Sarah's life and death

She said moreover unto him: “We have both straw and provender enough, and room to lodge in.” (Genesis 24:25)

picture from the parasha 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
picture from the parasha 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
One major personality of the first Hebrew family, the matriarch Sarah, seems strangely absent in the awesome and traumatic story of the akeda (the binding) about which we read last week. After all, Isaac was not really the “only son” of Abraham – the patriarch himself had responded to God’s guarantee that he would sire an heir with Sarah with the almost dismissive rejoinder, “Would that Ishmael live before thee” – but Isaac certainly was the only son of Sarah. And Sarah had been very aggressive previously in protecting Isaac, even to the point of pushing Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael when she caught Ishmael “mocking” Isaac.
Could it be that father, son and two servants made the requisite preparations for their fateful desert journey from Beersheba to Mount Moriah and left the tent “early in the morning” without awakening Sarah or rousing her suspicions? Is it logical that Abraham would set out for the akeda without first explaining to his wife what God had demanded of him, especially after God had told him – in the context of protecting Isaac from Ishmael – “Whatever Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice”?
Are we really to assume that the only connection between Sarah and the akeda took place after the fact? Rashi reports in this week’s reading that “the death of Sarah is linked to the binding of Isaac since [Satan] informed [the Matriarch] that her son was being prepared for slaughter: her soul then flew away from her and she died.” Was Sarah truly absent from the akeda story?
Let us begin the answer with another difficult textual problem. Our portion opens: “And Sarah died in Kiriatharba which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep over her” (Genesis 23:2). According to the chronology of Rashi and the Midrash which we have just cited, Sarah’s death took place at the precise time that the akeda was happening: Abraham and Isaac left the familial tent in Beersheba to go to the akeda – and Abraham returned there afterwards. What was Sarah doing in Kiriatharba, where she apparently died?
The Ramban (Nahmanides) concludes that “Sarah must not have died at the time [of the akeda] since Abraham would not have been living in Beersheba while Sarah was living in Hebron.” But then how do we explain the story according to the Midrash? Even according to the simple reading of the text, it would see that Abraham returns to Beersheba, and then – without the Bible informing us of a “move” – we are told that “Sarah died in Hebron, and Abraham ‘came’ to eulogize her and weep over her.” Even if we do not posit Sarah’s death immediately following the akeda, Abraham seems to be living in Beersheba and Sarah seems to have died in Hebron?
We have previously attempted to demonstrate that according to a not insignificant chorus of Sages, Abraham did not properly understand the original command of God. A powerful passage in the Talmud (B.T. Ta’anit 4a) cites a verse from the Prophet Jeremiah (19:5) to suggest that “it had never even crossed God’s mind” to order Abraham to sacrifice his son,” and this view is confirmed by Rashi: “God never said that [Abraham] should slaughter [Isaac], since the Holy One Blessed be He only asked that he bring him up to the mountain, dedicate him and bring him down.”
I would add to this the fascinating fact that Abraham survived Sarah by 38 years, years in which he remained vigorous enough to remarry and have more children, but throughout this period there were no real conversations between God and Abraham and no significant incident involving the Patriarch about which our sages could comment, “the deeds of the forefathers are a foreshadowing of what will occur to the descendants.”
The Sefat Emet (1847-1905) goes so far as to say that when the verse describing Abraham’s journey to the akeda says, “Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar” (22:4), “the place” refers to God, since Abraham had misunderstood God’s true intent.
Rabbi Abraham Bornstein of Sochaczew (1839-1919) even maintains that Sarah died because of her disappointment in Abraham that he could so have misinterpreted God’s will as to be ready to sacrifice Isaac; after all Sarah was a greater prophetess than Abraham was a prophet (R. Abraham Bornstein, 1973, 1:207).
Given all of the above, even if Abraham had attempted to conceal God’s command from Sarah, she could not possibly have been unaware of the preparations for the journey and the anxiety-filled exit from the tent on the morning in which they set out.
I would posit that a confrontation between Sarah and Abraham had taken place, in which Sarah vigorously disagreed with Abraham’s interpretation of God’s words and did everything in her power to prevent a sacrifice. In desperation, she tells Abraham that if he sets forth with the slaughtering knife, she will not be there upon his return. He leaves for the akeda, and she leaves for Kiriatharba. Had she not died of grief at this point in time and had she lived to see her position vindicated by the angel from heaven who stayed Abraham’s hand from slaughtering Isaac, she certainly would have returned to the family tent in Beersheba. Unfortunately, the angel was too late for Sarah and as a result, Abraham had to travel to Kiriatharba to eulogize his beloved wife and life partner, who understood God’s will better than he did.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.