RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH
24 Cheshvan, 5782; October 30, 2021
Rashi (Parshas Chayei Sarah, 23:2) explains the juxtaposition between the end of last week’s parsha, Vayeira, which dealt with Akeidas Yitzchak, and the beginning of this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, which talks about Sarah’s death. Rashi says that this adjacency teaches us that when Sarah heard about the news concerning Akeidas Yitzchak, her soul left her body and she died.
It seems strange that Sarah would die from the pain that Akeidas Yitzchak caused her because Sarah was on an even higher spiritual level that Avraham was (Rashi, Parshas Vayeira, 21:12; citing Shemos Rabba, Parshas Shemos, 1:1). Yet, Avraham had enough faith in God which prevented him from dying from the pain of Akeidas Yitzchak. Therefore, if Avraham did not die from the pain of Akeidas Yitzchak, then Sarah should certainly not have died from the pain of Akeidas Yitzchak. If Avraham had such a solid faith in God, then Sarah most certainly had that type of faith in God. So, how could Sarah have died from the pain of the Akeida?
Additionally, Rashi tells us about the story which brought about Sarah’s death (namely, that she died from the news regarding Akeidas Yitzchak) at the end of the pasuk on the words, “Lispod L’Sarah V’livkosa” (Avraham eulogized Sarah and wept for her; Parshas Chayei Sarah, 23:2). Apparently, Rashi should have already shared this information with us at the beginning of the pasuk on the words, “And Sarah died” (Parshas Chayei sarah, 23:2). Right there and then, on the words, “And Sarah died,” Rashi should have told us how her death came about. Namely, by being informed of the Akeida episode. Why did Rashi wait to tell us about this story until the end of the verse?
Moreover, the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696 Morocco-1743 Jerusalem; Parshas Chayei Sarah, 23:1) points out that the verse begins by telling us, “And Sarah’s lifetime was” (Parshas Chayei Sarah, 23:1), and then, at the end of the very same verse, the Torah seems to repeat itself with the words, “The years of Sarah’s life.” We already know from the beginning of the verse that we are speaking about the years of Sarah’s life. Why do we have to repeat the same thing at the end of the pasuk?
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh answers this question by saying that although those last words seem to be redundant, they were added to teach us that Sarah lived out her full life. This means to say that we should not think that Sarah died a premature death when she heard about the Akeida. Rather, those last words come to teach us that Sarah lived all of the years that Hashem had set aside for Sarah to live.
However, the Ohr Hachaim adds that the catalyst which caused Sarah’s death was the news concerning the Akeida. When Sarah heard about the Akeida, her soul left her body.
This begs us to ask, “Why would Hashem orchestrate that the catalyst which brought about Sarah’s death was the news regarding Akeidas Yitzchak? Why did Hashem arrange that the last thing that Sarah heard about right before she died was the story of Akeidas Yitzchak?”
Furthermore, The Zohar Chadash (Tikkunim, pg. 139b) says that the catalyst which brought about Sarah’s death was the recitation of two verses. First Sarah recited the “Shema Yisrael” verse (Parshas Vaeschanan, 6:4), and then she said the “Baruch Sheim Kivod Malchuso L’olam Vaed” verse (Devarim Rabba, Parshas Vaeschanan, 2:35; blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom forever). Immediately after the recitation of these two verses, Sarah’s soul left her body and she died.
This Zohar seems to contradict the Rashi we mentioned above who said that it was the news concerning the Akeida which killed her. Rashi’s comments are based on the Medrash Tanchuma (Parshas Vayeira, 33). The Tanchuma elaborates on the historical backdrop. According to the Tanchuma, this is what happened.
Right after the Akeida, Satan disguised himself as Yitzchak and appeared to Sarah. Sarah asked him, “My son, what did your father do to you?” Satan responded, “My father took me on a hike over mountains and through valleys, and then he schlepped me up to the top of a certain mountain, built an altar, arranged wood on top of it, tied me up, and placed me on the altar. Then, he grabbed a knife to slaughter me. If not for Hashem Who interrupted him and said, ‘Do not stretch your hand out against the child’ (Parshas Vayeira, 22:12), I would have been slaughtered.” The Tanchuma concludes by saying that before Satan had the time to finish the story, Sarah’s soul left her body.
