In this week’s parsha we explore the life of our Matriarch, Sarah. In last week’s parsha, Vayera, we read that Abraham was “told” by God to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Thankfully, just as Abraham had laid the wood on the altar, picked up his knife to kill his son, God stopped him, providing a ram instead for the sacrifice.
This is only one of many of the incredibly difficult challenges that Sarah faced during her life with Abraham. Sarah’s tale of the redemption at conceiving Isaac at such an old age is one which has inspired couples experiencing fertility challenges or who are older parents.
Not only were Sarah and Abraham called to leave their homeland to a land that God would show them. To spare his own life as they passed through Egypt, Abraham, then Abram, asked his wife Sarai to pose as his sister. The motivation for this rather odd act is fear. As Abram says to Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”
Midrash teaches that Sarah’s immediate death, which occurred even before they got back, is no coincidence. Midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer teaches about the involvement of Satan. When Abraham lifted the knife to kill Isaac, Satan pushed it from his hand, hoping to thwart the act of that or any sacrifice being made for God. Instead, the angel came to stop it, rather than Satan. Satan became so angry at not succeeding that he went to Sarah to ask her if she had heard the terrible news. When she replied that she had not, Satan simply told her that Abraham took his son Isaac, slaughtered him, and offered him as a sacrifice. As a mother, I cannot even imagine the grief she must have faced, and the sheer horror, shock, and anger she felt towards Abraham. Not surprisingly, at that moment, she erupted in anguish, crying three loud cries, which represent the shofar blasts, her soul burst out of her, and she died. And Isaac never again speaks to his father.
This seemed to be the final straw in Sarah’s patience with her husband. What can we possibly learn from this? I believe that mental illness was involved, at first with Abraham and his insane choice to slaughter his only son, and later with Sarah, whose grief and frustration caused mental illness, eventually abruptly taking her life. The Torah is not necessarily a book of happy stories. One of its purposes is to help us learn from the shortcomings of the first human beings. This is a perfect example. In the very beginning of the Torah, Bereshit, we read that God created woman as Ezer ha’negdo—a helpmate. It is very clear in this parsha that the wife is not to be a subservient, rather, a partner, and with the word neged meaning “to push back,” whenever there are things she strongly disagrees with. I believe this applies to any marriage partnership between same sex, or opposite sex marriages.
May we learn from all of the choices, good and bad, that we read in the stories of our Torah. May we strive to be in partnership with our significant others, as help-mates to one another. Shabbat Shalom.