November 2017, Parshat Chayei-Sarah

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha is called Chayei-Sarah which literally means the life of Sarah.

There is a haunting Midrash (rabbinic interpretation of the Torah) quoted by Rashi that I have always found rather traumatic. According to the Midrash, the reason why the death of Sarah immediately follows the story of Avraham about to sacrifice Yitzchak, was because they were directly linked. It says that the reason why Sarah died was because she heard the news that Avraham took her beloved son to sacrifice to God and when she heard the news her soul departed her body.

It’s difficult not to feel for Sarah. For most of her life she was barren which led to her to give Hagar to sleep with her husband so that he at least would have offspring which in run led to a complicated scenario. Her servant Hagar starts to feel superior and gives Sarah a hard time. Then God appears to Avraham and Sarah, when she’s 90, and promises them a son in 12 months time. Sarah laughs, God chastises her, but lo and behold, at the age of 91 she finally has a son Yitzchak who, by all accounts, has an extremely close relationship with her for 37 years. Sarah is now 127 years old when she hears that Avraham has taken Yitzchak to sacrifice him to God. The emotional trauma proves too great and she dies.

To think that her last conscious thought was that her beloved son was killed by his own father at God’s command! What a tragic story.

Not everyone agrees with Rashi who seems to suggest a literal interpretation of Midrashim. The great philosopher, the Rambam, in his commentary to Perek Chelek (10th Ch. of Sanhedrin) states unequivocally that Midrashim are not to be taken literally, but are a source of deep wisdom. The Ramchal, in his Introduction to Aggadah (found in most editions of the Ein Yaakov) states the Midrashim are a source of deep and abstract ideas and not to be taken literally. The Ra’avad on his commentary to the Mishne Torah (Hil. Teshuva Ch. 3) states that taking the Midrashim literally ‘Meshabshot et hadeot’ – distorts the truth.

Sadly though, there is a dominant approach to teach our children that Midrashim are literal accounts of what happened.

To be sure, there are much more disturbing Midrashim than the one above. Another famous Midrash, quoted by Rashi relating to this week’s Parsha, has us believe that Rivkah was 3 years old at the time she married a 40 year old Yitzchak. Of course people married young then, but that is perverse!

The point of all this is not to belittle Rashi or the Midrash at all. Rather, it is to put both in context. Rashi is a revered commentator but not the only one. The fact is that the Torah has many differing and contradictory interpretations. If we teach that we must accept what Rashi says because it is Rashi who is saying it, we inevitably land ourselves in a situation where either rational thought must be switched off or we must reject the commentaries.

The irony, of course, is that the message of this week’s Parsha is as simple as it is beautiful. Sarah died. Avraham is about to. He’s worried about an appropriate wife for his son and most of the Parsha looks at the story of how an appropriate wife was found for him. In a nutshell, the right woman was Rivkah because she showed herself to be a most caring human being; keenly sensitive to the needs of strangers and even their thirsty animals.

This then is the lesson of this week’s Parsha. Just like Avraham in last week’s so too Rivkah was exemplary in her attending to the needs of strangers. And it is for this reason alone that she was chosen to be an appropriate wife for Yitzchak, a Matriarch and an archetype, of the entire Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur