שָׂרָה לֹא שָׁמַעְתְּ מַה שֶּׁנַּעֲשָׂה בָּעוֹלָם, אָמְרָה לוֹ לָאו, אָמַר לָהּ לָקַח אִישֵׁךְ הַזָּקֵן לַנַּעַר לְיִצְחָק וְהִקְרִיבוֹ לְעוֹלָה, וְהַנַּעַר בּוֹכֶה וּמְיַלֵּל שֶׁלֹּא יָכוֹל לְהִנָּצֵל. מִיָּד הִתְחִילָה בּוֹכָה וּמְיַלֶּלֶת. בָּכְתָה שָׁלֹשׁ בְּכִיּוֹת כְּנֶגֶד שָׁלֹשׁ תְּקִיעוֹת, שָׁלֹשׁ יְלָלוֹת כְּנֶגֶד שָׁלֹשׁ יְבָבוֹת, וּפָרְחָה נִשְׁמָתָהּ וָמֵתָה. בָּא אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ וּמְצָאָהּ שֶׁמֵּתָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר [בראשית כג, ב] וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ”.
When the Satan saw that he could not deter Avraham from sacrificing Yitzchak, he went to Sarah and said to her, “Sarah! Do you know what has just happened?”
“Your old man took the lad Yitzchak and sacrificed him! The lad was crying and screaming, but he couldn’t save himself!”
Upon hearing this, Sarah started crying. She let out three sobs and then died.
Upon Avraham’s return from Mount Moriah, he found that she had died. This is what the verse states, “And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her.”
So, we now see the connection between the Akeidah and Sarah’s death.
It was the Akeidah that seemed to cause her death.
This raises a very important question:
We can understand the Satan’s extreme effort to stop Avraham from performing this great deed; that is his job: To put up a challenge to Mitzvah performance so that we have a choice. If there were no option other than to do the right thing, we would be like robots programmed to do what they do. Doing what we are programmed to entitles us to no reward for our actions. But HaShem put us here to earn reward! Only when we choose to ignore the temptation of the wrong path are we eligible for reward. Because then we, and we alone, have correctly chosen to follow HaShem’s instructions.
What was the reason for killing Sarah? Revenge? Impossible. Because ultimately, the Satan is an angel of HaShem who really wants us not to listen to him! He is here solely to be defeated, and he is happy when we ignore him. But he’s tough, and that does not stop him or curtail his wiles.
The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin 40b says the following:
רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר: אפילו צדיק גמור כל ימיו ומרד באחרונה איבד את הראשונות שנאמר צדקת הצדיק לא תצילנו ביום פשעו
“Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, “Even if a person was righteous his whole life, but he rebelled at the end of his life by regretting all the good that he had done, he loses the merit of all the good deeds that he did during his lifetime.”
This was the Satan’s goal in causing Sarah’s death. His final way to possibly have Avraham lose the merit of the Akeidah would be to have him feel remorse for having done it. The Satan hoped that when Avraham returned and found his beloved wife Sarah dead as a result of the Akeidah, he would say: “Oh no! The Akeidah cost me my dear and holy wife! I wish I had never done it!” Then, he would have lost the entire Mitzvah! But Avraham did not fall for it. He realized that this was just the method that HaShem used to take Sarah from the world. She had lived the full 127 years that she was allotted when she was born. This is why the verse repeats, “the years of Sarah’s life.” That was the number of years that Sarah had to live.
This is also why the letter in the word that means “to cry for her” is written smaller than the other letters—to indicate that Avraham did not cry too much. He could not help mourning for his wife, but he also didn’t want anyone to think that he was having second thoughts over the Akeidah.
There are two very important lessons here.
- Very often, we become involved in a Mitzvah, and our hearts are pure in wanting to do a perfect job. Then the complaints start. With your best intentions, people are not happy with you or the excellent job that you are doing. You can reach the point where you become so frustrated that you say, “I wish I never started this!”
But in that case, Bingo! The Satan has won. You were such a hero in doing the Mitzvah, the right thing, the Satan had to take it away.
- Frequently, people pass away in a way that we think, “If only this were different, the death would never have happened.” It is a mistake to think this way. A person dies when it is his time. If it were not that particular way, it would have been a different way. HaShem’s will always prevails.
The Akeidah has become such a seminal event in our history that we invoke its merit throughout our daily prayers. Before reading the entire chapter of the Akeidah as set forth in the Torah, we ask HaShem to remember the Akeidah.
“וּזְכָר לָנוּ ה’ אֱלֹקינוּ אַהֲבַת הַקַּדְמוֹנִים אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיִשְֹרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד וְאֶת הַשְּׁבוּעָה שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתָּ לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בְּהַר הַמּוֹרִיָּה וְאֶת הָעֲקֵדָה שֶׁעָקַד אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ”
“Remember for us, HaShem, the love of the forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov your servants, and the covenant, the kindness, and the oath, that you made to Avraham our forefather on Mount Moriah and the Akeidah that Avraham bound Yitzchak on the altar.
