Chayyei Sarah: Sated with Days

November 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment

Sarah lives for 127 years and dies at the beginning of the Torah portion called Chayyei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah”.  Her husband Abraham dies at the end of the same Torah portion, at age 175. Although he is much older at death, his final years seem much happier.

According to one strand of classic commentary, Sarah dies when she learns about the Akedah (Binding).  This story appears in Genesis/Bereishit chapter 22, the chapter just before Sarah’s death.  Abraham has a private conversation with God, then leaves their home in Beersheba early in the morning, without telling anyone his plans.  He brings along only two servants, a donkey, Isaac, and the firewood and tools for an animal sacrifice.  When he finds the right mountain, Abraham leaves the two servants at its foot, presumably so there will be no witnesses.  Father and son climb to the top, where Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac, lays him on top of the firewood, and puts a knife to his throat.  An angel has to call Abraham’s name twice before he desists from sacrificing his son.

After the Akedah, Isaac disappears from the Torah for a while.  (Toward the end of the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, we learn that is living in the Negev desert south of Beersheba.)  Abraham returns to Beersheba with his two servants, and resumes his life there.  But Sarah dies in Hebron, 30 miles to the north.

When did she move to Hebron?  I cannot imagine why Sarah would leave her beloved only son (and her husband) before the Akedah.  But I can easily imagine Sarah leaving Abraham after he returns without Isaac, and confesses what happened, and they wait but Isaac does not come home.  Sarah would be so filled with sorrow and anger that she could not bear to stay in Beersheba with the man who nearly sacrificed her son.

So Sarah returns to Hebron, the place where she and Abraham lived before Isaac was born.  She dies there, alienated from her husband and lacking the comfort of her son.  (Isaac, now 37, is not present at his mother’s funeral; he may not hear of her death in time to go.)

Abraham, on the other hand, visits Hebron just long enough to bury Sarah, and then lives another 38 years in Beersheba.  His first order of business is to send his steward to Aram to arrange a suitable marriage for Isaac.  (He sees no need to consult his son about this; the important point is that Isaac’s descendants are supposed to inherit the land and the blessing God promised them.  Isaac has to get married, so he can have descendants.)  Once the steward is dispatched, Abraham takes a new wife for himself.

And Abraham continued, and he took a wife, and her name was Keturah.  (Genesis/Bereshit 25:1)

keturah = fragrant smoke, incense

Abraham and Keturah have six sons.  This is quite a contrast with all of Abraham and Sarah’s “barren” years before finally,  when Sarah is 90 and Abraham is 100, produce one child, Isaac.  I wonder how hard Abraham and Sarah were trying.  After all, twice in the Torah when they move to a new place, Abraham says Sarah is his sister so that the local king (first the king of Egypt, then the king of Gerar), will  “take” her, and Abraham will receive royal gifts.  His ploy works both times.  But since neither Abraham nor Sarah expresses any regret or distaste for this arrangement, I suspect their marriage is not a passionate one.

(In the next Torah portion Isaac pulls the same trick with his wife Rebecca, whom he loves.  But Isaac repeatedly copies his father.  When he copies this particular trick, the king catches Isaac and Rebecca in a passionate embrace.  The kings that Abraham hoodwinks only discover the truth through a plague or a dream.)

Once Sarah is dead, Isaac is married off, and no other responsibilities hang over Abraham, he marries a woman named Keturah.  The Torah does not consider her genealogy worth mentioning.  But her name is suggestive.  Biblical Hebrew, like English, associates heat and fire with passionate emotion.  Hot nostrils indicate anger in the Torah, but fragrant smoke is something to savor and enjoy.  The smoke from a burnt offering or an incense pan is the part of an offering that gives God the most pleasure.

So after all those years with Sarah, and a short interlude with Hagar, the concubine Sarah selected for him to father his first son, Abraham finally enjoys a hot and fertile sex life with Keturah, the wife of his old age.

Then he breathed his last, and Abraham died at a good mature age, old and sated, and he was gathered in to his people.  (Genesis 25:8)

savei-a = sated, satisfied, completely full

After all his travails, Abraham dies satisfied with his life.

Meanwhile, Isaac is enjoying his own marriage.  Abraham’s steward, with God’s help, finds a wife for Isaac in Aram—Isaac’s first cousin, Rebecca.  The steward brings the bride to Isaac in the Negev, and they consummate the marriage in Sarah’s tent.  (Does Sarah leave her tent behind when she leaves Abraham?  Does Isaac visit Beersheva just long enough to pick up his mother’s tent?  The Torah is silent.)

… she she took the veil and she covered herself.  And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.  Then Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac found consolation after his mother. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:65-67)

vayinacheim = and he found consolation, had a change of heart, completed mourning

This is the first time the Torah says a man loves his wife.  In the next Torah portion, when they do not have children as soon as they would like, Isaac entreats God on his wife’s behalf, and she becomes pregnant with twins.  He backs up Rebecca in whatever she says to their sons, and he never takes another wife.

Yet when Isaac is 80, his son Esau brings home two Hittite wives that both he and Rebecca find insufferable.  Then Isaac becomes blind and confined to his tent, he is confused and frustrated when he tries to bless Esau, and both his sons move away.  He lingers on until age 180.

Then Isaac breathed his last, and he died, and he was gathered to his people, old and sated with days, and Esau and Jacob, his sons, buried him.  (Genesis 35:29)

Isaac dies “sated”, like Abraham, but the word tov, “good”, is not included this time.  Is Isaac satisfied with his life when he dies, happy with all those years in Rebecca’s company?  Or does he get tired of waiting for Jacob to come back and visit and introduce him to his grandchildren?  Jacob returns to Canaan after 20 years out of the country, but he heads for Shechem instead of for Isaac’s home in Beersheva, and the Torah give no indication that he see his father again until the funeral.  Maybe Isaac dies “sated with days” because he has had enough, he does not want another day.

When we are in the thick of life, we do not know whether we will die like Sarah, who perhaps feels she has not lived enough; or like Abraham, who feels full and content; or like Isaac, who might feel he could not stand another day.  But can we do something about it?  Is it possible to live so that no matter when death comes, at that moment we are feeling satisfied with our lives?


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