Chayei Sarah: The news that changed everything

Chayei Sarah: The news that changed everything

Director of Education, Orangetown Jewish Center, Conservative

The Akeidah is an enigmatic story, but it has a clear happy ending in the Torah: An angel stays Abraham’s hand, and Isaac survives. 

However, the Midrash is more ambivalent:

“When Isaac returned to his mother after his father had almost sacrificed him on Mt. Moriah, he recounted the tale of what had happened to him. In response, she exclaimed: ‘Had an angel not stayed your father’s hand, you would have died!?’ After Isaac answered in the affirmative, Sarah wailed six cries corresponding to the six sounds of the Shofar. She hardly finished uttering her last sound when she died.”

Sarah, according to this Midrash, died at the beginning of our parsha as a response to hearing the news of her son’s scrape with death at the hand of her husband. True, there is a happy ending, but Sarah can’t get over the disturbing nature of the story itself. Can you imagine how it would feel to discover that your spouse had nearly killed your child? The sound of the shofar is so poignant and expressive that the rabbis in the midrash saw Sarah’s wails of despair as corresponding to those very sounds.

Many of us have struggled throughout 2020 with a spate of bad news (covid 19, deaths of loved ones, etc.).  Even this week, when many of us have been buoyed by the news of new leadership in the United States, it was accompanied by news of the death of our revered teacher Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, and then, by the passing of Alex Trebek, who felt a little like a member of the family to anyone who ever watched Jeopardy. It feels like we can’t win.

But perhaps this is the point. The Etz Hayim, the Conservative movement’s commentary on the Torah, notes that Sarah, by dying, even after learning that Isaac has survived, demonstrates that she cannot “live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” 

But could she not have listened to the whole story, that contained both tragedy and redemption? The essence of life is appreciating the good, because the bad is so prevalent. The Book of Kohelet states, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting.” Only those who understand the fragility of life can truly appreciate its gifts.

However, in order to fully appreciate the good, we must first express our negative emotion. Indeed, Sarah’s poignant wailing expressed the trauma of nearly losing her son.

So, we must mimic Sarah and express the negative. When I hear bad news — like so many of us — my immediate reaction is to put a positive spin on it or avoid it. 

Indeed, when someone dies, we often add a caveat that lightens the moment, such as mentioning that the person lived a long life. Upon hearing about a natural disaster, many say that it could have been worse. Yet, research has shown that confronting our negative feelings is a much healthier response. By embracing the bad, we experience fewer negative feelings in the long run.

I have always been drawn to the midrash about Sarah I quoted above because it so eloquently expresses what Sarah must have been feeling. 

We, too, must find our own way of expressing our sadness or anger. 

Playing a musical instrument or singing can be one such outlet. Indeed, when I play my cello, it helps me express feelings I didn’t even realize I had. If making music isn’t your thing, then listening to it can sometimes provide a similar response. Similarly, other art forms like writing or drawing can provide a catharsis.

Once that catharsis is achieved, however, it is imperative we take the next step. 

Unlike Sarah, we must then find a way to move past these emotions. For, even in the midst of negative events, with each morning’s sunrise comes the knowledge that things will improve. When we embrace that knowledge, we will truly have learned from Sarah that we must embrace the fragility of life in order for us to fully appreciate its gifts.

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