This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Chayei Sarah, opens with the death of the matriarch Sarah. Although much of the Torah reading focuses on Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot for his wife (the Cave of Machpelah, located in Hebron), it is the very beginning of the Torah reading that interests me. The classical rabbis (the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud, ca. 200-500 CE) understood the power of s’michut parashiyot, of sections of texts appearing next to or near other sections. They believed that every word of the Torah was divine and therefore the characteristics of the Torah text itself were vitally important. In other words, it not only matters what the Torah says, it also matters how the Torah says it.
Therefore, it was impossible for the rabbis not to notice that the death of Sarah came almost immediately after the story of the Binding of Isaac, the tragic tale from Genesis 22 that describes how God orders Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, only relenting at the very last moment. What does this story of faith, family and sacrifice have to do with the death of Sarah, the one main character in the family who has no role whatsoever in the story of the Binding of Isaac?
Rashi provides us with an answer to this question, and with his answer in hand, we are more equipped to deal with not only the story itself, but something much bigger and more important-our lives. Rashi, quoting a much earlier midrash, says the following, “The narrative of the death of Sarah follows immediately on that of the Binding of Isaac because through the announcement of the Binding (that her son had been made ready for sacrifice and had almost been sacrificed) she received a great shock and she died.”
As Dr. Aviva Zornberg teaches in her book “The Beginnings of Desire,” Rashi is able to encapsulate in his brief comment a broad midrashic tradition, one that encompasses three separate midrashim concerning the question of the connection of Sarah’s death to the Binding of Isaac. In the first midrash, Satan (think “God’s adversary,” not Milton’s Satan with a pitchfork) visits Sarah and lies to her, telling her about the Binding of Isaac but changing the ending, telling her instead that Isaac was actually sacrificed by her husband.
In the second midrash, Satan disguises himself as Isaac and tells her about the Binding. In the third midrash, Satan does not appear, but Isaac journeys to his mother after the Binding and tells her what happened, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
At the end of each of the stories, Sarah dies because the words she has heard (either from Satan or from Isaac) were too much to bear. She simply could not handle a world in which these kinds of events happened.
I find it extraordinary that when Rashi chose which midrash to put into his commentary, he chose the third one, the midrash that did not contain a deception by Satan, but instead contained something much more powerful-the truth, the whole, complete and unvarnished truth about human life on earth. And what is that truth? Life hangs by a thread each and every day for every single one of us. Some of us might feel closer to death than others of us, perhaps because of age, illness or disposition, but the truth is that we all stand one breath away from our last breath of life.
Once you think about that, truly allow yourself to contemplate that reality, it is easy to understand why Sarah could not live in a world in which that is the physical reality for all of us. I think the better question is: accepting the reality of what Rashi wrote, accepting that each one of us is one breath away from death, how can we live in this world with meaning, how can we find joy, how can we seek out an existence that is something more than simply surviving?
For me, the idea of the Jewish people having a covenant with God, of that covenant having a document that binds us together (Torah), and of the Jewish people having a path of life structured for them so that we can push ourselves to both get closer to God and to improve God’s creation (Jewish law, Halachah) helps provide meaning in this world. Gratitude about family and friends provides more meaning, and a desire to leave this world a better place than I found it provides even more meaning.
Taken together, all of this adds up an answer to Rashi’s comment, a way for each one of us to say, “Yes, life hangs by a thread, and each one of us is one breath away from death. And yet, while we are here in the land of the living, we need to take advantage of this gift God has given us, this gift of life, a gift we understand better after seeing how close Isaac came to death, and how precious life is, as evidenced by Sarah’s inability to live in a world where precious life is so fleeting.”
Perhaps you, too, can see these two stories as not only tragic family tales, but stories that open up a whole new world of understanding and perspective, stories that can change the way you see your life and the lives of those around you.