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The Original Jewish Mother

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

 יּוּ֙ יּ֣ שׂ֔ ֥ שׁ֛ שׂ֥ שׁ֖ שׁ֣ שׁ֑ שׁ֖ יּ֥ שׂ:

Although the midrash marks this life-recording formula as unique[1], in actuality, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Yishmael’s deaths were all recorded using the same ‘disjointed’ formula[2]. So, perhaps a different uniqueness can be questioned from this pasuk: why is Sarah the only one of the whose death is similarly officially listed in the Torah?[3]  To answer this question, we must first understand the significance of the Torah’s recording of the Avot’s/Yishmael’s death, which will then allow us to compare it to the rationale for recording Sarah’s in a similar way.

It is easy to assume that when the Torah takes the time to officially and formally report a character’s death, it directs the reader to appreciate a Divine importance to that character’s life: a significant closure to a significant life, as it were. However, in each recording of the aforementioned deaths, the Torah also concludes with the phrase “ ” – literally translated as ‘and he was gathered to his nation’. Many understand this strange additional phrase as a report of the custom wherein the flesh of the deceased was given to decompose and the bones were then gathered into the family burial plot or cave. The difficulty with this understanding is that a better word choice would have been, for example, ‘’ – ‘ancestors’: i.e. in his death someone joined his past; not that he was gathered to his present nation. And, point in fact, in Shoftim, it actually uses “ ” – ‘gathered to his ancestors’; and in Melakhim II it uses a similarly more fitting phrase “ ” – ‘gathered to your burial places’. So, it would seem therefore that the purposeful use of “” in our cases demonstrates not a literal report of how the bones were ultimately disposed (of which ‘’ and ‘’ would be better reflections) but rather a symbolic joining to one’s nation. It would be understood as the Torah’s report of someone having secured his place within a nation’s continued existence; a successful closure of one’s life having served as an unbreakable link within the larger, ongoing national chain.

Upon the death of each of the Avot, the official report doesn’t merely relay a significant life led, but more importantly – with the addition of the concluding “” phrase - they had also ‘done their significant part’ for the continuation of God’s nation; they passed away having successfully fulfilled their Divinely directed responsibility concerning the next stage in that Divine future. At his death, Avraham had properly prepared Yitzchak to carry on what he had begun; when he died, Yitzchak had already chosen and set-up Yaakov to continue the Legacy by sending him to Lavan’s house; and before his death, Yaakov adjured all of his children to ensure the Divinely intended future. Interestingly, this explains why Yishmael – although not technically one of the Avot – ‘received’ an official report of death and also ‘received’ the ‘ ’ phrase. God had also foretold for Yishmael that his ‘future’ would include uncountable descendants (16:10), 12 princes and a great nation (17:20), which, upon his death, the Torah verbosely reports he had successfully attained (25: 13-16).

And now we return to Sarah. On the one hand her death is recorded through the official formula of a ‘significant’ Avot-esque passing; on the other hand, therefore, the absence of a “ ” phrase is glaringly highlighted. However, this absence is only surprising (and disappointing) if there was in fact a nationally oriented Divine charge she was individually given to assist in completing (like all the Avot and Yishmael) – and was nonetheless ‘denied’ a recording of it upon her death.

Where was her unique Divine charge? In 25: 1-4, after Akeydat Yitzchak, the Torah tells us that Avraham took another wife and had many children from her. At this point, Avraham must have been at least 140 years old and he obviously had no problem fathering children. This means that truly the miraculous birth of Yitzchak – who represents the next link in God’s directed national-future – was actually Sarah’s miracle, Sarah’s personal, extraordinary contribution to God’s plan, not Avraham’s[4]!  In light of Sarah’s uniquely bestowed God-charge it makes perfect sense as to why her death is officially recognized; she was the only one of the Foremothers who was given such a direct Divine charge. But, by extension, it makes the absence of the concluding phrase even more disappointing! It seems that the Torah is reporting that while Sarah had a specific, individual Divine mission (which is why her death is recorded formally) she nonetheless didn’t complete it successfully (which is why there’s no subsequent report of “ ”)! Why didn’t she successfully conclude her mission? For this we have to skip ahead to the enigmatic first meeting of Yitzchak and Rivkah.

 ֙ בּ֣ בּ֔וֹ בּ֥ ֖ ֑ ֥וּ וֹשׁ֖ בּ֥ נּ:

“And Yitzchak was coming back from his [regular] travels to the well of Chai Roi; he [however] dwelled in the Negev”.

The introduction to this particular scene (and a first-time introduction to Yitzchak as a character in his own right) tells us that he frequented the well where Hagar and Yishmael received their Divine visitation and ultimate salvation – despite the fact that Yitzchak’s home was elsewhere. In other words, the Torah is telling us that Yitzchak would regularly actively seek out someone else’s location of Divine strength and hope; seemingly unable to find it for himself where he had personally settled.

 יּ֥ ֛ שׂ֥וּ בּשּׂ֖ ֣וֹ ֑ יּשּׂ֤ ֙ יּ֔ נּ֥ לּ֖ בּ:

“And Yitzchak went out to walk[5] in the field at evening time; and he lifted his eyes and saw, behold there were camels coming!”

Facts to mark in this pasuk: his motivation for going out into the field sounds more like an evening stroll than a directed journey towards some kind of purposeful goal (see footnote #5). Also, throughout TaNaKH, the expression of ‘lifting up one’s eyes and seeing’ (as opposed to merely ‘seeing’) always implies a significance of that which is being seen to the one who is seeing it[6]. Strangely though, what’s significant to Yitzchak is that he sees ‘behold’ - surprisingly - camels were approaching! (And these camels, previous to this pasuk (throughout the servant/Rivkah/Lavan story), had always been referred to as “” – ‘the camels’, i.e. the ones Avraham sent with his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak; but here, they are merely “” - ‘camels’). So, what is Yitzchak’s ‘significant’ discovery? He’s surprised that there are any camels approaching – seemingly he was totally unaware of the entire Avraham-directed mission to find him a wife! And not only is he surprised that there were camels arriving at all (!), he doesn’t even recognize his own camels!

And this is where we witness the manifestation of Sarah’s incompleteness in accomplishing her Divine mission to which the Torah refers. Upon her death, she hadn’t in fact left a son who was self-sustained spiritually or productively aware of the goings on around him. Yitzchak, as of yet, had not been properly trained, tutored or mentored to allow him to accomplish his role as the next progenitor of God’s Plan – the charge Sarah was specifically given by God. And therefore upon her death, tragically, Sarah didn’t ‘deserve’ the concluding “ ” attribution.

On the other hand…

 תּשּׂ֤ ֙ ֔ תּ֖ ֑ תּפּ֖ ֥ גּ:

“And Rivkah lifted her eyes and saw Yitzchak; and she descended from her camel[7]

In brilliant contrast to Yitzchak’s actions, Rivkah too lifts up her eyes significantly, and she sees Yitzchak – specifically someone significant to her! And she actively descends in order to actualize initiating the life-changing meeting.

 תּ֣ ֗ ֤שׁ לּ֙ ֤ בּשּׂ֙ ֔וּ יּ֥ ֖ ֣וּ ֑ תּקּ֥ צּ֖ תּכּ:

“And she said to the servant, ‘who is that man over there who is going in the field to greet us?’, and the servant said, ‘he’s my master’; and [Rivkah] took her veil and covered herself”

What does Rivkah then do? Instead of remaining stupefied as to what she’s seen – immobilized by the new sight - (as Yitzchak had done) she actively and fully inquires after the identity of ‘that man, over there’. And when she hears the servant’s response, she actively (“...”) reacts to it.

 פּ֥ ֖ ֑ ֥ כּדּ֖ שׁ֥ שׂ:

“And the servant relayed to Yitzchak all the things that he had done”

And Yitzchak? He needs to be told (he doesn’t ask as Rivkah had)[8] of all the active things that the servant (not he) had done’ to get a wife for him. This pasuk yet again highlights Yitzchak’s total passivity: this time specifically in contrast to the two preceding pesukim which conveyed Rivkah’s overt activity.

 ֣ ֗ ֨֙ שׂ֣ מּ֔וֹ יּקּ֧ ֛ תּ֥וֹ שּׁ֖ יּ֑ יּנּ֥ ֖ ֥ מּוֹ:

“And Yitzchak brought [Rivkah] to the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took her to be a wife for him and he loved her; and Yitzchak was comforted after his mother’s death”

And how does this meeting conclude? Suddenly, he is (very) active – ‘brought her’, ‘took Rivkah’ and ‘loved her’ (3x verbs in one verse!); only because of ‘her’ (x3!), Rivkah, for she – the active one - is the catalyst that galvanizes his first call to action, his initial steps into his pro-active life. And why does the Torah record that he specifically brought her to ‘Sarah, his mother’s tent’ and that his union with Rivkah comforted him ‘after his mother’s death’? Because, with the introduction of Rivkah into his life, the Torah tells us Yitzchak has finally received the necessary instructor and guide he required to accomplish his Mission. And with this completion, his mother’s Divine charge has been successfully completed despite her inability to accomplish it herself.

 

[1] See Rashi on this pasuk, where he explains the significance of the ‘disjointed’ addition of the word “” to each numeral.

[2] Avraham (25:7), Yitzchak (35:28), Yaakov - recorded right before his death - (47:28) and Yishmael (25:17).

[3] We have no record whatsoever of Rivkah or Leah’s death; and while Rachel’s death is reported, it’s not recorded officially – including years lived - like Sarah’s.

[4] This theory also fits very well with 17: 16, 18:13 and 21:1-3 which all describe Sarah as the singularly focused vehicle of Yitzchak’s miraculous entering into the world.

[5] Alternatively, according to a more midrashik approach: ‘prayed’ – but, either interpretation is specifically not describing a purposeful greeting of his new bride which Rivkah assumes and verbalizes in Pasuk 25.

[6] See Breishit 22:4, 37: 25 and 43:29, for example.

[7] See Melakhim II 5:21 where Na’aman the general “ ” to greet Elisha’s servant, Gechazi. It is hard to believe that this seasoned general fell off his chariot in order to greet a guest. Rather, it must mean that he purposefully descended from upon his chariot; so too, here, Rivkah purposefully descended from her camel to greet Yitzchak. (Also, why would the Torah tell us she fell off her camel?!)

[8] This contrasting passive action is brilliantly highlighted by the ‘strange’ placement of the etnachata. The pasuk is literally read as ‘And the servant told Yitzchak; of all the things he had done’. The telling is separated as a significant reflection of passivity in its own right.

 

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