Chayei Sarah | Strive For Greatness
Updated: Apr 23
This week’s portion is Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah. It deals with a great challenge that Abraham had to face – the tenth of his tests. It says in the Mishna, in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 5 that Abraham was tested ten times by G-d but it doesn’t say exactly what the ten tests were. The commentators debate about the number of tests. Abraham went through a lot of difficulties. He was the one person who believed in One Almighty G-d, and stood up for ethical monotheism in a pagan society. He was pursued by Nimrod, cast into a fiery furnace, and emerged unscathed. He was commanded by G-d to leave his home and travel to an unknown country and when he arrived in the Land of Israel there immediately was a drought. He went to Egypt to find food but Pharaoh captured his wife and took her hostage. She gets released. Because they are were unable to have children he took Hagar as a second wife and she had Yishmael but there were tensions between Sarah and Hagar that were exacerbated when Isaac was born. Abraham then had to send Yishmael away according to G-d’s instructions. He went through all of these trials and tribulations, and they constituted his tests.
Most of the commentaries say the tenth test occurred in last week’s portion when Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac to G-d. In the end he didn’t have to as once he got up to the mountain G-d told him not to touch the boy but instead to offer up a ram. Most say that was Abraham’s ultimate test. Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 and he was going to be the link to the future to ensure that the legacy of Abraham and Sarah would not die with them but would continue into future generations. Yet he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. Many count that as the tenth ultimate test.
The tenth test
Rabbeinu Yonah, one of our commentators, says that in fact the tenth test takes place in this week’s portion describing the death of Sarah. Abraham goes to bury Sarah, to eulogise and to cry for her. The Talmud points out that Abraham was tested at this point. He has nowhere to bury her and gets involved in a negotiation to purchase the famous Cave of Machpelah, which is in the area of Hebron to this day.
The Talmud says that this was a test of his faith, as G-d had promised him that the Land of Israel would belong to him and his descendants. He had uprooted himself from his father’s homeland in order to go to the land that G-d would show him and give to him and his descendants. And now when it came time to bury his own wife, he didn’t own one grain of soil in the Land of Israel and had to purchase her burial ground at great expense. According to Rabbeinu Yonah that was the tenth final test that Abraham passed since he was confronted with the fact that G-d’s promises had not yet been fulfilled, but he realised that the timing and the planning of G-d do not conform to human understanding. He was able to retain his faith and not to waiver in his commitment to G-d.
One could add an additional dimension to this test. According to the Talmud, Abraham was not with Sarah when she died because he was on Mount Moriah for the purpose of sacrificing Isaac. He returned home from this great moment of sacrifice to find that while he was away his dear wife died. That’s another test of his faith.
Rav Mecklenburg, one of our 19th century commentators, says that it is quite clear from all of our commentaries that when we talk about a test, this doesn’t mean G-d wanted to test Abraham to see if he would pass or not. G-d didn’t need to test Abraham to acquire this knowledge because G-d knows everything. He knew what Abraham would have done when confronted with the test. The test had, he says, a number of explanations : One was to bring out the qualities in Abraham, because only when a person is tested and stretched do they exhibit their full potential. And part of our purpose in coming into this world is to develop as human beings, to live life to the fullest by doing maximum good and to develope our qualities so that our neshoma, our soul, can strive for greatness. Another explanation is that the Hebrew word for test comes from another Hebrew word which means to rise up or to hold up. And so this incident held up Abraham to the view of everybody enabling them to observe the greatness he had achieved.
The Hebrew word for test also echoes the Hebrew word for a flag and is also related to the Hebrew word for a miracle. So this almost miraculous super-human strength is a sign and a flag to the world that is hoisted high to inspire us all. Often we under-estimate the greatness that each one of us is capable of achieving since we think we are weak and won’t be able to succeed. But Abraham’s story invites us to look at what the human spirit is capable of achieving.