From this Tanchuma it turns out that Satan caused Sarah’s death. Yet, according to the Zohar, it was the recitation of two verses which caused Sarah’s death. Will the real cause of Sarah’s death please stand up?
The Shvilei Pinchas says that to begin addressing all of these issues, we will have to take a look at the following Talmudic passage.
Right before the Akeida, Hashem said to Avraham, “Please take your son” (Parshas Vayeira, 22:2). In Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 10, “Eilu Hein Hanechnakin”, pg. 89b) it explains why Hashem had to beg Avraham with the word “please” to go through with the Akeida. It is because if Avraham would have chickened out of this tenth and final test, people would have said that the previous nine tests were not substantive. But if Avraham would go through with this final test, people would realize retroactively that the other tests were also substantive.
One question that this Gemara raises is, “Why would people say that the other nine tests were not substantive if they were indeed very difficult tests to pass?” Why was Avraham’s reputation riding specifically on this tenth test?
The Shvilei Pinchas says that the upcoming Zohar’s question and answer will begin to open the door of explanation which will answer all of the aforementioned questions.
The Zohar (Parshas Vayeira, pg. 119b) asks why the verse by the Akeida says, “And God tested Avraham” (Parshas Vayeira, 22:1)? It was Yitzchak who would be slaughtered on the altar, not Avraham. As such, the verse should have apparently said, “And God tested Yitzchak.” Why does it say, “And God tested Avraham?”
The Zohar answers its own question by saying that Avraham and Yitzchak did not share the same type of personalities. Avraham was a man of chesed (loving kindness), whereas Yitzchak was a man of din (harsh and strict justice; discipline).
Yitzchak was not a softy. In fact, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Toldos, 67:7) cites Rebbi Yosi bar Chalafta who strikingly said that Yitzchak instructed Eisav that if he saw Ya’akov and his descendants transgressing the Torah, he (Eisav) should decree forced conversions upon them (the Jews), without displaying any compassion upon them. We see from this Midrash that Yitzchak was tough. He had no tolerance for transgressors.
By contrast, Avraham was the embodiment of chesed. Avraham had so much patiences with people that he wound up davening on behalf of the ruthless inhabitants of Sedom because maybe they would eventually turn around (Parshas Vayeira, 18:23-33).
Therefore, it was much easier for Yitzchak to be slaughtered upon the altar than it was for Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak. Once Akeidas Yitzchak became the will of God, it became the din (law). Since Yitzchak’s nature was din, he was more inclined to allow himself to be slaughtered because that was the din. Yitzchak had a natural proclivity to do even acts of cruelty if it was God’s will. Therefore, the Torah does not say that God tested Yitzchak, because it was not such a test for Yitzchak.
However, Avraham’s personality was chesed. Avraham was the kindest person you would ever meet. Avraham was the type of fellow who would not even kill a fly that was buzzing in his ear for the past forty-five minutes. Avraham would certainly not be comfortable with killing animals, not to mention killing people, and he certainly would never raise his hand against his son in such a cruel way.
Yet, Avraham went through with the Akeida anyway. He grabbed a sharp knife and he was prepared to slaughter his own son. This required Avraham to change his natural tendencies of compassion and cultivate a propensity towards harshness to fulfill Hashem’s decree. Avraham had to embrace Middas Hadin (the trait of discipline) in order to carry out Hashem’s directive concerning the Akeida.
That was a most difficult thing for Avraham to do because the Akeida did not only go against everything that Avraham believed in, but it was diametrically opposed to his constitution.
