Exalted Expiring Experience

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Chayei Sarah begins with the end of life details of Sarah Imeinu: "Sarah's lifetime was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years. She died in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron.. and Avraham came לבכתה/to eulogize her..."

Rashi's comment on the breakdown of Sarah's years is well known; her life is listed this way to indicate that all her years well equally good. The juxtaposition of Sarah's death coming immediately after the binding of Yitzchak implies that there is a relationship between the two. One medrash notes that a messenger came to Sarah and told her that he had seen Yitzchak bound on the altar. Before the messenger could complete the message that Yitzchak was spared, Sarah died of the shock. A simple lesson the Tiferes Shimshon teaches from this medrash is that when one must deliver a possibly disturbing message, one must begin with the positive before passing on the relevant reason for the call. [Any mother who has ever received a call from a child's school can readily relate to this advice. CKS]

On the flip side, Rabbi Wolfson cites the Tchernoble Rebbe as saying that one who is the messenger of good news resembles Eliyahu Hanavi. He can channel the spark within him toward avodat Hashem, God's service, and his spark could then ignite a spark in the receiver of the good news.

However, this explanation raises further questions. First, how could Sarah's entire life be deemed equally good when she died of shock? As the Tosher Rebbe asks in Avodat Avodah, how could Sarah Imenu, considered on an even higher level of ruach hakodesh/Divine inspiration than Avraham Avinu not withstand the test of the akeidah when Avraham Avinu passed the test so completely? The Ner Uziel raises a further question. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to record this Midrash in the first Passuk containing her death, and not when describing her eulogy? What significance does Kiryat Arba-Chevron have?

A further question arises by simply looking at the print. We notice that one of the letters in "eulogize/cry about" is written smaller than the other letters. While Rashi explains that Avraham Avinu minimized his eulogy and restrained his weeping, how could he seem to mourn for his beloved Sarah so minimally? Rabbi Uziel Milevsky offers a profound insight. Every morning we pray that Hashem remove the Satan from before us and from behind us. As Rabbi Milevsky explains, the Satan tries many ruses to prevent us from performing a mitzvah. But he will not concede defeat even after the mitzvah has been performed. Then he will try to get us to regret having performed the mitzvah. Just as regret, teshuvah, can erase a sin, so can regret erase the mitzvah as well. If Avraham Avinu had mourned Sarah's death to the degree that he would have regretted the binding of Yitzchak, if he had said, "If only I hadn't fulfilled Hashem's command just this once," the mitzvah and its subsequent protection for Bnei Yisroel would have been annulled. As Rabbi Frand points out, citing the Nesivos Shalom, if things don't turn out the way we expected, the Satan makes us wonder if, in retrospect, we did the right thing. This is the Satan behind us.

The Satan wanted Avraham to feel responsible for Sarah's death and to regret having obeyed God's command. If fact, Sarah was destined to live 127 years regardless of the akeidah. The Satan just wanted to make Avraham think that the shock of the akeidah caused her death so that he would regret having obeyed Hashem. The Torah testifies that Avraham Avinu mourned her without the added grief of regret, of, "If Only." As the Nesivos Shalom says, " we pray that Hashem saves us from the power of the yetzer hora to dissuade us from performing mitzvoth and from the yetzer horo trying to rob us of the benefits of having performed the mitzvah (Tehillim 35). Don't second guess yourself for having done the right thing.

Nevertheless, is it possible that Sarah did not pass the test Hashem presented directly to Avraham? The Ohel Moshe, Rav Moshe Scheinerman, quoting the Griz offers a very pragmatic approach to this question. We know that Hashem tests us only with challenges He knows we can overcome, and then He provides us with the strength to actually overcome those challenges once we are ready to meet them head on. While Hashem commanded Avraham Avinu to bind his son as an offering to Hashem, He had not commanded Sarah Imeinu to do so. Therefore, adds Rabbi Shmulevits, Avraham was given the physical, emotional and spiritual strength to pass the test, while Sarah, who was not commanded, was not given that additional strength. Avraham himself was given the challenge in small doses, "Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak...," so that he could strengthen himself incrementally. It is for this reason that one should avoid challenging situations; if you were not commanded, you were not given the added ability to withstand the challenge, and you may indeed fail.

Rabbi Reiss explains that just as each of us is different and unique physically, so are we each different in every aspect of our being. Hashem has made us unique because each of us has a unique mission to fulfill, and each of us needs individualized tools to fulfill that mission and overcome the challenges associated with that mission. This was why, when we were offered the Torah at Sinai we could respond with naaseh/we will do before nishma/we will hear the details of what we are to do. We understood that if Hashem commanded us to do, He would also give us all we would need to fulfill His command. If I know that Hashem wants this of me, then I also know that Hashem gives me strength to be successful, and I can bless "He Who gives strength to the weary."

The area of Meorat Hamachpelah, the burial site Avraham now buys to bury Sarah, is known by four different names, each signifying a different way a person may die, writes the Ohel Moshe, citing the Kli Yakar. One's death may be caused by his own sin, a tzadik's death may be the result of the sin of others whom he did not try to influence to do teshuvah, a third way would be the natural deterioration of the body, while the fourth would be a neshikah/kiss from Hakodosh Boruch Hu that draws the soul back to reconnect to its Source.

Each of the names for this area alludes to one of these deaths. The name Mamre refers to those who die of their own sin, those who rebel. Eshkol refers to those who were shakul, who let others be lost for his lack of counseling them. Kiryat Arba, to the decree of natural death when the four major organs of the body fail to function properly. [Perhaps these refer to the brain, heart, lungs and kidneys. CKS] Finally, Chevron is the death of tzadikim, of the righteous whose souls brush off their physical enclosure and reunite with Hakodosh Boruch Hu through His kiss. Sarah died the natural death decreed upon all mankind through the medium of Hashem's kiss, she died in Kiryat Arba, in Chevron.

