Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hayyei Sarah 5769/ November 22, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Hayyei Sarah – Sarah in Life

Menahem Mendel Bronfman


The Hassidic literature of the school of Chabad [1] presents the patriarch Abraham and the matriarch Sarah as being active in different realms. Abraham boldly and proudly bore the banner of monotheistic faith.  At certain times Abraham even placed his life in jeopardy, since his ideological objective of spreading the tidings of One G-d over the face of the earth was so overriding that it surpassed the deep instinct of self-preservation (Tanna de-bei Eliyahu Zuta 25).  Abraham’s focus was on the broader dispersal of mankind, to whom he carried a universal message, transcending nationality, race and culture: [2]   “for I make you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5) – “father of the entire world” (Rashi, loc. sit.).

Not so, Sarah. She represents the specifically Jewish aspect of monotheism in general (as we shall see below). [3]

The argument between Abraham and Sarah regarding the fate of Ishmael and his mother (Gen. 21) has deep inner meaning.  Abraham wanted to continue spreading the idea of monotheism to the entire world, and hence Ishmael’s fate pained him, for he would have to become a nomad and not receive the Truth and the tidings of monotheism. Sarah, however, wished to focus her energy inwards, investing all her efforts into her own home.  She did not perceive her destiny in the universal dissemination of the Jewish message.   Her principal challenge was to educate and nurture the Jewish people properly, according to precise demands and instruction, requiring her people to behave with the utmost sanctity.   Ishmael, who was not her son and was not included in the Jewish people, [4] was of no concern to her.

This Hassidic theory confirms what the midrash tells us about Sarah:   But G-d said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed … whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says’ – from this we learn that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in prophetic capacity” (Midrash Tanhuma [Warsaw ed.], Exodus, 1).  Hassidic interpretation explains that in certain respects [5] Sarah was actually on a higher level that Abraham, and therefore Abraham was instructed to do as Sarah said.  The gemara (Tractate Bava Batra 58a) provides the following story:

Rabbi Bena’ah used to mark caves. When he came to Abraham’s cave, Abraham’s servant was just arriving at the gate.  Rabbi Bena’ah asked him:   What is Abraham doing at the moment?   Eliezer answered him:   He is resting on Sarah’s shoulder, and she is examining the [hairs] of his head.

The Hassidic explanation of this peculiar story is based on its inner aspect.  Examining the hairs of his head is an allegory for picking out the waste (hair derives its vitality from the body, but that vitality is of such small measure that one feels no pain when a hair is removed).  In kabbalistic and hassidic literature hair represents the presence of vitality and divine influence, but one could have a situation in which outside elements draw on this force and a reduced vital influence is exerted on negative elements.  This vitality and influence are not perfect because they can fall into the wrong hands.   Hence they must be rigorously examined and sorted out, so that there will be no external element drawing on them.   According to this allegory, Sarah examined Abraham’s hair, i.e., Sara was the one to make sure that Abraham’s influence did not spread to those undesirable realms that it was not supposed to reach.

So it is deliberately Sarah who filtered Abraham’s influence, making sure that no negative influence was drawn from him, feeding outside elements.  Her ability to assure that Abraham’s influence and energies reached their destined target stemmed from her being on a more elevated spiritual level than he.   This also explains the two statements above – that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in prophetic capacity, and that Sarah expressed Jewish uniqueness more than Abraham.  All comes from a single point:  in a certain respect, Sarah was on a higher spiritual plain – the singularity of Israel.   Indeed, Sarah succeeded in influencing Abraham to channel “all that he owned to Isaac” (Gen. 25:5), so that his spiritual influence and the full measure of his energy be passed on to the continuation of the Jewish line.

Based on this interpretation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sihot, Part 15, p. 145), gave a marvelous elucidation of an extremely difficult question:  For over a thousand years the weekly readings have been named according to their current format, more or less. [6]   Generally, the weekly reading is named according to the first few words of the portion, yet usually one can find a connection between the name of the weekly reading and its content.   In any event, it would be strange and surprising if the name of the reading were diametrically opposed to its content, as with this week’s reading.  The words, hayyei Sarah (=The Life of Sarah) conjure up the image of Sarah’s life, yet at the outset of this week’s portion we read about Sarah’s death.  But not everyone passes from the world the same way.  When, after a person’s death, their spouse and offspring rigorously keep alive their memory, when the dreams of the deceased and the things that they worked their entire life to realize come to fruition, then the deceased is in a certain remains in our presence.  Parashat Hayyei Sarah seems, on the face of it, to be a final interment of our matriarch Sarah.