Therefore, the verse says that God tested Avraham, not Yitzchak. In fact, the Name of God used in the verse which commanded Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice is “Elokim” which is the Name that always represents Middas Hadin. So, it was Elokim/Middas Hadin that tested Avraham whose middah was chesed.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why people would have said (if Avraham did not go through with the Akeida) that the other nine tests were not substantive. It is because none of the other tests went diametrically opposed to Avraham’s nature of kindness as did the test of the Akeida. Therefore, people would have said that the previous tests were not substantive. They would have said that Avraham only did them because his followed his natural proclivity of concern for others, but he was not prepared to do something cruel which went against his natural disposition.
However, after having gone through with the Akeida, which went against every grain and fiber of Avraham’s existence, people would say that they now understood that whatever Avraham does is for Hashem. Now they would realize retroactively that all of the other tests that Avraham endured were all in the line of duty in serving Hashem.
Since we are speaking about the traits of chesed and din, it is important to keep in mind that unbridled chesed can lead to an unhealthy place such as immorality. Similarly, unbridled din can lead to an unhealthy place which can lead to cracking under pressure and depression. Therefore, one must strike a balance between the two so that neither aspect gets taken to an unhealthy extreme. We find this balance between chesed and din with respect to the Creation of the World.
In Genesis (1:1) it says that Elokim created the heavens and the earth. Rashi (ibid) cites the Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Bereishis, 12:15) which points out that the opening sentence of the Torah does not say that Havaya created heavens and earth. Havaya is the name of Hashem that always represents the quality of compassion and kindness. Rather, the Torah begins by saying that Elokim created heavens and earth. The Name Elokim is the Name which always represents the side of harsh and strict justice. The reason why the Torah began with the Name Elokim is to teach us that God ideally wanted to create a world that He could judge through the prism of strict justice and yet the inhabitants of earth would still deserve to exist.
However, Hashem realized that humanity would not last for more than one hour if they were to be judged through the lens of pure din. Therefore, Hashem had to recreate the world a second time, but this time around, Hashem would join Middas Hachesed to Middas Hadin. Therefore, in chapter two of Parshas Bereishis, which is the Second Story of Creation, the verse says, “On the day that Havaya Elokim made earth and heaven” (2:4). Not only was the Name Havaya (Middas Hachesed) joined to Elokim (Middas Hadin), but Havaya was placed in front of the Name Elokim. Through the balance between chesed and din the world would be able to exist.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that it is not just by the creation of the world that we must strike this balance between chesed and din, but so it is with respect to the creation of a new home. When a man and woman choose to get married to each other, they are going to create a new home. That home must be permeated by both chesed and din.
Only by striking this synthesis between chesed and din will the parents succeed in raising their children properly, as Chaza”l (our Sages of blessed memory) say, “A person should always push a child or student away with the left hand, but simultaneously bring the child or student near with the right hand” (Meseches Sota, chap. 9, “Egla Arufa”, pg. 47a). The left side always represents din, whereas the right side always represents chesed. There must be discipline when raising children, but there must also be compassion, acceptance, and patience.
Another story in our parsha will become even clearer in light of this teaching. Avraham had sent his servant Eliezer to find a soul mate for Yitzchak. Eliezer made a sign to figure out which young lady would be worthy of marrying Yitzchak. The sign was that after asking the young lady for some water to drink, she would offer water not only to him (Eliezer), but to all of his camels as well (Parshas Chayei Sarah, 24:14).
The first Radomsker Rebbe (Rabbi Shlomo Hakohein Rabinowitz; Poland, 1796-1866) says in his sefer, Tiferes Shlomo (Parshas Toldos), that the reason why the worthiest girl to marry Yitzchak would be a woman who was committed to engaging in acts of loving kindness was because Yitzchak’s personality was tough din. Therefore, he would need the chesed of Rivka to counterbalance that din and sweeten it. Only when the balance between chesed and din has been reached would Yitzchak and Rivka be able to create a wholesome and healthy environment for their children to grow up in.
This idea was already expressed when the Torah said that it was not good for man to be alone. Rather, Hashem said that he would make for man an “Eizer K’negdo” (a helper corresponding to him; Parshas Bereishis, 2:18). The Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe, Parshas Chayei sarah, 24:14; Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839, Frankfurt, Pressburg) explains that this verse comes to teach us that when a wife’s nature is “k’negdo,” she winds up helping (Eizer) her husband.
