The Power of Words

Hayyei Sarah By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Nov 7, 2012 / 5773 | Torah Commentary

The Torah does not prepare us for Sarah’s death. We come face-to-face with it shortly after recounting the length of her life in the first verse of the parashah: “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to 127 years. Sarah died in Kiriath Arbah . . . ” (Gen. 23:1–2a). Abraham and Ishmael also die in this week’s parashah, prefaced by a similar recounting of the length of their lives. All three scenes are relatively formulaic; however, it is Abraham’s last days that fill the balance of the parashah. Where Sarah and Ishmael seem to fade from the scene, Abraham actively prepares for his death. The details of the burial of Sarah and finding a wife for Isaac that occupy the parashah rest in stark contrast to the death narratives of both Abraham’s wife and firstborn son.

Nahum Sarna, in his JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, recognizes that these two stories play an important role in Abraham’s life. After the climax of the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah, Sarna notes:

For all intents and purposes, [Abraham’s] biography is complete. But two important issues remain: the concern with mortality and the preoccupation with posterity. The former finds expression in the acquisition of a hereditary burial site, the latter through the selection of a wife for Isaac so that the succession of the line may be secured. (156)

In Abraham’s life, we recognize the importance of these moments; however, there is a larger context within which we must read the narrative of Abraham. Beyond the action on the page, our collective narrative is unfolding as well—and textual keys are our clue to take note.

Words are important to the Torah. Not only is meaning the fodder for every commentary from the pre-rabbinic period through today, but the actual currency of words spent by telling a story in the Torah is key. The Torah has roughly 80,000 words (Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities has 137,000; let’s be happy we don’t have to read it in shul); Parashat Hayyei Sarah has two episodes that are particularly word heavy. After Sarah’s death, we read of the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah (23:1–20) and then the betrothal of Isaac (24:1–67). Each has elements that force us to pay attention: with the Machpelah story, it is the deeply legal nature of the narrative; with the betrothal of Isaac, it is the sheer length (there is no story in the Abraham narratives that exceeds it). We find ourselves asking, what position do these seemingly ordinary tasks (burying a loved one and finding a mate for one’s progeny) have in the overall plot? What are we—the inheritors of the Torah—to learn from the emphasis the Torah places on these stories?

I believe the extended narratives of Abraham in Parashat Hayyei Sarah establish an archetype whereby the death scenes of the patriarchs signal moments of historical presence—moments when our patriarchs take decisive actions that intentionally move the story forward, passing the baton of history to the next generation. With Isaac it is the elevation of Jacob over Esau, the firstborn son and natural heir (here, our patriarch, blinded by his role in the chain of succession, does not have the ability to act autonomously, so Rebecca serves as his agent). In the story of Jacob, we read the extended account of the blessings bestowed on each of his heirs.

There can be no doubt that in the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, the transition between generations would be important; these are not casual moments. These are moments when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are keenly aware of what has come before them, and what can potentially transpire in the future. These are moments when our patriarchs proactively set events in motion—and to highlight that importance to us, the readers, the Torah offers a generous helping of words.

In his work Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, a professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, recognizes the innovation of Judaism in the form of the Torah. He writes that when we left the Garden we abandoned paradise and began to understand the world from the point of view of history. Innate to that worldview is that we mine history for its meaning—a revolutionary concept in the ancient world: “It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and thus forged a new worldview whose essential premises were eventually appropriated by Christianity and Islam” (8).

This is the force of the Abraham narratives in Parashat Hayyei Sarah. What we read is not simply a recording of historical events—not merely a moment in the life of Abraham—it is a moment in the life of a people. There is a grander import.

I can think of no better lesson for a time when every editorial writer, news reporter, and political wonk advises us that we are living through a moment of historical significance. Attuning ourselves to the larger impact is what we learn from the narratives of Hayyei Sarah. It is through mining this moment for its deeper meaning that we will unearth its true historical message.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.