The End of an Era — Dara Unterberg
פרק כג’,ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.
23,2 And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba–Hebron–in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
A careful reading of this pasuk causes one to wonder: where was Avraham coming from? This question is addressed by many of the commentators, and their answers vary significantly. The approach that I prefer is suggested by the Ramban. He says that the word vayavo, ויבא need not imply a physical arrival, and that in this case (as well as others in Tanach) vayavo, ויבא implies coming to a task. Sarah passed away, and Avraham geared himself up to the task of eulogizing and mourning his beloved wife.
There is an additional element in the pasuk that requires analysis. The pasuk says that Avraham first eulogizes Sarah, and then cries for her. TheNetziv points out that the sequence usually takes place in the reverse order. First the mourner cries beino u’vein atzmo,בינו ובין עצמו/ privately and then the public eulogy takes place.
Both the Ramban and the Netziv are noting that Sarah’s death was a profoundly traumatic event for Avraham as well as for their community. Rav Soloveitchik says the following:
“Avraham’s life story, as told by the Torah, begins at the age of seventy-five and comes to an end with Sarah’s death. The originator of the covenant, and creator of a new moral code was not a single individual. Two people were charged with the task, a man and a woman, Avraham and Sarah. They were both indispensable for the implementation of the Divine plan. Both of them converted people; both taught the many. Once Sarah died, Avraham’s assignment came to an end. He was ordered by G-d to withdraw from the arena of history, retreat into privacy, and live like an ordinary person. The vacancy will be filled by Yitzchak and Rivka…” (Abraham’s Journey- page 192)
Sarah’s death, therefore, marked the end of an era. According to many midrashim, people streamed toward Sarah’s tent upon learning of her death, thus necessitating Avraham’s need to eulogize her before he even had the chance to cry and mourn privately. The Rav adds:
“There was a vacuum created by Sarah’s death which brings the story of the covenantal community to a temporary halt. The Torah tells us nothing else about Avraham because the covenant was entrusted to two, a man and a woman; if the latter is missing, the story cannot proceed.”
This explanation clarifies the content of parshat Chayei Sarah. Despite the fact that Avraham lives another thrity-eight years, the parsha focuses on the death and burial of Sarah as well as on the search for Yitzchak’s wife. Homage is paid to the first generation of the covenantal community, and then Avraham ensures its continuity with the selection of Rivka to marry his son. Avraham’s “career” ends with Sarah’s death.
The Torah itself pays its last respects to Sarah in its opening verse:
פרק כג’,א וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.
23,1 And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
Rav Soloveitchik plays off the following midrash and puts a wonderful spin on it:
“At one hundred she was as beautiful as a girl of twenty; at twenty she was, as regards sin, as innocent as a child of seven.”
Sarah, says the Rav, lived three lives simultaneously (existentially, of course!): the life of a child, the life of a young woman, and the life of a mature and old woman. Maturity need not destroy the inquisitiveness and intensity of youth. The wisdom that comes with adulthood should not negate the sincerity and innocence of childhood. Sarah served G-d with the idealism of the young, the faith of a child and with the intellectual greatness of a mature adult.
May her legacy be perpetuated in her descendants.