When one is completely engrossed in connecting to Hashem, the Angel of Death has no power to take the neshamah away from the body. It must create at least a momentary distraction. This was the case later with King David who knew he was destined to die on a Shabbat. Therefore, every Shabbat he spent every moment studying Torah. When his time to die came, the Angel of Death created some distraction in the rustling trees. At the moment David stopped to acknowledge the trees, the Angel took his soul. Similarly, writes Rabbi Sorotskin in Oznaim Latorah, Sarah Imeinu was completely engrossed in connecting to Hashem. But the time Hashem had decreed for her death had arrived. Therefore, the Satan distracted Sarah with images of Yitzchak's death, and was able to separate her holy soul from its physical body.

In Neos Deshe, Rabbi Schenuer gives a very satisfying perspective on Sarah's death that meshes nicely with our earlier discussion. He explains that when Sarah Imeinu saw that Yitzchak had reached such perfection that he could be an offering on the altar, she realized she had successfully completed her mission on earth. Having completed her purpose, she was not dying from shock, but rather from the joy of having successfully completed her mission in her allotted time. Rabbi Zaidel Epstein adds the nuance that Sarah died from the joy at having been gifted with such a son and having raised him successfully to actualize his spiritual potential.

The Tosher Rebbe quoting the Koznitzer Maggid suggests that Sarah Imeinu was pained that she was not part of this great elevation, of dying al kiddush Hashem/for the sanctity of God's name as Yitzchak was now doing. For her sheer devotion, Hashem granted her desire, and she died. She died in Chevron/Kiryat Arba, in connection with the four lettered name of Hashem. That's why Avraham Avinu worked so hard to have here buried in Meorat Hamachpelah where heaven and earth meet. As Rabbi Asher Weiss says, Sarah Imeinu's soul had reached such spiritual heights that it could not be contained in her body.

This same desire for deveikus, for clinging to Hashem was found in each Jew at Sinai, writes Rabbi Wolbe. Our medrash tells us that when Bnei Yisroel heard Hashem's voice, the connection was so powerful that their souls left their bodies. But Hashem returned their souls to them. We are each gifted, albeit less intensely, with this desire to connect with Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

The Shvilei Pinchas explains that Hashem protects the one who is commanded, but that protection is not extended to one that is not commanded. Avraham was commanded, but Sarah was not so commanded. Similarly, Nadav and Avihu brought their incense offering out of great devotion to Hashem. But since they had not been commanded to do so, their action was misplaced, and they died. So too did Sarah die in seeking that intense closeness through the akeidah, for she was not commanded to offer her son.   

In Ohr Gedalyahu, Rabbi Schorr delves into deep homiletical interpretations of the akeidah and the death of Sarah Imeinu. Everything in creation exists on three levels, in space, in time, and in self/spirit. Together the akeidah and the death of Sarah Imeinu served to elevate each of these levels. The site of the altar would be the permanent site for Hashem's presence in the Beit Hamikdosh and thus in the world; Sarah consecrated the "subterranean sister city of Yerushalayim," Chevron by her burial there; she elevated her soul by her desire to be part of the binding of Yitzchak, although she was too far away to be an actual participant as were Avraham and Yitzchak. We are therefore told that all our prayers must pass through Chevron before they can go to Yerushalayim and rise heavenward.

Rabbi Rivlin brings a very mystical and awesome interpretation to what he refers to as akeidas Sarah, the binding for sacrifice of Sarah as parallel to the binding of Yitzchak. He notes that every time Hashem descends to reveal His presence on earth, a righteous person dies. [As I think I understand this, a balance between sanctity and non-sanctity, a stasis, must be maintained in the world. Therefore when Sanctity descends to earth, sanctity must leave earth and ascend to heaven. CKS] The greatest example is the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's son, the day the Mishkan/Sanctuary was dedicated in the desert and Hashem's presence came down and entered it. As the Torah there states, "Bikrovai Ekodesh/I will be sanctified through those close to Me (Vayikra 10:3). Nadav and Avihu were deemed to be closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu than even Moshe and Aharon.

In our discussion of the akeidah, Hashem's presence came down to the altar It was seen on the mountain., and Avraham named the place, the Place where Hashem will be seen, Har Moriah Neither Avraham nor Yitzchak died, but Sarah, who so much wanted to be close to Hashem at that moment, connected her soul to Hashem and died.

We are gifted with a heart wrenching interpretation of the death of Sarah Imeinu from Rabbi Kolonymus Shapiro, the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, known by the name Aish Kodesh/Holy Fire. He explains that both salt and suffering can be used as a means to seal a covenant. [The salt is used with an offering on the altar, while the suffering can atone for sins.] Either can be effective only when used judiciously. Too much salt will ruin the meat, and too much suffering will cause death. The Aish Kodesh suggests that Sarah was suffering with the imagined death of her beloved son. She was sending a message to Hashem that He should temper the suffering He sends her children through history, for too much suffering will be too difficult for the nation to withstand.

Rabbi Rivlin adds another level of poignancy to this interpretation that ties in with the previous medrashim we've discussed. When the Satan saw he could not dissuade Avraham Avinu from fulfilling Hashem's command, he approached Sarah. He told her about the akeidah, and that Yitzchak cried to be spared, but was not. Immediately, Sarah cried, three cries that parallel the three tekiyot of the shofar and three cries for sobbing or wailing. Together with the reading of the akeidah on Rosh Hashanah, the sacrifice of Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu, we ask that Hashem also remember the akeidah of Sarah Imeinu as He hears the sound blast from the ram's horn, the ram that was offered in Yitzchak's stead, and the sounds that resemble the cries of Sarah Imeinu.