Over several months, I visited a woman who had terminal cancer. She was confined to a single room and a bed. She was regularly provided with medication to manage pain. The scope of her life experiences, which had been filled with family, friends, international travel, fine food and fashion, grew increasingly narrow. Her mortality came into sharp focus, accompanied by the progressive limitations of the disease process that gripped onto critical parts of her anatomy.
Remarkably, sadness and bitterness did not overcome her. Living within this near-death canal, she took pleasure in the visits of hummingbirds and finches outside her window. She knew that her loved ones visited her when they could and that their affection for her remained unabated. Even in moments of unspeakable pain, her first thoughts were of others and how they were doing.
As I was leaving her room one afternoon, she said, “I am sorry I have nothing to give you.”
“Oh, but I am here for you,” I countered.
Then she said, “All I have to give is my love.”
Many Torah commentaries have addressed the gap in the narrative referencing Sarah’s death. We really don’t know how or why she died. We are not privy to her words or her feelings. Her age of 127 is recorded at the beginning of the parshat and has been explored by Rashi and others as meaningful, but the sum total of her life, not the number of her years, seems textually deficient.
Unlike Moses, Sarah does not provide a soliloquy reviewing her adventures and the wisdom gleaned from those experiences. We can only wonder about her voice, her words, the state of her heart.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin imagined that a confrontation between Sarah and Abraham occurred prior to the binding of Isaac. Sarah, a great prophetess, disagreed with Abraham’s interpretation of God’s words. Therefore, she did everything in her power to prevent a sacrifice. In desperation, Sarah told Abraham that if he sets forth upon this path of devastation, she would not be home upon his return. So, as Abraham departs for the Akedah, Sarah remains true to her words. She goes her own way, leaving for Kiriatharba. There, she died from grief. The angel who spared Isaac was too late for Sarah. The world changed. Abraham went forth from Beersheba to Kiriatharba to bury, mourn and eulogize Sarah.
Prior to this episode, the Torah has lacked emotive content. But in this parshat we experience the concepts of both grief and love. We witness the root of Jewish mourning practices as Abraham grieves. Then, in Chapter 24, the longest in the book of B’reishit, we see the expression of love between Isaac and Rebecca.
Could the life of Sarah have something to do with the love that endures between one person and another, the love that extends between one generation and the next? Could the life of Sarah teach us that if we are able to experience real grief, the experience of true love is also possible?
Death has a way of revealing that which is true of life. My hospice patient demonstrated that even in Mitzrayim, the most narrow of spaces, her beautiful character remained intact. Her ability to prioritize love above all else can also be Sarah’s eternal legacy to us.
Unlike my hospice patient, we do not know how or why Sarah died. We do know that from generation to generation, we mourn those we love who have died and we celebrate love as the wellspring of life. JN
Rabbi Mindie Snyder is the religious leader of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff.