Chayei Sarah: Equanimity in the Face of Uncertainty

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. (Gen 22:1)

Our portion this week is named Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, drawn as always from the very first words of the portion. There is an irony in this title that has fascinated Torah commentators throughout the ages, and that fascinates me, for the portion is about Sarah’s death and its aftermath, not her life. Abraham proceeds to mourn Sarah and purchase a burial site. He then sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac, and when Eliezer returns with Rebecca, Isaac loves Rebecca and finds comfort with her after the loss of his mother. And then, Abraham even remarries and raises more children before he himself passes away at a ripe old age. His sons Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. Life goes on after Sarah’s death, as it should. There is grieving and renewal, loss and continuity.

But the name of our Parsha – “The Life of Sarah” – prompts us to pause and assess Sarah’s life before the inevitable moving on. I would like to examine two prominent streams of interpretation that, as Torah study is intended, address our own big questions about life through creative interpretation of the text.

Our sages notice that the announcement of Sarah’s passing comes immediately after the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac on the altar, and many midrashim link the two episodes and conclude that Sarah’s death was somehow connected to the near-death of her son.

So Abraham took Isaac, his son, and led him up hill and down dale, and up to the top of one mountain, and he built an altar and arranged the wood, and took the knife to slaughter him. And had the angel not called out from heaven, Isaac would have been slaughtered! When Isaac returned to his mother Sarah, she asked him where he had been. He told her the entire story. Sarah became unhinged with terror and said, “[Are you telling me that] had it not been for the angel, you would be dead?” And Isaac said, “Yes.” At that, Sarah screamed like the wailing sounds of the shofar, and she died [lit., her soul flew away]1.

This is a shocking reading – Sarah dies because she cannot bear the thought that only a hair’s breadth separated her precious son’s life from death. And yet, this is reality: every single person lives a life suspended in uncertainty. Every day our child or our spouse or even our beloved dog ranges out of our sight, and we have absolutely no guarantee that they will return intact. How do we continue living?

Avivah Zornberg, in her seminal work Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, brilliantly explores this question.2 Zornberg employs the author Milan Kundera’s phrase, and explains that Sarah succumbs to “the unbearable lightness of being.” The radical uncertainty of our existence is always with us. We work throughout our lives to develop the paradoxical qualities of strength and of acceptance so that we can rise to meet every day. In this reading of the Torah life is always testing us. The “Abraham” in each of us rises with alacrity and acceptance to the daily call to Lech Lecha, to go forth into the unknown, while the “Sarah” in each of us just can’t take it anymore, and wants to give up the ghost, genug shoyn! – enough already! In this reading, I truly feel for Sarah, and I think I understand.

Another, more kabbalistic midrashic vein sees Sarah and Abraham not as flawed humans but as archetypal ideals. This approach addresses the unusual wording that describes Sarah’s life: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” – why not just say “one hundred twenty seven years”? And why is “life” repeated twice? This phrasing is repeated in describing Abraham’s passing two chapters later: “These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, that he lived: one hundred years and seventy five years and five years. And Abraham breathed his last and died at a ripe old age, fulfilled and at peace.” (Gen. 25:7-8)

Abraham and Sarah lived every day of every year. They lived! Together they represent the ideal of living with faith and trust, of heeding the call of each day to live fully, in spite of our lack of control or guarantees. The Hasidic master Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), also known as the Sefat Emet, writes:

[Abraham and Sarah possessed] the quality of equanimity… It is a very great quality for a person to remain whole despite all that happens… Most people are not like this; they go through several changes [of heart] every day. But all the changing winds of the world could not shake Abraham and Sarah’s equanimity.3

The Sefat Emet wants us to aspire to the equanimity of this ideal Abraham and Sarah. If we anchor our sense of wellbeing to things going our way, then whenever life does not go our way we face the certainty of becoming unmoored. As an ordinary person this happens to me many times a day, often trivially: the car ahead of me is not following my orders and is driving too slowly, or the furnace breaks down and I have to toss out all of my plans and get it repaired. How much more do I risk losing my bearings when real losses assault me in my life, as they inevitably do!

Accepting whatever life throws at you is not passivity. It is a supremely active stance, filled with strength and readiness and responsiveness.

These two very different readings, one of Sarah unable to continue, the other praising her equanimity, both point us to the same teaching: It’s hard to be a human being and we are constantly tested by life. Life is fundamentally risky and this uncertainty can break a person down. But life is also a magnificent journey if we can accept it on its own terms. May we each have the courage and the clarity to live in the company of this paradox, embracing life even as we are willing to let it go.

Shabbat Shalom,

Signature - Rabbi Jonathan