The Offering of Yitzhak; the Offering of Sarah

Yinon Ahiman is the Director General of the Ohr Torah Stone network

Yinon AhimanThe Midrash offers two main explanations pertaining to the particular timing of Sarah’s death. 

The first is related to the birth of Rivka, which appears two verses prior to the mention of Sarah’s death (Bereshit 22): “And Betuel begot Rivka.”  The following explanation is mentioned in Midrash Rabbah on Chayei Sarah (Chapter 2):

“The light of Sarah did not set before the light of Rivka rose.  For this reason, we are first told of the children Milka bore and only then are we told that Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years…” 

In other words, the rising of Rivka’s “dawn” brought about Sarah’s “sunset”; an heiress was ready to take over, as is written in Bereshit 24, 67: “And Yitzhak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother.”  Sarah had completed her task, it seems, and so she died and was gathered unto her forefathers.

However, the very same Midrash (chapter 5), offers a different approach altogether:

“‘And Avraham came to mourn Sarah.’  Whence did he come?  From the mount of Moriah, as Sarah’s passing was a result of that same sorrow.  For this reason, the binding of Yitzhak and the death of Sarah are mentioned in proximity.”

Or as Rashi puts it:  “Because Yitzhak was bound to be offered as a sacrifice, her soul departed from her body.”  Ultimately, Yitzhak was not offered as a sacrifice; however, the sorrow and worry Sarah experienced are what caused her death.  One might go so far as to say that not only was the ram offered as sacrifice instead of Yitzhak – so was Sarah!

What’s more difficult to understand is the total lack of verbal communication between Avraham and Sarah regarding Yitzhak.  Why is the topic enveloped by such silence?

As is known, Avraham and Sarah were full partners to all their endeavors as well as their departure from Charan.  As the Midrash says”: “Avraham was engaged in converting the men, while Sarah converted the women.”

Midrash Tanhuma on Chayei Sarah (2) says the following:  “‘And Avraham was old’, of this [verse] it is said ‘A woman of valor is the crown of her husband.'”  In other words, so long as Sarah was alive, she was “the crown of her husband” and preserved her husband’s strength. 

In fact, the Midrash relates to the entire chapter of Eshet Chayil [Woman of Valor] from Proverbs as Avraham’s eulogy for Sarah.  The Midrash goes on to say:

“Avraham continued to bemoan her, saying: ‘Oh woman of valor, who shall find such a one…. Her husband’s heart trusted her…’ When was this? When he had said to her [in Egypt] ‘Say you are my sister.’ ‘She opened her hands to the poor’ – this refers to the fact that Sarah would give charity and clothes the naked…. ‘She opens her mouth with wisdom’ – this refers to the time she told Avraham to take her maidservant… ‘Many daughters have acted valiantly, but you have outdone them all.’  This is in keeping with the words of Isaiah (51, 2) who said: ‘Look unto Avraham your father, and unto Sarah that bore you.'”

It follows that Sarah was a loyal partner and a full ally to Avraham.  There are even those who say that her degree of prophecy was higher than that of Avraham.  On the verse in Bereshit (21, 12), “All that Sarah says unto you, hearken unto her”, the Midrash says: “Avraham was inferior to Sarah in prophecy.” (Shemot Rabbah 1, 1)

How then can we understand the utter silence between them when it comes to the issue of sacrificing Yitzhak?

An answer may be found in the commentary offered by Rabbi Riskin in his book “Ohr Torah” on the Book of Genesis.  Rabbi Riskin asks the following question on the verse – “And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her”: Why does Avraham first mourn for Sarah and only then weep?  Surely when one hears of the death of a spouse, one weeps first and then mourns?

Rabbi Riskin explains that because of the long-standing relationship between Avraham and Sarah, and the shared ideologies and faith, it seems that the very close intimacy between them may have desensitized Avraham somewhat, in that he may have viewed his wife as a presence so natural, that she was ultimately taken for granted:

“He was so close to her that she became his alter ego, a flesh of his flesh, a bone of his bones. Thus, only when he had finished eulogizing her and recalling every deed and achievement of hers, did he start weeping; only when the realization hit him – that Sarah was his one and only – did he break out in a terrible cry; now that he was inconsolable, he realized all at once that his life, and even his Divine calling, would never be the same again.”

According to this explanation offered by Rabbi Riskin, we can understand the lack of verbal exchange between Avraham and Sarah as one emanating from the fact that Avraham saw Sarah as an integral part of him and, as such, as a woman who does not have her own exclusive voice, but a voice that blends and merges with his own. 

In contrast to the lack of conversation between Avraham and Sarah, the Midrash (VaYikra Rabbah on Acharei Mot, 20, 2) relates a conversation between Sarah and Yitzhak: 

“…when Yitzhak returned to his mother, she asked him: ‘Where were you, my son?’  [He replied] ‘My father took me across mountains and hills etc.’  [And she said to him] ‘Woe to the son of this miserable woman.  If it weren’t for the angel, would you have been slaughtered?’ [He replied] ‘Yes’.  At that moment she uttered six cries against the six sounds of the Shofar.  She had hardly finished, when her soul departed…”

According to this Midrash, there had been an exchange of words between Sarah and Yitzhak (and only between them), and Sarah’s soul departed because of the very possibility of Yitzhak being offered as a sacrifice.  This means that unlike Avraham, who accepted God’s commandment to sacrifice his son, Sarah is shocked by the fact that such a possibility even exists; so much so – that her soul departs. 

According to this Midrash, this is the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, which is meant to remind us of the binding of Yitzhak.  The sound of the shofar is not only reminiscent of the wailing of Sisra’s mother but also of the cries uttered by Yitzhak’s mother, Sarah.

It may very well be that the void created by the silence of Sarah’s voice is, in fact, the sound of the voice itself, as if the Torah were creating the “sound of silence” – a sound enabling all future mothers to make their voices heard; be they voices identifying with Avraham or voices protesting against such a sacrifice.

In Midrash HaGadol on Chayei Sarah (23, 2) it is written thus: 

“‘And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba’ – [Kiryat Arba = The City of Four] – because of the four things that transpired to her during the time of her death: she heard what had happened to her son; she cried for her son; her death was a bitter one; her happiness was not complete.”

The verse which sums up Sarah’s lifetime enumerates the number of years she lived.  The words of our Sages on this verse are well known: When she was one hundred years, she was as beautiful as a twenty-year-old and as sinless as a seven-year-old.  According to this Midrash, one might add and say that all of her one hundred and twenty-seven years are encapsulated not in twenty years nor in seven years but in the few moments of her death.  A moment of weeping, a moment of bitterness, a moment void of joy.  The deeds and accomplishments of our nation’s Matriarch
, spanning her entire lifetime, are condensed into the place of her burial, Kiryat Arba, representing four expressions of sorrow and pain.  This, too, is her legacy. 

Let it be noted that throughout the generations, most of the exegetes and liturgists dealing with the Binding of Yitzhak relate solely to Avraham and Yitzhak.  The voice of Sarah and her weeping are missing, and no mention of these is made, not only in the Torah verses themselves, but also in the exegesis written over the generations.  When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana, producing one hundred sounds, of which only six are compulsory by Torah Law – perhaps these six sounds are the cries emitted by Sarah.

Thus, Sarah’s voice is sounded after all, even if we don’t always realize it.

Shabbat Shalom!


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