Life: Quantity Vs. Quality
“And the span of Sarah’s life was 127 years—the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen. 23:1; my translation). Whenever I read this verse, I feel a deep sadness that is only intensified by the story that follows. Let me explain.
There are many ways of measuring a life. One possible metric is quantitative: “She lived to a ripe old age.” Another is qualitative: “He had a good life.” Health can be used as a yardstick (“She had all her faculties until the day she died”), as can money (“He made a comfortable living”), accomplishments (“He was a world class scientist”), adventure (“She traveled the world over”), integrity (“He was always a straight shooter”), and piety (“He never missed minyan”).
Now let us imagine Sarah’s friends—let’s call them Iscah, Naamah, and Tirzah—talking as they are on the way to pay a shiv’ah visit to Abraham. What would they say about her life? How would they assess it? Let’s listen in as Iscah begins to speak.
“It was a terrible marriage. Let’s face it, Abraham always put himself first. Remember when there was a famine here and they had to move to Egypt for a while? Sarah told me that Abraham asked her to say that she was his sister so that the Egyptians would not kill him in order to steal Sarah away from him. His words were that she should do this ‘so that it will go well with me’ (Gen. 12:13). Well, it sure did go well with him. After Pharaoh nabbed Sarah, he gave Abraham sheep, oxen, slaves—you name it! And Sarah? She was a prisoner in Pharaoh’s palace. She must have been frightened out of her wits! Fortunately for Abraham’s sake, God sent plagues against Pharaoh and his household, at which point Pharaoh gladly handed Sarah back to Abraham. Sarah was saved because God had chosen Abraham. I think Abraham had a better relationship with God than he did with his wife!”
Tirzah breaks in: “And Sarah had so much trouble getting pregnant! She finally offered her maidservant Hagar to Abraham hoping that Hagar would have a child with him whom she could then adopt as her own. Well, you know the rest. Hagar got pregnant, all right, but when she realized that she was giving Abraham what he wanted, something that Sarah couldn’t provide, she began acting as if she were running the household, not Sarah. And when Sarah complained to Abraham, did he offer to intervene? Did he kick Hagar out of his bed? No! ‘It’s your maid,’ he said, ‘Do whatever you think is right.’ So Sarah harassed Hagar until she ran away. I’m no psychologist, but I’ve got to imagine that some of her mistreatment of Hagar was redirected anger at her husband.”
Adds Naamah, “So finally God promises Sarah a son. And when He informs Abraham that Sarah is going to give birth to the child for whom she has waited so long, what is Abraham’s first concern? ‘Ishmael, what’s going to happen to Ishmael?’ Not only that: when God first tells Abraham that he and Sarah are going to have a son, he laughs, thinking to himself, ‘Can Sarah and I have a child at this stage of our lives, when I’m 100 and she’s 90?’ But when Sarah does the same thing, God gets indignant. ‘I can do anything I promise. Does Sarah doubt me?’ And instead of pointing out to God that he had had the same reaction, Abraham says nothing. Talk about an unsupportive spouse!”
“And,” says Tirzah, “when Sarah finally gives birth, a new source of tension is created. Sarah had to deal with Hagar’s derision when Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael. Then, when Ishmael was born, she had to live with the pain of being childless while her maidservant had provided her husband with a son. So finally she has a son—problem solved, right? No; Ishmael isn’t happy about Isaac’s arrival on the scene, and he begins playing around with Isaac in ways that Sarah finds alarming. Her sense is that Ishmael wants to claim part of Isaac’s rightful inheritance. So she goes to Abraham and demands that he send away Hagar and Ishmael. Now admittedly this must have been a painful moment for Abraham. But he had to make a choice: it was going to be either Isaac and Sarah or Ishmael and Hagar. But he doesn’t take action until God tells him to listen to Sarah. His thoughts are about Ishmael, not about her.”
“But it didn’t stop there,” says Iscah with a sigh. “Sarah finally had what she wanted—a son (Isaac)—and no rival for him as the heir and no rival for Abraham’s attention and affection. And then, one morning, Abraham takes Isaac on a journey. The horrific nature of the journey is something Sarah learns only after their return. God had finally granted Sarah’s wish and given her a son. And now, He commands Abraham to sacrifice that son! Abraham was unhappy when he was told to send away Ishmael, but he says nothing when God tells him to slaughter Isaac! In fact, he gets up early so he can carry out this barbaric mission as soon as possible! Well, this was the last straw. When Abraham and Isaac returned and Isaac told her what happened, her heart just couldn’t take it. I’m not going to say that she died young, but she still had many good years left in her. It’s a tragedy, and Abraham and his God are to blame.”
“And now the kicker,” says Naamah. “After a lifetime of putting his own dreams before Sarah’s, when she finally dies, he’s suddenly the dutiful husband. Nothing but the best for her; he’s willing to pay top shekel for her burial site. Where was this solicitude while she was still alive? What a cruel joke!”
And so I read the first verse of this week’s Torah portion and sigh. What can the Torah tell us about Sarah’s life? It spanned 127 years. What kind of life was it? A life most of which consists of details best left out of the eulogy. Better to say, “She lived 127 years” and leave it at that. Yes, it is a tragedy that, had God and Abraham acted differently, her life could have been one of happiness and fulfillment. Sometimes all we get is the time.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.