Themes of the parasha
The parasha begins by recounting the years
in the life of Sarah (127) and her burial by Abraham in
the tomb which he bought in Kyriat Arba in Hebron.
Then it recounts how Abraham's servant Eliezer was sent
to find a wife among the family clan for his son Yitzhak,
her return with Eliezer, and her meeting with Yitzhak.
Then after marrying his son, Abraham remarries.
Abraham dies and his two sons bury him. Yishmael having
repented for his sins on the occasion of the death of
his father (asa teshuva).
The parasha ends with the descendants of Yishmael.
Method of study for this
We continue to develop our method of study
of the Torah.
We saw in the preceding parasha that:
we seek teachings that help us understand our lives, which
is an essential goal of study, together with the other
essential goal, which is to understand what Hashem wants
us to know.
but one should take care not to interpret the text according
to any one doctrine or philosophy.
Indeed, if we wish to learn "His"Torah,
there is only one way:
1. study a text in detail;
2. ask as many precise questions as possible on each segment;
3. only then can one say, about each question and segment,
that we have "learnt" the teaching of tradition;
4. this traditional method of study is then combined with
our own intellectual and receptive (kabala) endeavors.
I would like you to ask as many questions
as possible on the first phrase of the parasha and list
them before going on to read the rest of the text. These
questions have three functions: to open our eyes, activate
our intelligence, and place us in a state of receptivity.
Now that you have written this list, compare
your questions with those the Sages asked themselves and
through which they sought to understand the answers given
by Hashem to Moses at Sinai:
why is this parasha the only one that bears the name of
why is the first word vayiyu given such prominence in
the parasha, coming even before the name of Sarah and
why is it not included in the title of the parasha?
why are the words "hayei Sarah" selected for
the title of the parasha?
why is Sarah's age not written 127 years but one hundred
years and twenty seven years?
why is the word "year" repeated three times
and written sometimes in the singular and sometimes in
why does the text repeat at the end of the verse "these
were the years of the life of Sarah"?
These questions are keys that will help
us to understand the message of the parasha.
The linguistic basis
In Jewish traditional scholarship, the most
complex teachings are transmitted through the study of
linguistic forms, rather than just through the study of
the meaning of the narrative.
From this we understand:
1. the important role of Rashi as an authority, since
this is the method he uses.
2. that those who search first for symbols and myths in
a narrative are mistaken; and they are even more mistaken
if they try to discover parallel myths in other cultures.
3. that the classical English translation cannot do justice
to the forms and nuances found in the Hebrew text. This
is why it is so important to learn Hebrew, both as a living
language and as the language of the Bible.
Let us examine the classical English translation:
"And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years
old; these were the years of the life of Sarah."
Now let us examine the literal translation
which is nearest to the Hebrew text, with its plural and
Vayiyu hayei Sarah (and were the lives of
mea shana veesrim shana vesheva shanim (one hundred year
and twenty year and seven years)
shene hayei Sarah (the years of the lives of Sarah).
This phrase is the object of our study:
"and were the lives of Sarah, one hundred year and
twenty year and seven years, the years of the lives of
We now have the basic text and the questions
for which we seek the answers.
Rashi emphasizes what we have just noted
(repetition of the word "year") and he provides
the explanation: it is in order that we should interpret
each of these words differently. For what reason?
He writes that
"hundred year and twenty year" means that Sarah
was at one hundred like she was at twenty in respect of
sinning, meaning that she did not sin till she was one
hundred, since (before the Torah) God did not punish the
sins of those under 20 years (see Rashi, Tractate Shabbat
"twenty years and seven year"refers to her beauty
which she still conserved.
shene hayei Sarah (the years of the lives of Sarah): the
repetition indicates that all the years of her life were
equal in value.
Rashi's source: Midrash Rabba
Hashem's concept of years.
This midrash, like Rashi, compares years.
But we must always refer back to the source for we often
discover that Rashi summarizes or modifies his sources,
and each of his modifications has a specific meaning.
The midrash shifts our focus which is centered
solely on Sarah: it is not that the years of Sarah's life
were equal in value, but rather that Hashem considered
them equal (the two are not the same!): the basis for
this is found in Psalm 37, verse 18:
yodea Hashem yeme temimim venahalatam leolam tihie
"Hashem knoweth the days of the upright: and their
inheritance shall be forever."
In short, the text of the Torah possesses
specific linguistic forms in order to tell us that:
1. Hashem knew Sarah well.
2. He saw that she was perfect, in every year of her life.
3. Because of this, her legacy will last forever.
Perpetuation of the tzaddik
The above helps us to understand the calculation
in the book Seder Olam which states that Rivka (the future
wife of Yitzhak) was born on the day Sarah died. Her birth
was therefore due to Sarah. Yitzhak then was 37 years
The midrash demonstrates through numerous
examples that this simultaneous birth and death of a tzaddik
is a rule (Rashi does not mention it). A similar list
is given in Tractate Kiddushin (page 72b).
This point is important because it helps us to understand
better the expression: hayei Sarah, "the lives of
Sarah." The present life and the future life, the
life during which she is here and the life when she is
in the world above, her own life and her life as continued
by another woman.
The midrash demonstrates this perpetuation
of Sarah's life: the fact that she lived for 127 years
allowed Esther, her descendant, to reign over 127 provinces.
The double life
We understand now why in Hebrew the word
"hayim" (lives) has a plural form while in other
languages it has a singular form (life, vie, vida).
A Jew must always live simultaneously two lives, and the
texts are very harsh with regard to those who wish to
abandon this and reduce Judaism to a pragmatic morality
or a sociological code of life for a specific people.
We now see how linguistic forms represent the message
The Ramban, Nahmanides
The Ramban stresses another dimension. He
states categorically (eino midrasho ze nahon) that he
does not agree with Rashi's interpretation which analyzes
each of the three forms of "year" separately,
since the Ramban's analysis focuses specifically on linguistic
forms that are anomalies: he states that it is normal
(dereh halashon) for the Hebrew language to have different
forms for hundreds, tens and units and he points to a
list of other figures whose ages were numbered in this
way and who were not completely perfect (Bereshit 25,
7 or 23, 17). But the example of Yishmael would seem to
confirm Rashi because he made teshuva. Furthermore, numbers
up to ten in Hebrew take the plural form and above ten
the singular form, as in the verse above (Rashi had in
fact based himself more on the repetition of the word
shana, "year," than on the differences between
the singular and plural forms). In the end, the Ramban
says that he does not contest Rashi's interpretation,
but notes that the unusual, and therefore significant,
element is the repetition of the words "the lives
We see here that even the greatest Sages
finds points of difference in their analysis, and this
is the road we too should follow.
The Ramban's student, Rabbenu Bachya, agrees
with his analysis (minhag hakatuv) but, using his own
method, resolves the argument by distinguishing between
the level of the peshat, the literal meaning where adherance
to the language is uppermost, and the level of the midrash
where interpretations can be made. At this level, just
as the word "year'is repeated three times, he divides
life into three parts: childhood, adolescence and adulthood
and he demonstrates that Sarah did not lose any of her
qualities or radiance at any stage of her life.
A teaching to be upheld in our own lives.
There are certain sections of the Zohar
that do not deal with the secret meaning but with the
overt meaning (the nigla, the revealed meaning), and it
is this part I wish to focus on.
The Zohar rejects the idea that the Torah does not make
mention of the deaths of other women (Rahel, Bereshit
35, 19; Miriam, Bamidbar 20, 1; Deborah 35, 8..) but states
that what sets Sarah apart is that the years of her life
are counted and the fact that an entire parasha is devoted
What marks this parasha is the description
of Abraham and Sarah's long struggle to be together (amidst
Sarah's many abductions) and to have children. This shows
us to what extent Torah considers difficulties as a normal
part of human existence; and even more so, as a sign of
the trials the tzaddikim have to endure in order to attain
purity, keddusha and trust.
Furthermore, tradition insists on the fact
that the shekhina (the divine presence) can only truly
and fully reign when man marries and has children (Zohar
I, 122a). It also acknowledges the intense drama and pain
of those who have no children: kol adam she ein lo banim
hashuv kemet) a man who does not have children is like
dead, Nedarim 64a).
The Zohar also stresses the pain of a woman
who is put in danger, in the trials that separate Abraham
and Sarah and cites Devarim 22 verse 27: "she was
in a field, and she cried, and there was none to save
her." The couple, Abraham and Sarah, are an example
of true fidelity, of sensitively shared suffering and
of a happy offspring, albeit late in life. This is a couple
which was able to descend into the blackness of Egypt
and re-ascend (13, 1), while Noah was unable to re-ascend
after he fell into difficulty (wine and drunkenness).
The setting apart of the hundreds (as in
the verse above), shows, in this context of perfection,
that they succeeded in living at the level of benediction
which must always be defined in hundreds (the symbol of
plenitude) and therefore said a hundred times a day.
The setting apart of the tens, in the 20, refers to the
unity of the couple in happiness and their unity in suffering.
This parasha represents an important meditation
on age which is further developed in the Zohar.
The gematria of the first word vayiyu is 37, which is
the age of Yitzhak at the time of the akeda (sacrifice).
They are the only 37 years of true happiness in the life
of Sarah, that is in 127 years! 90 years of pain and suffering,
then she could be happy with her husband and child. But
even the first 10 years of this period were terrible years,
for one of Abraham's sons (Yishmael) wanted to kill Yitzhak
(rodef et Yitzhak leorgo, Bereshit Rabba 53 and Or Hahayim).
It is only after the banishment of Yishmael that Sarah
The Zohar writes that this teaches us something
else: while the average man does not progress after the
age of 70, the tzaddikim have no limits and progress higher
and higher every day, regardless of their age (I, 124b).
2nd and more difficult level
This second level is only for those who
dare to extend the challenge and use it to improve the
quality of their lives (rather than viewing it simply
as an object of study).
Abraham's cataclysm?Emuna and Ketura
Those who believe that Judaism is solely
centered on man and the masculine form, on man's existence
and on the important questions relevant to his way of
life, will find they are mistaken. Judaism teaches the
deepest aspects of women's existence (which are not immediately
understood by men) and its highest dimensions.
What happened to Abraham after the death of Sarah? We
cannot go into the entire story of Abraham's distress
amidst his travels, amidst the sufferings of Sarah, and
amidst the final trials, and finally after her death.
Tractate Sanhedrin 22 a-b describes clearly
ein ish met ella leisho ve ein isha meta ella livaala
"no man can understand what death is, unless it is
that of his wife,
no woman can understand what death is, unless it is that
of her husband."
The intensity of this relationship and its
deepest dimensions are expressed in the phrase:
kol adam she meta ishto rishona keilu herev bet hamikdash
"every man who loses his first wife, it is as though
the temple had been destroyed in his lifetime." The
Sages who know the Torah and the rules of life express
the same concept in Tractate Sanhedrin: it is more than
an earthquake, it is a total cataclysm, affecting the
very essence of a human being.
The rest of the text: silence
The rest of the text, after the death and burial of Sarah,
tells how Abraham continued to live in his old age, blessed
by Hashem in all things (bakol 24, 1). Because of the
optimism of this text, it is read at marriage ceremonies,
when the young groom reads from the Torah. Abraham went
on to marry his son and to remarry. The text does not
say much about his second marriage. Some authors, such
as Ibn Ezra, point out that just as the Torah does not
relate to the relationship between father and son after
the akeda, it does not do so either after the death of
Sarah: silence surrounds the second relationship.
The optimistic view
Another, simultaneous, interpretation can be made on Bereshit
24, verse 1: the whole story can be understood through
the simplicity of this one verse which tells of a totally
blessed life. The verse is happily brief, rather than
There is only one concept and attitude that can describe
simultaneously the tragedy and happiness contained in
this verse: it is emuna. The root of this word is amen
whose real meaning is not the warlike belief of those
who are sure of their faith and of their place in the
world, and affirm loudly "I believe!"
It is the emuna of the infant who is vulnerable and yet
demonstrates a trust that is total, assured, fragile,
luminous and affectionate in the arms of she who brings
him up in every sense of the word. This is the real meaning
of amen in Hebrew and in all of the Bible.
Then this infant begins to live. He is not handicapped,
sick or dying; he is a fragile creature, with pains, sudden
cries, sudden anguishes, immediate and violent needs,
but he is very much a little shoot who will become a tree
and will grow from the source of the waters of life which
is the Torah, as is said in the first Psalm (to be read).
Why so much hardship?
Our Sages, all humanity, and the Jewish people have asked
themselves this question: why so inhuman and sustained
hardship? Tradition gives us an answer: the Ramban, Nachmanides,
(on Shmot 20, 16-17), explains Moses'reply to his people
who were justifiably afraid of dying from this mixture
of intense beauty and suffering (pen-namut).
this hardship-suffering is a "hardship" in the
sense of a trial, and a test (kol lashon nisayon behina),
there is the one who is tested, tried (menuse), and there
is the divine examiner (menase yitbarah).
What is the aim of the examiner? The Ramban
answers citing the trial of Abraham in the akeda (22,
1): God acts in this way in order to transform the potential
of the one who is being tried into a state of birth and
then into true actualization (bo lehotzi hadavar min hakoah
The brevity of this verse of Bereshit 24, 1 (And Abraham
was old and well stricken in age; and Hashem had blessed
Abraham in "all things") is thus a reflection
Thus, the emuna of the infant is also the
counterpart of the reliability (neemanut) of He who holds
us in his arms like a mother. If one takes each letter
of the word amen, one finds that in Hebrew they stand
for: El meleh neeman, "God faithful king." We
understand now why we recite every day from the moment
we awake: Mode.. emunateha, "I give thanks unto thee,
O King who livest and endurest, that thou hast restored
unto me my soul with mercy; great is thy faithfulness."
Then Abraham marries Ketura (25, 1), a name
which represents at the same time the "crowning"
of this whole process and "perfume," as in the
last word of the Song of Songs. It is clear why the Torah
needs to say no more. Silence is most suited when the
journey has been successful both on earth and in the heavens,
which is the aim of creation by He who created the heavens
and the earth (1, 1). One understands now why this particular
verse of Bereshit 24, 1 is chosen for marriages: it epitomizes
the entire cycle.
That every Jew, son of Abraham and Sarah, dare to undertake
this process which is his destiny and achieve completeness
Then he will be able to say every day of this process
the verse from the Hallel, beginning with the phrase:
"from anguish I called You, "then: ze hayom
asa Hashem, naghila venismeha vo" it is (throughout
this process) this day which Hashem created, let us rejoice
That the last chapter of the book of Job (42!), after
41 chapters of hardships, is opened for everyone and for
Implications for personal
Just as it is important to respect the texts
and strict methods of analysis in order to discover the
message of Torah, so it is also important to integrate
these teachings into our personal lives and thoughts.
I will not, at this level, give any directions,
except that it is sufficient to:
take the time to think in a very personal way about each
dimension in this parasha;
exchange your ideas with your partner, because the union
of masculine and feminine is necessary in order to understand
these dynamics better and because thinking alone is insufficient.
Those who are not married or do not have partners can
use the other facet of themselves (male or female).
No greater encouragement can be found than
in this verse of Isaiah 51, 1-3:
"Hearken to me, ye that follow after
righteousness, ye that seek Hashem:
look unto the tzur (rock) whence ye are hewn,
and to the bor (pit) whence you are digged.
Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah that bare
May this year grant us access to the deep
secrets which are ours,
in this year 5759 whose gematria is that of