It would not be a good idea for both the husband and wife to be the types of people who always give in and run around doing chesed for the entire world because that could lead to the neglect of one’s own family. There must always be a voice of discipline in the house to balance things out.
The Chasam Sofer says that Avraham was the quintessential paradigm example of a Ba’al Chesed. Who would be the worthiest woman to become Avraham’s soul mate? Only a person who personified strict discipline. Sarah was that person. Sarah’s middah was that of din.
We find this in the story with Yitzchak and Yishmael. Sarah saw that Yishmael was “mitzacheik” (playing around; Parshas Vayeira, 21:9). What does this mean? I’ll tell you this much, Yishmael was not shooting hoops in the driveway. Rather, Rashi (ibid) says that “Mitzacheik” teaches us that Yishmael was playing around with idolatry, immorality, and murder.
Pointing to the front door, Sarah told Avraham (she does not ask Avraham, but rather tells him) to kick Yishmael out of the house (Parshas Vayeira, 21:10). Avraham was extremely distressed by this (Parshas Vayeira, 21:11). Just imagine, Avraham invites the entire world into his home, and now he would have to kick his own son out of his home. How ironic!
Avraham, the personification of chesed, patience, and tolerance refused to kick Yishmael out of the house until Hashem appeared to Avraham in a prophetic dream and told him to listen to Sarah’s voice (Parshas Vayeira, 21:12). This story demonstrates Sarah’s personality. It was tough love. Sarah was tough as nails.
Not only from the story with Yitzchak and Yishmael do we find that Sarah’s middah was din, but her very name points to the fact that Srah’s personality was harsh discipline.
The Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 Jerusalem-1572 Tzfas) says in Likkutei Torah (Parshas Lech Lecha) that the name “Sarah” always points to the Name Elokim which represents Middas Hadin. In Hebrew, Sarah’s name is spelled: shin (or sin) reish, and hey. Each letter of her name points to the Name Elokim/Middas Hadin. Let us take one letter at a time.
The letter shin of Sarah’s name is numerically 300. The number 300 is that same gematria (numerical value) as the Name “Elokim” in its fullness. Although the regular gematria of “Elokim” is 86, the Name Elokim in its fullness is 300. What does “in its fullness” mean? It goes like this.
Each letter of the Name “Elokim” must be spelled out in its fullness. The Name “Elokim” is spelled: aleph, lamed, hey, yud, and mem. Each one of those letters must be spelled out in its fullness. So, for example, the aleph of Elokim is spelled: aleph lamed phey. The Lamed of Elokim is spelled: lamed mem, dalet. The hey of Elokim is spelled: hey yud. The yud of Elokim is spelled: yud vov dalet. The mem of Elokim is spelled: mem mem.
Now that all the cards are on the table, or shall I say, now that all the letters are on the table, the gematria of all of those letters together equals 300 exactly. It turns out that the letter shin of Sarah’s name is connected to the Name Elokim which teaches us that Sarah was all about din.
The next letter in Sarah’s name is a reish which is numerically 200. The number 200 is the same gematria as the Name Elokim squared. What does squared mean? It goes like this. The first letter of Elokim is an aleph which is numerically 1. Now take the first two letters of the Name Elokim which are aleph lamed whose gematria is 31. Now add the number 31 to the number 1 that we had before, which brings us to 32. Now go back to the beginning of the Name Elokim and take the first three letters which are aleph lamed hey whose gematria is 36. Add the number 36 to the previous number 32 and you get 68. When you follow this formula until the end of the Name Elokim, you will get to the sum total of 200. Once again, the letter reish in Sarah’s name is connected to the Name Elokim which teaches us that Sarah was din through and through.