That is what this portion, Chayei Sarah, is all about. Even though it’s about her death, it’s a celebration of her life because the verse that begins the portion says, “And it was the life of Sarah a hundred and twenty years and seven years the years of Sarah’s life”. All of the commentators deal with the fact that this verse is not phrased succinctly. Instead of saying she was 127 years old, it says she was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years. Our Sages say that this refers to different stages in her life : that of a child of seven years, that of a young woman of twenty and that of an old woman of a hundred; and it’s saying that at each one of these stages she achieved great things. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says the expression about old age and about our approach to life is contained a little bit further in the portion when we read a description ofAbraham. It says at the beginning of Chapter 24, “Abraham was old, advanced in his days”. Rabbi Hirsch says the word zaken which refers to old is related to the Hebrew word “ziyun” which means to be armed, and so we are being told that a person of old age is armed with experience. The Hebrew word for youth, “na’ar”, he says comes from the Hebrew word “lena’er” to shake off. An old person is armed with experience that contributes to their wisdom and understanding of the world. There is another word for old, “yashan”, but he says that refers to the other version of old age, designating spent energy and becoming sleepy and dull which, in turn are related to the Hebrew word ishon, darkness. Zaken indicates someone who is armed with wisdom, and that’s why our Sages say the word zaken is based on an acronym for the phrase,”The one who has acquired wisdom”. So old age can be a time of tiredness and darkness and spent energy or it can be the culmination of a life well lived with the accumulated experiences and wisdom that have been collected through every stage of life.
Rabbi Hirsch says that the phrase is so important, that Abraham came with his days – Ba Beyamim. That means that each phase of his life had different messages, challenges and opportunities but the crucial thing is in each phase of life to focus on what the day brings and then to accumulate that as part of one’s wisdom. There are messages, opportunities and challenges in childhood, in being a teenager, in adulthood, in middle age and in old age. But a person who comes with their days comes to each phase and stage of their life with the wisdom that they have accumulated.
The life of Sarah
Part of life is accumulating wisdom. We are tested to bring out our inner resources of strength and to live life to its fullest in accordance with G-d’s wishes because the soul came into this world to do that. That’s what it says about Sarah. She was a hundred and she was twenty and she was seven. She took all of the lessons of childhood with her, those of adulthood, and those of old age through every stage of life. She lived a good life in terms of morality, spirituality and commitment to G-d in every phase of life so that her 127 years, say the commentaries, were a full 127 years. Every day she used to develop and become better and stronger in her service of G-d and in doing the right thing. The commentaries explain that each of her years and days was filled with good deeds; it was a full life in every part, in every one of the days of the 127 years.
Rav Mecklenberg, interprets “shenay” in the phrase “shenay chayei Sarah”, differently from most commentaries. Most commentaries say the word “shenay” means years. He translates it as two, shenay, and that the phrase accordingly refers to both lives of Sarah. What are the two lives? He said that the human being is unique as it is the only creature in the universe that is made up of both physical and spiritual. Angels live a life which is purely spiritual and animals live a life which is purely physical. The human being is made up of both components. The Torah tells us that G-d made the first human being from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the spirit of life and that he became a living soul. The purpose of man’s life in this world, says Rav Mecklenberg, is to live as a composite unit of physical and spiritual. Some of our actions are devoted to maintaining the physical such as sleeping, eating, drinking and exercising, and others with the spiritual pursuits of fulfilling G-d’s Commandments such as studying Torah, praying and doing good deeds. He says we need to bring the two together, and that is what Judaism is all about. Whilst a person is pursuing the physical side of the word, it is part of his mission to pursue the spiritual side as well, and so a person eats, sleeps, drinks and rests in order to be able to serve G-d. This is fundamental to what Judaism is about to the extent that the idea is even included in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, where there is a chapter which is devoted to this concept, the essence of which is that all of a person’s intentions should be for the sake of heaven. Eat in order to be able to have the energy to be able to serve G-d. By doing so, says Rav Mecklenberg, we actually live one life. It’s not a dichotomous life with the physical on one hand and the spiritual on the other. He says that is what is meant in this verse on the two lives of Sarah : that she lived life holistically with a combination of the physical and the spiritual. She lived every day with that commitment and with that drive and it was a life that was well lived.
There is a sense of satisfaction in all of this. That is why the portion is about her death but it tells us that it’s also a celebration of her life. Her life, like the life of her husband, Abraham, was a life which is like a flag to all of us and a source of inspiration. They both went through many tests, trials and tribulations but they lived good lives and they showed us the kind of strength that every human being is capable of. They showed what it is to live a great life in the face of tremendous adversity and to lead a life where every day counts and every stage of life counts. Their lives are flags for all of us to look up to and to be inspired by.
The Book of Bereishit details the lives of our ancestors and events historically accurately but not for the sake of history. It is for the sake of inspiring us. These are the lives that they lived. We can emulate them and strive for their greatness. We can remember and admire what they achieved and know that we are also capable of achieving great things. Know what the human spirit is capable of achieving and know your own greatness.