Dr. Yocheved Engelberg Cohen
Former Shlicha, Syracuse (1999-01) and Princeton (2003-05)


The Death of Sarah: Before and After

Immediately following Sarah’s death, we are told of the burial arrangements that Abraham undertakes. Reasonable enough. However, the lengthiness and detail of these arrangements – 17 verses – is rather unusual and cause for question. We are told that Abraham asks Bnei Chet (the Hittites) if he can have a burial plot, they convene a council to discuss it, and they negotiate extensively before a deal is struck. Why do we need all these mundane details? One classic approach is that this is the beginning of Abraham’s acquisition of the Land he has been promised. We are shown that Abraham bought this land legitimately and at full value (retail!) from its previous owner. (It’s interesting to note that Chevron is one of the hot spots in the current Israeli-Palestinian situation). However, another explanation has been put forth which I think is very psychologically perceptive:

The first indication of the magnitude of influence that Sarah had during her life is in the actions of Avraham Avinu following her passing. What once were the steady hands of devotion and assurance, that could wield a knife over their own firstborn, are reduced to shaky and uncertain appendages on a grief-stricken man. We are treated to the spectacle of Avraham Avinu in his pursuit of a kever (burial plot) and shown the intricate details of his interactions with Bnei Chet. Like photographers of the Vietnam War who claimed to have concentrated on the focal settings of their lenses to avoid thinking about the grueling and bloody subjects of their pictures, it seems as if even the text itself, and not just Avraham, is avoiding the painful issue of loss by focusing on details that are related but not directly reminiscent of the loss (“When A Man Loves A Woman”, Divrei Beit Hillel, Chayei Sarah 5759, ).
The human psyche undertakes protective distraction or re-focusing, when confronted with a serious loss, which it is not yet ready to truly assimilate.

This insightful and thought-provoking analysis explains the connection of Sarah’s death with what follows it. Now let us explore the relationship of Sarah’s death to what precedes it.

The death of Sarah is narrated directly after the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) because, as a result of the tidings of the Akedah – that her son had been prepared for slaughter, and had been all but slaughtered – she gave up the ghost and died.

Thus reads the famous commentary of Rashi (1040-1105) on the second verse in this week’s parshah (as translated by Dr. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg). For the first two verses of this parshah tell us, in a very succinct manner, and seemingly without context, of Sarah’s death. Rashi, basing himself on earlier midrashic commentaries, suggests the context quoted above. The Akedah precedes Sarah’s death because it precipitates it.

While this is certainly an interesting thesis, upon careful consideration we can question why the knowledge that Isaac had not been slaughtered was so traumatic as to cause death. Disturbing and scary, certainly – but life-threatening? Dr. Zornberg addresses this issue:
She dies of the truth of “he had been all but slaughtered” – of that hair’s breadth that separates death from life. This is what Sartre calls “contingency,” the nothingness that “lies coiled in the very core of being, like a worm” (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, p. 127).

Sarah was unable to cope with the realization that life is so tentative and fragile, and can abruptly and unexpectedly come to an end. Dr. Zornberg points out (p. 128) that this sort of existential doubt is included in the terrible curses listed in Deuteronomy 28:66: “The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival.” She describes this recognition of one’s as “the vertigo of being,” and suggests that Sarah was unable to resolve this dilemma. It is precisely the “all but slaughtered” that Sarah could not tolerate.

We see that while dealing with death is difficult and challenging, the human psyche is endowed with certain mechanisms to help us cope with it. Life, too, presents us with challenges, one of which is the fragility of life itself. Most of us are able to put this out of our minds most of the time, which allows us to function. However, it is also important to occasionally reflect on this fragility. Doing so can motivate us to seize the moment and use our allotted time wisely. May we succeed in rising to all the challenges we face – those of death and those of life.

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