This week I write in memory of two wonderful leaders of the worldwide Jewish community who passed away during the last week: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (rabbisacks.org/), and Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, celebrated teacher, scholar and authority on Jewish law (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dovid_Feinstein).
This week’s parasha is Chayei Sarah – the life of Sarah, so called because it begins “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi explains why this description of her age was used, rather than just saying 127 years. At 100 she was as free from sin as when she was 20, and at 20 she was as innocently beautiful as a 7-year-old.
After reciting her age, the parasha does not teach us anything else about Sarah. The parasha then tells how Abraham purchases the fields and cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a burial place for her. He pays an outrageous price for this property (calculated by some to be one million shekels in silver) and, though Abraham is an experienced businessman, he does not even try to bargain.
Abraham does not want Isaac to marry a girl who has grown up in the immorality of Canaan. He prefers a wife for Isaac from his family in Ur Kasdim (in modern day Iraq), so he sends the head of his household, Eliezer, there. Eliezer is very concerned about finding the right girl, and prays for God to give him a sign for the right girl – she will show her real character by drawing water for him and his thirsty camels (camels can drink gallons and gallons of water after a long trek). The right girl – Rebecca – came and did just as Eliezer prayed.
So, why should the parasha be named for Sarah’s life? Is it just because the first sentence talks about her?
I think the entire parasha is about Sarah’s life. Why is Abraham willing to pay such an extraordinary price for Sarah’s burial place? Because she was an extraordinary woman – righteous, kind, beautiful in every way, and always thinking of others. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be the parents of a great people, and the woman who would be the mother of that people deserves the best burial site.
Why is Eliezer so concerned to find the right wife for Isaac? Because he knows that Abraham and Sarah were very careful to raise Isaac to be righteous and to carry on the leadership of the people who worship God. Sarah’s righteousness was a blessing for her entire people. In her honor, her lamp burned from one Shabbat to the next, dough she made was blessed by remaining fresh from Friday to Friday, and a cloud representing the Divine Presence remained over the tent.
When Sarah died, these blessings stopped, and everyone in Abraham’s family missed Sarah and the gifts that God gave in her honor. When Eliezer brought Rebecca home to Isaac, she occupied the tent that had belonged to Sarah, and because of Rebecca’s righteousness and kindness, the blessings returned.
So even after her death, Sarah’s life continued, as an inspiration and example to her family, and on through the generations to the entire Jewish people.