Abraham’s better half

And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron in the Land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep over her...’ Genesis 23:2

November 13, 2014 14:53
Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)

At the conclusion of last week’s portion of Vayera, after the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, the Bible records that “Abraham returned to his young men, they arose and they went together to Beersheba, and Abraham dwelt in Beersheba” (Gen. 22:19). It also seems to be clear from the text that Abraham had set forth from Beersheba when he took Isaac to the binding; the story right before the akeda (near-sacrifice) tells of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, head of the Philistines, which took place in Beersheba where Abraham planted trees there “in the name of the Lord God of the world,” and that “Abraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines many days [ yamim rabim ]” (Gen. 21:32-34) – with the very next verse beginning the next chapter, informing us of God’s command to Abraham to take his only son, his beloved Isaac, to dedicate him as a whole burnt offering (Gen. 22:1,2).

Apparently Abraham and Sarah lived in Beersheba, to which Abraham returned after the binding. (See Rashi, 21:34 and 22:19, who tries to prove that Abraham and Sarah lived in Hebron all this time, but this is midrash rather than the simple meaning of the text.) The Ramban (Nahmanides) cites Rashi, who insists that Abraham did not “dwell” in Beersheba at the time of the akeda but rather dwelt in Hebron, and that Abraham only went to Beersheba after the akeda “for his own purposes;” it was there, in Beersheba, that he heard of Sarah’s death, and so he returned to his home in Hebron to eulogize and bury his wife. This explanation is necessary according to Rashi, argues the Ramban, because if they lived in Beersheba, what was Sarah doing in Hebron? (Ramban, 23:2).

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However, the Ramban himself favors our initial explanation according to the simple meaning of the text, that at the time before and after the akeda Abraham and Sarah indeed lived in Beersheba; he therefore concludes that Sarah did not die at this time – “because Abraham would not have been living in Beersheba with Sarah living in Hebron” – but rather that many years passed after the akeda, after which Abraham and Sarah moved to Hebron, and it was there that the righteous matriarch passed away from this world (Ramban ad loc).

The Ramban’s explanation still leaves unanswered questions: The text certainly seems to imply that Sarah’s death came upon the heels of the akeda and Abraham’s return to Beersheba, and the verse even clearly states that “Abraham came [apparently from Beersheba to Hebron] to eulogize Sarah and to weep over her” (Gen. 23:2). And so, if they lived in Beersheba, what was Sarah doing in Hebron? Allow me to suggest a “modern-day” midrash that may answer our questions, and provide strong confirmation to the statement of our Sages that “Abraham was in a minor position to Sarah with regard to prophecy” (Exodus Raba, cited by Rashi on Genesis 21:12). Abraham “arose early in the morning” – in good time; before daybreak – to make the necessary preparations for his journey with Isaac and his servants to God’s undisclosed destination. Is it not strange that although Sarah’s presence is clearly felt in almost every incident involving Abraham and God, in this most central command of the akeda Sarah is completely absent? Moreover, is it not inconceivable that in the wee hours of the morning Abraham awakens Isaac and the two servants (Eliezer and Ishmael), splits the wood, “prepares sandwiches,” saddles the donkeys – and Sarah remains asleep? I would therefore suggest that Sarah wakes up – and is aghast at what is going on, terribly suspicious of the worst because of the idolatrous culture surrounding child-sacrifice to Moloch and because apparently this particular nocturnal journey was being kept hidden from her. She confronts Abraham, asking and even demanding to know where, why and with whom he is setting forth. Abraham haltingly explains the command he received from God, the necessity of this most difficult undertaking.

Sarah is certain that her husband did not correctly interpret God’s command, that God could not possibly have meant olah as a whole burnt offering, that God could only have ordained an act of dedication and worship. After all, even according to Abraham God did not say “slaughter him,” He only said “elevate him [ ha’aley’hu ].” Moreover, God had already commanded that “one who sheds the blood of another human, his blood shall be shed by a human, since the human being is made in God’s image” (Gen. 9:6). Was not the innocent Isaac created in God’s image? Abraham is adamant, however; he had no recourse but to accept God’s command as he understood it. Sarah tells Abraham that if he walks out of their tent with Isaac intent on sacrifice, she will not be home when he returns, that she would make her way to Hebron.

Perhaps she only planned to go to the place of the Covenant between the Pieces, where God had guaranteed Abraham eternal seed (see Rashi 21:34, that this covenant revelation took place in Hebron by the oaks of Mamre); she would urge God to intercede and stay Abraham’s hand at the critical moment. And perhaps she was giving her husband a powerful ultimatum: She could not continue to live with him if he misinterpreted God’s command and harmed their beloved son of their old age.

As it turns out, Sarah’s interpretation of God’s will was the correct one, vindicated by the angel of the God of Compassion. But alas, teaches the midrash, while praying in Hebron Sarah pictured Abraham lifting his hand to slaughter their son, and her heart gave out and she died. A brokenhearted Abraham came from Beersheba to eulogize and weep over his life partner, whose gift of prophecy was greater than his own!

Shabbat shalom Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem

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