The last letter in Sarah’s name is a hey. The letter hey is numerically 5 which corresponds to the 5 letters in the Name Elokim (aleph, lamed, hey, yud, and mem). Once again, the letter hey in Sarah’s name is connected to the Name Elokim which further illustrates that Sarah shared the same middah as Elokim which is harsh discipline.
In his sefer Bris Kehunas Olam (chap. 41), Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Hakohen Katz (1705-1731, Ukraine) says that the name Sarah has the gematria of 505. The number 505 is a propitious number because 505 is the same gematria as two Hebrew words “Din Emes” (truthful judgement). This numerical equivalency further demonstrates that Sarah’s personality leaned toward unadulterated discipline and that she was committed to unapologetic truth.
All of this shows us how Sarah was the best soul mate for Avraham. Since Avraham’s personality was that of compassion, acceptance, tolerance, and patience, he needed a voice of authoritative discipline in his home in order to strike a healthy balance. Sarah provided that stance.
At this point we can go on to answer the remaining questions that were mentioned above. The Rambam (Rebbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138 Spain-1204 Egypt) wrote a letter to his son Rabbenu Avraham (1186-1237, Egypt) in which he says that when a person fulfills the tafkid (mission) that Hashem sent him on to accomplish in this world, his soul returns to its maker.
However, there are times when Hashem will give an extension of years to a person who has already fulfilled his tafkid (mission). The reason for the extension is so that such a person can help another person fulfill his tafkid.
The Shvilei Pinchas cites the Chasam Sofer (Parshas Ki Savo, 28:11) who says that according to this Rambam, perhaps Sarah was such a person. In other words, Sarah was on such an incredibly high spiritual level that she had already reached her full potential years before she died. If Sarah had already maximized her potential, and as such fulfilled the purpose of her creation, why did she live more years? The answer is because she was kept alive to help somebody else reach his full potential. That other person was her soul mate, Avraham.
You see, although Avraham was a spiritual giant, he did not yet possess enough Middas Hadin. Since Avraham’s focus was on unconditional love and acceptance, he did not yet master how to serve God with strict discipline. Therefore, Hashem added to the years of Sarah so that she could be a true “Eizer K’negdo” by helping Avraham adopt Middas Hadin in addition to his Middas Hachesed.
One example of when Sarah taught this lesson to Avraham was when she demanded that he kick Yishmael out of the house. This was a hands-on training exercise for Avraham to build within himself the quality of tough love in the service of God.
Now let us fast-forward years later. Sarah hears about Akeidas Yitzchak where Avraham was just about to slaughter his son Yitzchak as an offering to God on the altar. When Sarah heard about that, she was impressed. Sarah saw that Avraham had embraced Middas Hadin and used it in the service of Hashem. Sarah said to herself that there was no longer a need for her to remain alive to bring Avraham to his full potential because Avraham had already maximized his potential.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand why the catalyst of Sarah’s death had to be the story of the Akeida. It is because the story of the Akeida teaches us that Avraham had already reached his full potential, and as such, there was no longer any reason for Sarah to remain alive.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this is why Sarah died when she heard about the Akeida, even though she was on a higher level than Avraham who did not die from the pain of the Akeida. The answer is that Sarah did not die because of the pain of the Akeida, because Sarah certainly possessed faith in Hashem. Rather, Sarah died because there was no longer any need for her to be a constant reminder to Avraham to serve Hashem with din as well. Avraham was self-sufficient. Avraham would know when and where to flex the chesed muscle and when and where to flex the din muscle.
When I read this in the Shvilei Pinchas, a question came to mind. If Avraham had already maximized his potential at the Akeida, why did he not die at that time together with his wife Sarah? Perhaps we could suggest an answer based on the Rambam’s letter we mentioned above. Maybe Hashem gave Avraham an extension of years in order to bring somebody else to his full potential. That other person was Yitzchak.
