As we read her parsha, we ask: Who was Sarah?


Our parasha, Chayei Sarah, begins with two well-known pasukim: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.”

Following these verses, the Torah relates Avraham’s efforts to procure Ma’arat Machpelah as a permanent burial site for Sarah as well as his sending his servant, Eliezer, to Aram Naharaim in search of a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer was successful in his mission as he found Rivka and brought her back to Eretz Yisrael to be Yitzchak’s bride.

The Torah’s final narrative that directly focuses on Avraham describes his marriage to Keturah and the children that this union produced. Afterwards, the Torah recounts his death and burial. 

A careful reading leads to one conclusion, as explained by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: “Abraham’s life story, as told by the Torah, begins at the age of 75 and comes to an end with Sarah’s death.” In other words, even though the Torah mentions his marriage to Keturah and his subsequent death and burial, these events are not germane to Avraham’s life story. Avraham without Sarah was simply not the same Avraham.

As the Rav asserts: “The originator of the covenant and creator of a new moral code was not a single individual. Two people were charged with the task, a man and a woman, Abraham and Sarah. They were both indispensable for the implementation of the divine plan. Both of them converted people, both taught the many. Once Sarah died, Abraham’s assignment came to an end. He was ordered by the Almighty to withdraw from the arena of history, retreat into privacy and live like an ordinary person.”

We can gain greater insights into Sarah and her crucial role in Jewish history by exploring some of the celebrated words of the Rav, that he penned as a eulogy for the Rebbitzin of Talne: “People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one mesorah [tradition] and one mesorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two mesorot, the mesorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers.”

In this eulogy, the Rav noted that the precise mesoretic role of the Jewish mother remains undefined. As such, he turned to personal reminiscences of his own beloved mother to illustrate his understanding of the Jewish woman’s crown of mesorah:

“I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, it was a monologue rather than a dialogue. She talked and I ‘happened’ to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term to answer this question: she talked me-inyana de-yoma [about the halakhic aspects of a particular holy day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers; I used to watch her recite the sidra every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much.”

What was the essence of that which the Rav learned from his mother?

“Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life, to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”

Both the Rav’s mother and the Rebbitzin of Talne were crucial links in the chain of mesorah that extends from Sarah to our present moment. I have no doubt that one of the reasons we exist as a people today is because Sarah Emainu was able to impart to Yitzchak “a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot” and the feeling that the Almighty is ever present in our lives.

T’hay nafsha tzrurah b’tzur ha’chayim (May her soul be bound in the bonds of life), and may she ever be our guide. V’chane yihi ratzon.