Judaism: Chayei Sarah: A Greater Prophet
"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)
And why did Abraham have to make a special journey to arrange her burial and "to eulogize and weep over her."
When the dramatic events of the Akeda were over, Abraham and Isaac made their way home together to Be'er Sheva. So it's surprising that at the beginning of this week's reading, we find Abraham traveling to Hebron to bury his wife there. What was she doing in Hebron? And why did Abraham have to make a special journey to arrange her burial and "to eulogize and weep over her." Weren't they together when she died?
In order to understand Sarah's whereabouts, and the relationship between our first patriarch and matriarch, we must first recall that Sarah's prophetic powers were greater than those of Abraham. When Sarah sees Ishmael the son of Hagar mocking her son Isaac, she tells Abraham to banish his first-born son with his mother - Hagar - "since the son of this hand-maiden will not inherit together with my son, with Isaac." Abraham is deeply troubled by this demand, but G-d assures him that it is the right thing to do: "Let it not be grievous in your eyes... Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice." (Genesis 21:10-12)
Rashi is sensitive to the Bible's hint that Sarah's abilities as a prophetess were superior to Abraham's not only in this instance, but at all times. So Rashi cites the Midrash Rabbah, "We learn from here that Abraham was second to Sarah in prophetic power."
Although Abraham outlived Sarah by 38 years and remained vigorous enough to remarry and father six more sons (Genesis 25:1-6), he clearly missed Sarah's prophetic abilities and her support. From the moment that Abraham lovingly buries his wife, the Bible does not record a single instance in which G-d spoke to him and none of his actions are judged significant enough for the commentators to note that "the deeds of the forbears presage the activities of their descendants." Indeed, from this time on, we hear little more of Abraham except for his search to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Here too, Abraham - who once rose early in the morning to perform the Akeda - now leaves most of the work to his steward Eliezer, deferring to his judgment in this crucial matter. It seems that, in no small measure, Abraham was the rav because Sarah was the rebbitzen, and without her he was sorely lacking.
From this perspective, we can reexamine the dramatic events of the Akeda. Abraham gets up early in the morning to accompany his son Isaac, and the two house-lads Eliezer and Ishmael, to Mount Moriah. The Bible tells us that they carried firewood and a slaughtering knife, as well as supplies that they must have needed for the long trek to Mount Moriah.
It's hard to imagine that they left the house with all these provisions without Sarah knowing or suspecting anything. Perhaps a discussion took place between husband and wife. "Where are you going?" Sarah would have asked. "To do G-d's bidding," he might have answered. "What did G-d ask you to do?" she would have queried. And when Abraham explained that he was off to perform a sacrifice without even bringing a lamb with him, Sarah would probably have wanted to know why he was leaving the house with his precious son, but no other object
Abraham has no choice but to disregard his wife's pleas and leave the house with Isaac.
worthy of sacrifice. "Where is the lamb?" she might have asked, with a trembling, terrified tremor in her voice.
As Abraham repeated to his wife G-d's command, "Take now your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and bring him up there as a dedication (olah) on one of the mountains which I shall show you" (Genesis 22:2), Sarah would have been beside herself.
"You don't need the slaughtering knife," she may have cried. "You are misinterpreting G-d's words. The Almighty G-d - who taught us that 'one who sheds innocent blood shall have his blood spilled, since the human being was created in the Divine image' (Genesis 8:6); the Lord of Creation who told Cain that 'his brother's blood is crying out from beneath the ground' (Genesis 3:10) - could not possibly have intended you, his beloved Abraham, to slaughter our innocent and pure Isaac whom God gave us and who he promised would be your successor; 'through Isaac shall be designated your special seed.' (Genesis 21:12) I, too, am a prophetess and I tell you that you are misinterpreting G-d's command."
Abraham refuses to listen. After all, he heard G-d's words, and olah - although built upon a verb which means to ascend and to dedicate - in actual practice means "a whole burnt offering." Abraham has no choice but to disregard his wife's pleas and leave the house with Isaac, the firewood and the slaughtering knife - hearing Sarah's muffled sobs as he closes the door.
In fact, Sarah - the greater prophet - was correct. G-d purposely conveyed His command in a way which was open to different interpretations because our Bible is an eternal Divine document. The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son would be profoundly relevant to subsequent generations who witnessed their own children slaughtered on account of their Jewish faith. These future martyrs would draw great inspiration from the figures of Abraham and Isaac as symbols of total devotion; ensigns and banners of Jewish willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for G-d, for Torah, for Israel. But such martyrdom is not the ab initio desire of our compassionate G-d. "You shall live by the Torah, not die by it" (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b), even if it may be necessary for us to do so in extreme situations.
The sages of the Talmud (Taanit 4a) corroborate the interpretation I took the liberty of placing in Sarah's mouth in order to explain the dramatic turn of events. As Abraham stands over his son with the knife, poised to sacrifice him, and the angel orders Abraham to stay his hand and not to harm the boy at all; the rabbis interpret a verse in the book of Jeremiah: "I did not command them, I did not speak of them, they did not enter My mind," (19:5) regarding human sacrifices: "'I did not command them' refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, king of Moab; 'I did not speak of them', to the sacrifice of Jeptha's daughter; 'They did not enter My mind' - that was the sacrifice of Isaac, son of Abraham.'"
It is on this basis that Rashi comments on the words "and lift him up" (Genesis 22:2): "[G-d] did not say 'slaughter him', because the Holy One blessed be He did not want Isaac to be slaughtered; He merely said 'lift him up' upon the mountain to make of him a dedication, and once he [Isaac] agreed to be dedicated [in life], He [G-d] said that he was to be brought down." (Bereshit Rabbah 56,8) And indeed from then on, the Midrash refers to Isaac as a "pure dedication" - olah temimah.
If I may continue my fanciful interpretation, I would suggest that once Sarah recognized that she was unable to convince her husband, her only recourse was to attempt to convince the Almighty to intervene and prevent a tragic
Abraham was the rav because Sarah was the rebbitzen.
killing. She leaves her home in Be'er Sheba and goes to pray in Hebron at the Cave of the Couples, where Adam and Eve, the first two human beings, were buried. They knew the pain of losing a child, they would understand a mother's tears and they might intercede before G-d. Sarah also understood the profound significance of Hebron as the setting of the "Covenant between the Pieces", where G-d promised Abraham eternal progeny, and the place where G-d had sent his messengers to tell Abraham that he and she would miraculously have a son "through whom his special seed would be designated."
Sarah prayed until her heart gave out. She died in Hebron, but Isaac and the Jewish future lived on. So Abraham came to Hebron to bury, eulogize and weep over his beloved wife, understanding that her intuition was correct and her prophetic qualities were greater than his. Abraham and Sarah could leave the world knowing that Isaac would live on and the destiny of Israel had been secured forever.