You see, Yitzchak was complete din. I guess you could say that Yitzchak was a real “mama’s boy.” This means that Yitzchak took after the Middas Hadin of his mother. Therefore, Yitzchak needed a compassionate voice reminding him to serve Hashem with chesed as well. Only after Rivka, whose middah was chesed, would grow older and establish herself in Yitzchak’s home by becoming the voice of chesed, could Avraham also leave this world and rest in peace.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that now we can understand that there is no contradiction between the Tanchuma which said that the cause of Sarah’s death was the news about the Akeida, and the Zohar which said that Sarah’s cause of death was her recitation of Shema Yisrael and Baruch Shem. The answer is yes. It was both. Meaning, first Sarah was informed about the Akeida, as the Tanchuma said. But then Sarah realized that she was no longer needed to teach Avraham to use din in Avodas Hashem, because Avraham seems to be doing quite well for himself in that area without Sarah at his side.
Therefore, after hearing about the Akeida and realizing that she was no longer needed, she recited the Shema and Baruch Shem, and her soul left her body, as the Zohar said.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this also explains why Rashi waited until the words “Lispod L’Sarah V’livkosa”, which are at the end of the verse, to tell us about the backdrop story concerning Sarah’s death, instead of telling us the backdrop story at the beginning of the verse on the words “Vatamas Sarah.” The answer is as follows.
On the word “V’livkosa,” (and to weep over her) the letter chaf is written smaller than usual. The Ba’al Haturim (ibid; Rabbenu Ya’akov ben Rabbenu Asher, the Rosh, 1269 Germany-1343 Spain) says that the small letter chaf comes to teach us that Avraham cried only a little bit because Sarah was an older person who lived a full and long life. Since her death was not as tragic as the death of a young person, he only wept for her a little bit.
The Shvilei Pinchas suggests that there was another reason as to why Avraham cried for her only a little bit. The explanation is based on the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh we mentioned above who said that Sarah lived out her full allotment of years, and maybe even more. Sarah did not die a premature death of a heart attack when she received the news of the Akeida.
When Avraham found out that Sarah died when she heard about the Akeida, he realized that Sarah’s faith in God was such that she did not die from the pain of the Akeida. Rather, Avraham recognized that Sarah died because there was no longer any need for her to remain alive in order to teach Avraham how to utilize din in Avodas Hashem, because the Akeida proved that Avraham had finally learned from Sarah how to serve God with strict justice and discipline.
This is another reason why Avraham only wept for her a little bit. It was because Avraham was comforted to know that his wife had reached her full potential and that she had carried out her mission for which Hashem sent her down to earth to begin with. Since Avraham was satisfied in the knowledge that Sarah had fulfilled her tafkid, he only cried a little bit.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this is why Rashi waited to tell us the story which brought about Sarah’s death until the end of the verse on the words, “Lispod L’Sarah V’livkosa.” It was in order to teach us that Sarah died because she had fulfilled her purpose in this world. We only see that Sarah already fulfilled her tafkid from the small letter chaf at the end of the verse which indicates that Avraham only cried a little because Avraham was comforted to know that Sarah had accomplished her goals. Avraham wept only a little because he knew that she was going to the most beautiful place of eternal bliss in Olam Haba. Therefore, Rashi waited until the end of the pasuk because that is the most fitting place to talk about the cause of Sarah’s death.
One practical take-away message from this teaching would be to find one area of Avodas Hashem that we are not comfortable doing, and just do it anyway, just as Avraham did. One example would be concerning money. Most of us feel uncomfortable asking other people for money. But what if we hear about a chesed organization, Torah institution, or a family struggling financially. Although it may be very uncomfortable for us to go around knocking on the doors of friends and neighbors to ask them for money, let us do it anyway. The tzedakah we raise is Avodas Hashem. We should be willing to serve God no matter what.
This is just one example. There are many more. Each person may feel that a different aspect of Torah observance is uncomfortable to do. Well, that is when we must try to get out of our comfort zones and do the right thing.
So, may we all be blessed with the willingness and fortitude to overcome any hang-ups we may have and just serve Hashem anyway, even if it goes against our grain, because these are the tests that Hashem is testing us with throughout the journeys of our lives, and in this way, we become even more balanced within ourselves, our marriages, and with raising our children and students.