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The death of Sarah


A quick P.S. In commenting on my last post, Rachel Barenblat (the Velveteen Rabbi) pointed me in the direction of Jen Taylor Friedman, the first woman to scribe a Torah by herself! Women as rabbis! Women as scribes! What will we think up next? Anyway, if you want to read an interview that Rachel did with soferet Shoshana Guggenheim a while back, click here.

Now on to this week’s Torah portion. Because I’m in the Big Apple for a poetry conference & other fun stuff, I thought I’d take the quote easy unquote way out and summarize one of the most amazing midrashim (commentaries) I’ve ever come across, anywhere: an exploration of Sarah’s death by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg published in A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days. You’ll excuse me right off the top if I don’t do this justice.

So. This week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (the life of Sarah), opens with her death at age 127. We read of her burial in the Cave of Machpelah and the successful search for a bride for her only son (Rebecca & Isaac, respectively), thus tying up every mother’s loosest end — will my child(ren) find love? Chayyei Sarah ends with the burial of Abraham by his sons Isaac & Ishmael in the same cave.

Sarah dies. We don’t know exactly why or where or when. Zornberg (hereafter referred to as AGZ) points out that Rashi & other commentators are clear that her death follows on the heels of the akeda, the binding and almost-sacrifice of Isaac, as a direct result of the news of how close he came to death at his father’s hand. The traditional commentaries aren’t interested in a straightforward explanation: she went into shock and died. Instead, they focus on the existential effects of the near-miss — the moment when the entire world shifts beneath your feet.

AGZ relates 3 Talmudic stories. In the first, Satan (a messenger, not the devil as traditionally imagined) shows up to tell Sarah of her son’s wailing up yonder on a mountain because of what’s about to happen. She can’t take even this description and breathes her last before Satan finishes telling the story. In the second, Satan dresses up as Isaac. Sarah, clearly sensing something by the look on his face, asks: my son, what has your father done to you? Yes, he has survived the trip up the mountain, but still she can’t bear to hear the story itself and even though he lives, she dies.

In the 3rd telling, the real Isaac visits his mother. On hearing the full story, she wonders: what would have happened if the angel hadn’t interfered? She asks for clarification — would you now be dead? Upon hearing the obvious answer, she cries out six times (corresponding to a set of specific shofar notes blown during the High Holy Days) and dies.

Why can’t she hear such news and survive? AGZ suggests that she is suspended in a kind of mid-air, overcome by radical angst and existential dizziness. She is suspended over the abyss (a la Sartre: the nothingness that lies coiled in us like a worm) and doubts there is any sense to her life. Amazingly, this matriarch is not allowed to survive in the text, to offer any wisdom regarding how we might look out over the abyss ourselves. Is it possible to see 100% reality all the way to its logical conclusion? Can we look God straight in the eye? Sarah, it is said in Midrash Rabba, died of this pain — of the difficulty of looking into the chasm of life and coming away whole.

Though Isaac survived, so did the truth, the unbearable truth: his ashes are still spread out on the altar. What could have happened isn’t wiped away just because it didn’t. Sarah, writes AGZ, died suspended in a place of metaphysical pessimism, a place of longing for some alternative. It is this longing that we hear in the wailing notes of the shofar. It is also this longing that she passed along to her son – and through him, to all of us.


My poem on this week’s portion focuses on fate as well, though from a different perspective. You can read it here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/02/2010 8:22 pm

    Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg is absolutely fabulous, if a little hard to follow sometimes. Have you read much of her stuff?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      11/03/2010 7:29 am

      Read some. Probably not enough. Have seen her in person twice – both times blown away.

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