This week’s Parasha, Chayei Sarah, obviously focuses on the lifespan of Sarah Imeinu (our matriarch), but as many seem to overlook, it also speaks of the passing of Avraham (Abraham). Sarah’s passing is at the forefront of the narrative, with much weight, and a whole chapter (Genesis 23) dedicated to it. Avraham’s passing seems to be more of a sidenote, mentioned in a short paragraph towards the end of the Parasha (Genesis 25:7-11).
Why is the focus on Sarah? In fact, the whole Parasha seems to be focused on the women, on our matriarchs, the men being more of a sidenote. Genesis 24, one of the longest chapters in the Torah, is all about Rivkah (Rebecca).
This is unusual for the Torah, which seems to focus more on the men, and which has been accused of presenting a patriarchal narrative. The truth be told, and this Parasha provides ample proof, is that the Torah places great importance on the women, especially when it comes to the matriarchs and to the pedigree of our nation.
In the previous Parashot, the narrative appears to follow Avraham: He came from here and went there. He built altars and God Spoke to him. He proved his worthiness and received Blessings. Even when he took Isaac to Mount Moriah, Sarah is not mentioned.
In this Parasha, matters appear to be very different. The Torah brings another perspective to the forefront, one that was always present in the background to those who noticed. That perspective is the great importance of the women in our nation: Their sanctity and faith. Their dedication and sacrifice. Their wisdom and righteousness. Their pedigree and legacy.
The women of our nation, our matriarchs and mothers, were certainly at the level of our men, and we have much reason to be proud of them. They may not always be the focus of the story, but they play a pivotal role in all its workings.
It is not for nothing that God Commanded us to “honor your father and mother” (5th Commandment), placing them both together in positions of honor and worth within our families and in the presence of our people, both in life and in memory. The women are half of us, if not the majority, both in number and in genetic makeup, but also in their worthiness and righteousness.
The Virtues of Sarah
As the namesake of our Parasha, I will focus on Sarah, and on her many virtues, as gleaned from the Torah. The Mishnah (Ethics of our Fathers 5:3) mentions the Ten Tests of Avraham, which he passed. I will show you that Sarah was certainly not lacking, for she was his worthy match.
1. Avraham followed God into the Promised Land, leaving behind his family and homeland (Genesis 12:1-5). The same may be said of Sarah, who clung to Avraham wherever he went, even in her old age.
2. Not long after reaching the Promised Land, there was a famine and Avraham was forced to leave (12:10). This was certainly a great Test for Avraham, but also for Sarah, who could have said that Avraham was wrong about everything and that they should return home. Instead, she followed him to Egypt.
3. Before reaching Egypt, Avraham made a surprising request of Sarah (12:11-13). He asked her to say that she was his sister, allowing herself to be taken by the Egyptians, but also saving and benefitting Avraham in the process. This shows how far she was willing to go for her husband, allowing him to fulfill his mission at all costs. Luckily for all involved, God Stepped in to prevent a calamity (12:17-20).
4. Sarah was barren, but Avraham was Promised a son and clearly wanted one. Sarah took the initiative and offered him her maidservant, to bear a son for him. Sarah claimed she would be built up through her maidservant, but that was clearly not the case, as Hagar conceived, and Sarah was lowered in her esteem. Avraham, and arguably even God, took Sarah’s side in defending her honor, for clearly the sacrifice she made was great (16:1-9).
5. You might think that the Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17) applied only to the men, but both Avraham and Sarah were given new identities in consequence, their names being changed accordingly from Avram and Sarai. The result was that both became worthy of conceiving Isaac, not only Avraham, but especially Sarah, for only she, the mother of our nation, could bear him,.
6. Sarah laughed inside when hearing the angel say she would conceive. Sarah was Rebuked by God for this (18:9-15). It would not be a virtue, were it not for Avraham’s nearly identical earlier response (17:15-20), for which he received no apparent rebuke. There are different opinions on this, but from a simple reading, it appears that Sarah was held to higher standards. That is in virtue of her being a woman and able to conceive; the lesson being that the one who is to bear the son, bears the greater responsibility for him. A lesson clearly learned when Sarah wisely redefined her son’s name and purpose (21:6).
7. What happened in Egypt repeated itself in Philistia (Genesis 20), and Sarah was clearly vindicated in that episode for her virtue.
8-9. The issue of “laughing” or mocking God resurfaced with the influence Ishmael brought to bear on the young Yitzchak (Isaac), the same Hebrew root word being used there as well (21:9). Sarah demanded that Avraham drive out Hagar and her son. I am counting this as two virtues due to the double loss and the double meanings. Clearly this was a selfless act on Sarah’s part, because she was willing to lose her maidservant and the maidservant’s son, who was legally hers as well. Sarah must have also known the great pain this would cause Avraham.
Judging by her past, it is safe to say that Sarah did not wish any harm upon Avraham, rather she was truly worried about Isaac, his upbringing, and his future role, as God Promised. Avraham, in his capacity as a father, was incapable of taking the necessary actions, therefore God Commanded him to listen to Sarah and to do all that she would tell him (21:12), for his future depended upon Isaac. This was clearly a vindication of Sarah and a powerful statement of her virtue as a mother.
10. The fact that Sarah is not mentioned in the story of Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac – Genesis 22) says something about Sarah as well. Either she had complete faith in God like Avraham and removed herself from the equation, or more likely she was oblivious to what was being done as Avraham concealed his plans from her, knowing full well how she would respond to them. Either way Sarah would have been right and worthy of praise for her virtue.
-This article is dedicated to Sarah, in praise of her virtues and in honor of her memory. Thank you Sarah for all that you have done for us! You are the best first mother a nation could ask for; a true role model for all remarkable and virtuous Jewish women to follow. I speak for all Israel when I say that our love for you will never end.
Yshai Amichai is a father of six and the author of the Hebrew book, “The Constitution of Israel” ("חוקת ישראל"), and the English book, “The Upright One,” both of which will be made available to the public soon. You may contact him by email: email@example.com