Parshas Chayei Sarah: Arise and Rebuild

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Chayei Sarah, our matriarch Sarah, the wife, helper and confidant of Avraham Avinu, dies at the age of one hundred and twenty seven years old (Bereishis 23:1).  With the passing of righteous Sarah, the mantle of leadership will be bequeathed to the next generation, Yitzchak and his soon-to-be-wife, Rivkah (Bereishis 24).  What do we know of the life of Avraham Avinu after the death, and burial, of his beloved Sarah?  The answer is: very little.  

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, zt’l, teaches: “Avraham survived Sarah by thirty-eight years.  But the Torah says very little about his activities following Sarah’s death.  Only two events are recorded: the purchase of a grave for Sarah and the marrying off of Yitzchak.  The second story is told not so much to portray Avraham, but to acquaint us with the second mother of the covenantal community, Rivka.  The vacuum created by Sarah’s death was filled (24:67).  Now the covenant can be continued, because there is a mother in the covenantal community – not a father alone.  The Torah tells us nothing else about Avraham (after the death of Sarah) because the covenant was entrusted to two, a man and a woman,” a husband and a wife, a father and a mother.  “If the latter is missing, the story of the covenantal community comes to a temporary halt” (Chumash Masores haRav, Bereishis, p.158).  

With the passing of his ezer k’negdo, Avraham’s role diminishes and Yitzchak’s light begins to shine.  In tribute to Sarah, the pasuk tells us: וַתָּ֣מׇת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ, and Sarah died in Kiryas Arbah, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her (Bereishis 23:2).   

And then, the quest for a burial portion begins.  וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י מֵת֑וֹ וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־חֵ֖ת לֵאמֹֽר, and Avraham arose from before his dead, and he spoke to the sons of Cheis saying… Give me a burial portion with you, so that I may bury my dead before me (23:3-4).  

According to Rabbeinu Yona, in his commentary to the Mishnah (Avos 5:3) this is actually the tenth, and final, test of Avraham Avinu: העשירי קבורת שרה. שנאמר לו קום התהלך בארץ לארכה ולרחבה כי לך אתננה. וכשמתה אשתו לא מצא מקום לקברה עד שקנאו ולא הרהרthe tenth test of Avraham was the burial of Sarah.  For G-d had told him: “get up and walk the land, it’s length and width, for to you I give it” (Bereishis 13:17).  And yet, when his wife died, he did not find a place – in his own land – to bury her, until he purchased it – for an exorbitant sum of money – and yet, he did not question G-d’s ways (and the seeming contradiction in the necessity to pay four hundred silver shekels for land that was supposed to be his!).  

Sarah died, Avraham came to eulogize and mourn for her… and then he arose – וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י מֵת֑וֹ – to arrange her burial in the Promised Land. 

Rav Soloveitchik teaches, “וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י מֵת֑וֹand Avraham arose from before his dead.  וַיָּ֙קׇם֙and he arose – implies the end of the most intense stage of mourning.  In the Lecha Dodi prayer of Friday night, we encounter a similar phrase, התנערי מעפר קומי, Shake off the dust, Arise! (cf. Isaiah 52:2), in which the prophet laments that Jerusalem is wallowing in the dust and bids her to rise. 

Aveilus, mourning, is characterized by the inability to stand erect.” In contrast to this, וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ אַבְרָהָ֔םAvraham arose.  “Avraham demonstrated his distinctiveness in his ability to rise up, stand erect and regain his dignity.  The future of the covenantal community would be dependent upon his ability to rise from his mourning and negotiate with the children of Heth.  

“Ibn Ezra cryptically comments that the term מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י מֵת֑וֹ, from before his dead, refers to Sarah’s body.  Avraham was able to lift himself from mourning because he realized that Sarah was only dead physically; the spirit of Sarah would live on as mother of Klal Yisrael.  If only Sarah’s body was dead, there was no need for continued mourning” and hence, Avraham, was able to rise up and soldier on (Chumash Masores HaRav, Bereishis, p.161).  

It is the koach – the strength – to rise after a fall, after pain, after loss, that characterized the gevurah, heroism, of Avraham Avinu in this narrative; a gevurah which he instilled in his children after him. It is this heroism which has instilled in our nation, Am Yisrael, the courage to rebuild after every destruction.  וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י מֵת֑וֹ.  And Avraham arose.  As the Rav says (quoted above), this is reminiscent of the prophet’s urging to Jerusalem, the city in mourning after her destruction: התנערי מעפר קומי, Shake off the dust, Arise! (cf. Isaiah 52:2), in which the prophet bids her to rise once again.  

On Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2014, Miriam Peretz was chosen as one of the torch lighters in the State ceremony, which takes place annually on Har Herzl, at the conclusion of Yom HaZikron.  Of her experience as a torch lighter, in memory of her two fallen sons HY”D, Miriam wrote, “I was afraid I would shake or stumble.  But the moment I heard the master of ceremonies announcing my name, with the song ‘Poh b’eretz chemdat avot’ (‘Here in the beloved land of the forefathers’) playing in the background, my feet carried me forward.  I walked onto the stage with dance steps as if the weight of the years had been lifted, as if the pain and longing had disappeared.  With each step, I sang to myself התנערי מעפר קומי, Shake yourself free, rise up from the dust!  For just a moment, I was once more Miriam Ohayon the young girl, the redhead, full of life and happiness.  I heard my father’s voice whispering in my ear, ‘Ya binti – my dear daughter’, and I saw my mother, Ito, placing both hands on my head to bless me.  The audience filling the ceremony area seemed like one big family, uniting in a loving embrace.  When I lit the torch and reached the standard phrase recited by all torch lighters, ‘l’tiferet Medinat Yisrael ‘(for the glory of the State of Israel), I knew what the price of that glory was.  I saw (my two beloved, fallen, sons) Uriel (1976-1998) and Eliraz (1978-2010) standing before me, and I told them, ‘You are the glory.  Thanks to you and your friends, we have a state, and today we are celebrating its independence’” (Miriam’s Song, p.384-385).

From his mourning, Avraham arose; from our collective mourning, our nation arose; and from her mourning, Jerusalem will yet rise again.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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