Chayei Sara: The Sequel No-one Asked For By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

November 8th 2017



“Hang on a minute lads...I’ve got a great idea. Err.”

These immortal words, spoken at the end of the cult classic The Italian Job, are Charlie Croker’s way of encouraging his ragtag gang of crooks that all is not lost. The getaway bus dangling precariously off the edge of a cliff with $4million worth of bullion weighing down the rear tends to disagree with his assessment, but alas: we’ll never know. At precisely that moment, the producers decided it was best to end with a cliff-hanger in the literal sense of the word. Fade to black. Roll credits.                                                                                

For decades, the debate raged as to why the film had come to such an abrupt and unexpected conclusion. The most widely-accepted rumour was that the producers had simply run out of budget for another scene. Until an exclusive interview in 2014 with lead actor Sir Michael Caine revealed that a ‘proper’ ending had been scripted and even shot; but the producers decided to close with that iconic line and leave the audience guessing.

And so we step into this week’s Torah Portion with the climatic Binding of Isaac still ringing in our ears. Abraham passes the tenth and hardest test of his life, bringing Isaac to the brink of death before staying his hand at the command of an angel of God[1]. It has taken ten chapters[2], two abductions, exile, a famine, a war, and a partridge in a pear tree, but finally Abraham can enjoy the cigar of spiritual success...

“For now I know that you truly fear God” (Genesis 22:12).

Or not. His triumphant return from a chapter that pushed him to the limits of faith is shattered when he arrives home to discover that his beloved wife Sarah is dead. Indeed, the almost comically mundane funeral arrangements that follow as Abraham barters with Ephron the Hittite for a burial plot[3] serve to offhandedly if not brutally force the Binding narrative and all of its accomplishment firmly into our rear-view mirrors. Abraham’s laurels are not yet plucked, let alone rested on.

The questions surrounding Sarah’s death abound. A woman of remarkable dignity and inner-strength who loyally followed Abraham out of her homeland on a journey of discovery that would last an eternity. A woman whose husband returns to Be’er Sheva from the Jerusalem hills, son and future still alive, only to find that death has outflanked him nonetheless, and stands there at the very threshold of his house, taunting him.

Confusingly, many commentaries[4], omit Sarah’s abrupt death from the ‘official’ list of tests. Their logic is sound: what sequel could possibly follow the display of loyalty and belief of a person who was commanded to sacrifice their cherished son and heir – and complied? As mentioned, despite plentiful accolades, the Torah refrains from referring to Abraham as a ‘God-fearing person’, a title that surely indicates the culmination and completion of his life’s mission. Whatever follows is surely anticlimactic, Frodo Baggins returning to the Shire after destroying the evil of Mordor. And so, these commentaries reason, what follows in this week’s portion isn’t a test, it is simply part of life.

Perhaps more perplexingly are the commentaries[5] who do consider it as the tenth and final obstacle for Abraham to surmount on his road to perfection. Here, the question is obvious: in what sense was the Binding a cliff-hanger?! What lesson on Earth still remained for Abraham to learn?! And, taking into account the understanding that the Ten Trials supposedly increase in difficulty as they go on, surely Sarah’s death at a ripe old age – tragic as it was – smacks of a sequel no one asked for?

Another peculiarity of this section is in the verse:

“And Abraham came to eulogise Sarah and to cry for her.”[6]

If you look at the Hebrew, you’ll notice that the letter ‘Kaf’ (looks like a backwards ‘C’) is in a smaller font than the rest of the word ‘to cry for her’. This suggests[7] that Abraham held back when it came to mourning her, not expressing the true extent of his grief. Why?

Rabbi Shmuel Sofer of Bratislava (d.1871), home of Baroque palaces, famous waltzes and – until relatively recently – my father-in-law, poses a brilliant solution:

Picture the scene[8]: Sarah is at home, patiently waiting for her husband and precious son to come back from their trip. She hears a knock on the door. It’s a distant family friend who lives near Jerusalem. She appears to be out of breath. ‘What’s wrong?’ Sarah asks. ‘I saw….I saw them!’ the friend replies. ‘Saw who?!’ ‘Your husband and son. They were on the top of Mount Moriah…Oh, Sarah I’m so sorry!’

The colour drains from Sarah’s weathered cheeks. ‘What happened?!’

‘He took him there to sacrifice him to God!’

Sarah hears this news, and the shock kills her. She cannot believe that the child she had longingly anticipated for decades was gone. Except he wasn't. But she didn’t know that. And Abraham strides exultantly up the front path, Isaac by his side, and this is the tragic scene that greets him.

And now the question at the core of this sequel – the true 10th test – burns with an urgency that we can all recognise…

Do you regret having ever gone? In hindsight, had you known that the trauma would have mistakenly caused the death of the woman who has stuck by you through thick and thin, would you have made a different decision altogether? Would you have abandoned the 9th test to salvage the 10th?

The subtlety of this test is its complexity: we struggle to truly regret mistakes and wrongdoings, but quite readily regret the good things that we do when they don’t quite pay off. Indeed, ‘regret’ is too soft a word. Nothing is more frustrating or angering to the God-fearing person than the realisation that for all of their good deeds and acts of faith and charity, their worst fears were still realised.

Abraham did pluck the laurels. But he didn’t rest on them. He couldn’t. Sarah’s death and more specifically – its cause - mercilessly tore them out of his hands and burnt them to a cinder. In a sense, there is no greater pain than snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

But what indication is there that Abraham passed this test? The small ‘Kaf’. Sitting there, surrounded by friends and well-wishers who had come help fill the grieving void left behind by this glorious woman, Abraham conceals the true extent of his pain. Not wanting to give over even the slightest impression of regret over a lifetime of accomplishment; even though he now knew that the end of the yellow brick road was not a happy one, his sensitivity to God’s honour meant that he remained controlled and composed.

And with this, the ‘God-fearing man’ became a true ‘Prince of God’ – a title given to him by none other than Ephron the Hittite[9]. Greatness in God’s eyes is remarkable. Greatness in the eyes of all who meet you is extraordinary.

 


[1] Genesis 22:10-12

[2] Genesis 12 to 22

[3] Genesis 23:3-18. Cf. Talmud Sanhedrin 111a, which records this negotiation as yet another test by which Abraham proved his worth. Having been told by God that the Land of Canaan belonged to him and his ancestors for eternity, the subsequent need to pay through his teeth for a burial plot presented a paradox bordering on farcical.

[4] Most notably: Rashi and Maimonides.

[5] Most notably Rabbi Yonah of Girona, Spain (d.1263)

[6] Genesis 23:2. The classic understanding is that Abraham ‘came’ directly from his brush with Isaac’s death, to discover that she had died.

[7] See Ba’al Haturim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher), ibid.

[8] This explanation is given in the Medrash Tanchuma, Vayeira.

[9] Genesis 23:5

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