Three important elements weave through this week’s reading, and all in plain words express a single point, that Sarah is no more.  The reading tells about (1) the efforts surrounding Sarah’s burial, (2) the marriage of Isaac to Rebekkah and his finding comfort in his wife after his mother’s death (Gen. 24:67 and Rashi, loc. sit.), and (3) Abraham seemingly putting aside the memory of his wife and remarrying (Gen. 25:1). [7]

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this as follows:   the true test of whether a person indeed lives on, of whether the deceased person is still present, is whether the memory of the person remains alive.  Does the person’s heritage still have the breath of life, develop and grow, even after the person’s death.  According to this way of elucidating the text, the Torah seeks to tell us in Parashat Hayyei Sarah that even though Sarah died physically, upon deeper examination we see precisely in this week’s reading that in actual fact she remained alive.  Sarah’s influence was still present.  Her heritage continued to develop, and her life’s work continued to be present and develop.

This can be seen in the three elements mentioned.

1)     The weekly portion begins with an account of purchasing the cave of Machpelah as Sarah’s burial place.  The cave of Machpelah, according to the Sages (Eruvin 53b), was where Adam and Eve, the ancestors of the human race, where buried.  Purchasing this site for Sarah and her offspring attests to the centrality of the Jewish people in the human experience.

2)     Isaac’s marriage brings up another point emphasizing the special quality of the Jewish people. Abraham would not have even the daughter of his steward Eliezer, who according to legend “drew up and gave others to drink of the instruction of his Teacher” (Rashi, Gen. 15:2; a play on the name Dammesek), taken as a wife for Isaac.   Despite all the steward’s virtues, according to legend Abraham said to him, “My son is blessed and you are subject to a curse. One who is under a curse cannot unite with one who is blessed” (Rashi on Gen. 24:39).

3)     Abraham’s later marriages do not express the end of Sarah’s heritage within Abraham’s family.  Quite the contrary, they bring out the fact that Sarah was still present in full force, that her heritage was alive and well in Abraham’s inner world:   “all he owned he gave to Isaac,” the Torah tells us, “but to Abraham’s sons by concubines (the children of the wives he took after Sarah’s death) … Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward.”  Thus we see that Abraham safeguarded Sarah’s heritage, her message to the world and her destiny – preservation of Jewish uniqueness.


[1] All that follows is drawn from the teaching of Chabad rabbis, even when we use the general term “hassidism.”

[2] See Sotah 10a:  And invoked there the name of the Lord, the Everlasting G-d – this indicates that he proclaimed the name of the Lord to all passersby.”

[3] For what follows, see Or ha-Torah (of Baal ha-Tzemah-Tzedek), Hayyei Sarah, s.v. Rabbi Bena’ah, p. 120a.  Be’ur ha-Zohar (Rabbi Dov Ber, ha-Admor ha-Emtza’i), Hayyei Sarah 13.2.  Likutei Sihot (Lubavitcher Rebbe), Part 5, p. 339.

[4] Note that only Esau, Sarah’s grandson, is said to have left the Israelite faith (Kiddushin 18a), and not Ishmael, presumably because he was not her offspring.

[5] Of course one cannot ignore the fact that in most respects Abraham was plainly superior to Sarah; he stood up to ten trials, himself acknowledged his Maker, and had all the other good traits that we know of him. Nevertheless, in a certain respect Sarah was singled out as superior to Abraham.

[6] The names of the parashot appear in the prayerbook of Rabbi Saadia Gaon and in Maimonides’ Seder Tefilah.  Cf. Maimonides, Hilkhot Tefilah, ch. 13.

[7] We have chosen not to deal with one other element, the history of Ishmael, who was expelled by Sarah and who returns to the story after her death, because it exceeds the bounds of this article.