By: Rabbi Ehud Bandel
In these difficult days, when parents bury their children, we are exposed to shocking personal tragedies. One of them, to which I was personally exposed, was a case of cardiac arrest that happened during the Shiva to a bereaved mother whose son had fallen in battle. The concept of heartbreak took on a literal meaning here. Miraculously, the mother's life was saved, but the impact of the event was so great, that after the resuscitation, she did not remember the fact that her son had fallen.
Chayei Sarah portion opens with the death of Sarah the matriarch. Rashi notes: "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 (literally, her soul flew from her) and she died
" (Rashi on Genesis 23:2). Rashi's interpretation is based on the midrash of the words "And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah
" (Genesis 23:2) – "Whence did he come?
" asks the midrash, and answers: "From Mount Moriah". The source of Rashi's interpretation is Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer - a midrash from the 8th century that tells us this: "When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah in peace, the anger of Sammael was kindled, for he saw that the desire of his heart to frustrate the offering of our father Abraham had not been realized. What did he do? He went and said to Sarah: Hast thou not heard what has happened in the world? She said to him: No. He said to her: Thy husband, Abraham, has taken thy son Isaac and slain him and offered him up as a burnt offering upon the altar. She began to weep and to cry aloud three times, corresponding to the three sustained notes (of the Shophar), and (she gave forth) three howlings corresponding to the three disconnected short notes (of the Shophar), and her soul fled, and she died. Abraham came and found that she was dead
" (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 32:8).
According to the midrash, it seems that the real binding is not Isaac's, but Sarah's. She is the one who pays the price of Abraham's trial. The biblical story does not reveal everything to us, but the midrash reveals to us the mother's point of view, and it gives her a voice - a voice that reminds us of the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
We usually say that the shofar on Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the right of our father Avraham - the great believer, who was ready to sacrifice his son. But according to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, the Shofar comes to remind us not of Abraham, but of his wife Sarah - Isaac's mother, who was not even consulted.
There is another famous midrash, which compares the sound of the shofar to the weeping of a bereaved mother. And who is the bereaved mother whose pain we are supposed to sympathize with? This is the mother of Sisera - the great enemy of Israel during the period of the Judges. In the song of Deborah in the book of Judges we read: "Through the window she looked forth, and peered, the mother of Sisera, through the lattice: 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?
" (Judges 5:28). According to the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) the sound of teruah should sound like the weeping of Sisera's mother.
This sensitivity to the bereaved mother and her pain - and even to the mother of the enemy - is a central message that the Sages seek to teach us. This sensitivity to others is also emphasized in additional midrashim to our portion.
When we read about Sarah's burial, we ask ourselves: 'And Isaac, where was he?' Why is the son not present at his mother's burial? At the end of the portion we hear where Isaac was: "And Isaac came from the way of Beer-lahai-roi; for he dwelt in the land of the South
" (Genesis 24:62). What is Beer-lahai-roi? This is the place where God's angel appeared to Hagar and promised her that she would give birth to Ishmael. The midrash explains: After the death of his mother Sarah, Isaac went to bring his father's wife Hagar back home. Furthermore, immediately afterwards the Torah tells us: "And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah
" (Genesis 25:1). And according to the midrash, Keturah is not a new wife, but rather she is Hagar who has returned to her home. These midrashim see the expulsion of Hagar as a stain on Abraham our father - a stain that must be removed, and therefore, Abraham's marriage to Keturah is interpreted as the return of Hagar to his home, with the matchmaker and reconciler being Isaac.
The reconciliation with the enemy seals our portion. Chayei Sarah portion ends with Abraham's death and burial. "And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah
" (Genesis 25:9). The quarrel and rivalry for years between Isaac and Ishmael are pushed aside, and the two brothers meet together at their father's funeral. Couldn't they have met earlier? Can the brothers meet only after the death of the father? Everyone will give their answer, but one thing is clear. Reconciliation and appeasement between the brothers must come sometime, and better late than never.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Rabbi Ehud Bandel
is the founding CEO of "Rabbis for Human Rights" and the former president of the Masorti Movement.