In the Rosh HaShanah Musaf Service, in the blessing of “זכרונות”, “Remembrances”, we ask HaShem to remember the Akeidah. (There is, moreover, a special point to blowing specifically the ram’s horn as the Shofar, so as to remember the ram that Avraham Avinu brought in Yitzchak’s place.)
What exactly are we asking HaShem to remember? The greatness of Avraham Avinu? What does that have to do with us?
It’s like the story of a man who entered a kosher restaurant but was unimpressed with the proprietor’s level of observance.
He asked him, “Is this a kosher establishment?”
“Of course!” came the reply. “Don’t you see the picture of my father hanging on the wall?”
The customer was pleased to see the picture of a pious looking, bearded Jew with a large yarmulke on his head.
After complementing the proprietor on his choice of a picture, he said. “I would feel much more comfortable eating here if your father was standing here and your picture was on the wall.”
After the Akeidah, HaShem told Avraham.
“כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹקים אַתָּה”
“HaShem said: Now I know that you are a G-d-fearing person.”
How did Avraham display the fear of HaShem? It was his tenacious resolve to fulfill HaShem’s command despite all the contradictions, obstacles, and difficulties. He simply blocked off his mind, paying no attention to the Satan and his incisive, loaded questions. Avraham simply did not dwell on the promise that HaShem made about Yitzchak carrying on his legacy. He simply turned off his mind and did not pay attention to HaShem’s asking him for a human sacrifice. The ability of a Jew who has clarity of mission to say, “come what may, I am going to do what HaShem says,” carries the attribute of “Fear of HaShem.” I must fulfill His wishes. This is the attribute that we inherited from Avraham our forefather. This attribute has preserved the Jewish people through the most horrific and difficult times. They never lost their resolve.
These are the heroic stories of Auschwitz and Buchenwald victims who readily gave away their meager daily bread ration for the chance to put on Tefilin or to Daven from a Siddur. Or who scraped together little globs of fat to have oil to light the Menorah.
No matter what the Nazis did to them, they could not strip the Jew of his love and fear of HaShem .
An English woman, a Holocaust survivor, recently sent a question to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky שליט”א in Bnei Brak that brought tears to his eyes.
This is what she told her son, who was to bring the question to Rabbi Kanievsky.
“My dear son, it is impossible to describe to you what went on there. I never told you anything about how I lost my entire past and all my loved ones. How did I remain alive physically and emotionally? I will tell you, my son. During those long days, I felt that I had a father in heaven that I could speak to. And I would speak to Him. How would I speak? Through one short prayer that I remembered from the morning prayers, that was always on my lips.
This was the verse.
“הַבֵּט מִשָּׁמַיִם וּרְאֵה, כִּי הָיִינוּ לַעַג וָקֶלֶס בַּגּוֹיִם, נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ כַּצֹאן לַטֶּבַח יוּבַל לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד וּלְמַכָּה וּלְחֶרְפָּה”
“HaShem, look from heaven and see that we are a laughing stock to the nations, we are like sheep to slaughter, to be killed, abolished, beaten, and humiliated. Even with all this, we have not forgotten Your name, so, please HaShem, don’t forget us.”
I said to my Father in heaven, ‘With all this, even though I see death all around me, and all types of horrific acts, I haven’t forgotten You! Please, Father, I beg You, please don’t forget us.’
This was on my lips at all times, and it gave me the inspiration I needed to get through the toughest times until the Americans came and liberated us.
Thank G-d, I survived, and started a new life and had a family, but I know that I am not going to live forever. I have one request. On that day that I pass away, take a piece of paper and a pencil and write on it these words, וּבְכָל זֹאת שִׁמְךָ לֹא שָׁכַחְנוּ, נָא אַל תִּשְׁכָּחֵנוּ”” , “Through all of this we have not forgotten Your name, please don’t forget us”, and put it in my hand. This is the prayer that I spoke to HaShem when I was on the earth, and it saved me from the hell that I went through. And this is the prayer I want to appear with when I stand in front of my Father in Heaven, maybe it will save me from the heavenly hell.
But I don’t know if it is permitted to do so. Please ask this question to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky שליט”א.”
When Rav Kanievsky heard the question, he started to cry. Then he said, “We have to see if it a verse from the Tanach, or a prayer.
He took a Tanach, and looked a few places, here and there, and then declared, “It is not a verse. If it were a verse, it would be inappropriate to place it in the grave with the deceased; but since it is not a verse, it is permitted. They should put the piece of paper in a jar and place it in her hand.”
After rendering his decision, Rabbi Kanievsky raised his eyes and said, “But HaShem doesn’t need any papers to remind Him.”
This is the special trait that we have inherited from Avraham Avinu, and when we speak about the Akeidah, this is what we are saying to HaShem: “I will remain loyal to You, no matter what comes. I have inherited this innate quality from Avraham my forefather. It is a part of me.”