Chaye Sarah – on land, on legacy, and on leading one’s own path

In this parshah we have the story of Sarah’s death, although the name of the parshah is “Sarah’s life.” In this section we also have the betrothal between Isaac and Rebecca, marking the continuation of the line of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s death stands in for her life because becoming a mother was her greatest desire, and through her children she continues to live. This is one feminist understanding of the power of motherhood. Although the line is referred to as “Abrahamic,” Sarah as the archetypal mother figure reminds us of the inextricability between women and life, and gives us renewed reverence for the mother figure.

There is a midrash that suggests a continuation from the Akedah story (the binding of Isaac) to Sarah’s death. Tanhuma Vayera 23 fills in the details of the transition between the Akedah to the moment of Sarah’s death. The midrash describes Isaac telling his mother what happened to him on the mountain and, being shocked and outraged at the possibility of her son’s death, Sarah dies before the story concludes. In The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Rona Shapiro claims that this midrash highlights the difference between Abraham and Sarah. While Abraham felt that the highest ethic would be to listen unquestioningly to God, Sarah knows that no God could command as immoral an act as murdering one’s child. She dies, Shapiro suggests, because she can no longer believe in this God. Shapiro’s interpretation is startling given that the traditional view of the Akedah is positive, and that the birth of Isaac is bound up with Sarah’s fervent desire and prayer. Isaac is born because “God remembers her.” Even the religious viewpoint, when refracted through a feminist viewpoint, struggles with blind faith and ultimate belief. Shapiro’s understanding of Chaye Sarah, then, is that ethics are found in the home /and in the love expressed between parents and children. This is the kind of divinity in which she chooses to believe. For a Humanist, it is not divinity but humanity that imposes the ethics as espoused in the story of Sarah and in her midrash. We cannot accept injustice and immorality – particularly in the name of a God. We focus on life and human relationships, both of which are exemplified through the mother’s story.

The story of Rebecca’s betrothal to Isaac also reminds us that women, as
matriarchs, can be powerful. The parshah states very clearly that when asked if she will “go” to where Isaac is and marry him she states “I will.” We visited the concept of the journey earlier. Just as Abraham was a pioneer and the “Lech Lecha” parshah inspires the idea that to go can be a powerful assertion of one’s will to decide one’s direction, Rebecca also unites her journey with her “will,” She does not rely on parental consent and the typical patriarchal arranging of marriages, but rather she asserts her own selfhood with her betrothal.

Many commentators have long interpreted this parshah in problematic ways. Although it is named for Sarah, and focuses on the story of Rebecca, a male-centred viewpoint is typical espoused through its interpretation. After Sarah dies there is a lengthy discussion of Abraham buying her a burial plot. This connection with the land is used by many to assert a divinely promised connection between the people and land of Israel. While many Humanistic Jews may feel strongly about the land of Israel as a Jewish state, it is not a divine contract that guarantees us this right. If Sarah’s story forms the basis for our connection with the land, it is because it is the land of our mythical origins, as well as our ancestral home. We must honour the mythical and historical forebears of ours and not erase them in an effort to claim a stake in the soil. Sarah should neither stand in for, nor be eclipsed by, the land on which she is buried. Her legacy and memory should go beyond the negotiations over where to put her mythical bones.

Rebecca’s betrothal also does not typically get interpreted in the manner it deserves. Her “will” and her voice are overlooked. Once again, the story of her moving to the land (Hebron) to be with Isaac is used to justify Jewish settlement in the region. The rabbinic law inspired by her betrothal is that one can move to the land of Israel even without/in contravention of parental consent. Note that the more literal reading — that a woman should be able to marry anyone of her choosing without parental consent — does not become the law. So our tradition remains imperfect in the lens through which it interprets, yet it also gives us the stories through which we can make our own meanings. Rebecca is the first woman we have in our foundational stories who so clearly chooses her own path. The following parshah continues to follow her will and her journey.

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