Or Zarua Torah Story 5781 Parshat Chayyei Sarah with Rashi Dedicated to the Memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Torah calls our attention to Sarah's age at the beginning of Parshat Hayyei Sarah. The second half of that same verse seems extraneous when it says "these are the years of Sarah's life." Why the summation? What do you make of the splitting up of 100, 20, and 7?

(א) וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃
(1) Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

Now learn the Rashi and see what classic Midrash says about the division of years and the summary statement our verse made:

(א) ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים. לְכָךְ נִכְתַּב שָׁנָה בְּכָל כְּלָל וּכְלָל, לוֹמַר לְךָ שֶׁכָּל אֶחָד נִדְרָשׁ לְעַצְמוֹ, בַּת ק' כְּבַת כ' לְחֵטְא, מַה בַּת כ' לֹא חָטְאָה, שֶׁהֲרֵי אֵינָהּ בַּת עֳנָשִׁין, אַף בַּת ק' בְּלֹא חֵטְא, וּבַת כ' כְּבַת ז' לְיֹפִי: (ב) שני חיי שרה. כֻּלָּן שָׁוִין לְטוֹבָה:

(1) ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים AND THE LIFE OF SARAH WAS 127 YEARS (literally, 100 years, 20 years and 7 years) — The reason the word שנה is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin — for just as at the age of twenty one may regard her as having never sinned, since she had not then reached the age when she was subject to punishment, so, too, when she was one hundred years old she was sinless — and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven (Genesis Rabbah 58:1). (2) שני חיי שרה THE YEARS OF SARAH’S LIFE — The word years is repeated and without a number to indicate that they were all equally good.

(ב) וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃ (ג) וַיָּ֙קָם֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י מֵת֑וֹ וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־חֵ֖ת לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ד) גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם תְּנ֨וּ לִ֤י אֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֙בֶר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה מֵתִ֖י מִלְּפָנָֽי׃
(2) Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (3) Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, (4) “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

1. Look at the second half of verse 2 - why did the Torah tell us not only that he proceeded to mourn but that he bewailed her, that he wept and cried?

2. Why did Abraham open his negotiation to buy a burial plot with the confusing statement - "I am a resident alien?" Does that phrase make sense? "I am an alien...and I am a one who dwells with you now." Why not just say I am one who dwells with you now?

How does Rashi solve the problem of Abraham referring to himself both as a stranger and one who resides there in Canaan? Study his comment on verse 4 below:

(א) גר ותושב אנכי עמכם. גֵּר מֵאֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת וְנִתְיַשַּׁבְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. וּמִדְרַשׁ אַגָּדָה אִם תִּרְצוּ הֲרֵינִי גֵּר, וְאִם לָאו אֶהְיֶה תּוֹשָׁב וְאֶטְּלֶנָּה מִן הַדִּין, שֶׁאָמַר לִי הַקָּבָּ"ה לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת: (ב) אחוזת קבר. אֲחֻזַּת קַרְקַע לְבֵית הַקְּבָרוֹת:
(1) גר ותושב אנכי עמכם I AM A STRANGER AND A SETTLER WITH YOU — A stranger having come from another land, but I have settled down amongst you. A Midrashic explanation is: if you agree to sell me the land then I will regard myself as a stranger and will pay for it, but if not, I shall claim it as a settler and will take it as my legal right, because the Holy One, blessed be He, said to me, (12:7) “Unto thy seed I give this land" (Genesis Rabbah 58:6). (2) אחזת קבר A POSSESSION OF A BURYING PLACE — means possession of land to serve as a burying place.

BURIAL in the Jewish tradition is defined as a Hesed shel Emet - truest kindness. The Talmud says it is because we do not receive thanks from the dead for taking care of their bodies.

What are the most important kindnesses that you can think of?

What else should fall under the category, besides burial, of Hesed shel Emet, the truest kindness?

Zikhrono l'vrakha, the Jewish world was saddened by the loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on November 7, 2020. This excerpt from a parsha article of his pays tribute to his wonderfully personable and wise way of recounting tales and teaching Torah values wherever he went in the world.

What kindness is evident in the story he tells?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - The Kindness of Strangers 5775 Chayyei Sarah

In 1966 an eleven-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family to a white neighbourhood in Washington.[1] Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here . . .”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realise, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.

The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called “chesed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.” Civility, he adds, “itself may be seen as part of chesed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers...

...Indeed the sages said that the three characteristics most important to Jewish character are modesty, compassion and kindness.[2] chesed, what I have defined elsewhere as “love as deed,”[3] is central to the Jewish value system.

The sages based it on the acts of God himself. Rav Simlai taught: “The Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness. It begins with God clothing the naked: “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them,” and it ends with Him caring for the dead: “And He [God] buried [Moses] in the Valley.”[4]...

Chesed in its many forms became synonymous with Jewish life and one of the pillars on which it stood. Jews performed kindnesses to one another because it was “the way of God” and also because they or their families had had intimate experience of suffering and knew they had nowhere else to turn. It provided an access of grace in dark times. It softened the blow of the loss of the Temple and its rites:

Once, as R. Yohanan was walking out of Jerusalem, R. Joshua followed him. Seeing the Temple in ruins, he cried, “Woe to us that this place is in ruins, the place where atonement was made for Israel’s iniquities.” R. Yohanan said to him: “My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of atonement which is no less effective. What is it? It is deeds of loving-kindness, about which Scripture says, ‘I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice’” (Hosea 6:6).[7]

...It also added a word to the English language. In 1535 Myles Coverdale published the first-ever translation of the Hebrew Bible into English (the work had been begun by William Tyndale who paid for it with his life, burnt at the stake in 1536). It was when he came to the word chesed that he realised that there was no English word which captured its meaning. It was then that, to translate it, he coined the word “loving-kindness.”

The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “When I was young I admired cleverness. Now that I am old I find I admire kindness more.” There is deep wisdom in those words. It is what led Eliezer to choose Rivka to become Isaac’s wife and thus the first Jewish bride. Kindness brings redemption to the world and, as in the case of Stephen Carter, it can change lives. Wordsworth was right when he wrote that the “best portion of a good man’s [and woman’s] life” is their “little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.”[8]

[1] Stephen Carter, Civility, New York: Basic Books, 1999, 61-75.

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 8: 4.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 44-56.

[4] B. T. Sotah 14a

[5] Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London, Edward Goldston, 1932, 348-363.

[6] B. T. Sukkah 49b.

[7] Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 4.

[8] From his poem, ‘Tintern Abbey.’

(טז) וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אַבְרָהָם֮ אֶל־עֶפְרוֹן֒ וַיִּשְׁקֹ֤ל אַבְרָהָם֙ לְעֶפְרֹ֔ן אֶת־הַכֶּ֕סֶף אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֖ר בְּאָזְנֵ֣י בְנֵי־חֵ֑ת אַרְבַּ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שֶׁ֣קֶל כֶּ֔סֶף עֹבֵ֖ר לַסֹּחֵֽר׃ (יז) וַיָּ֣קָם ׀ שְׂדֵ֣ה עֶפְר֗וֹן אֲשֶׁר֙ בַּמַּכְפֵּלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר לִפְנֵ֣י מַמְרֵ֑א הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְהַמְּעָרָ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־בּ֔וֹ וְכָל־הָעֵץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּכָל־גְּבֻל֖וֹ סָבִֽיב׃ (יח) לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְמִקְנָ֖ה לְעֵינֵ֣י בְנֵי־חֵ֑ת בְּכֹ֖ל בָּאֵ֥י שַֽׁעַר־עִירֽוֹ׃ (יט) וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֩ קָבַ֨ר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֗וֹ אֶל־מְעָרַ֞ת שְׂדֵ֧ה הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֛ה עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵ֖א הִ֣וא חֶבְר֑וֹן בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן׃ (כ) וַיָּ֨קָם הַשָּׂדֶ֜ה וְהַמְּעָרָ֧ה אֲשֶׁר־בּ֛וֹ לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם לַאֲחֻזַּת־קָ֑בֶר מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵי־חֵֽת׃ (ס)
(16) Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites—four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate. (17) So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed (18) to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town. (19) And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan. (20) Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.

Another kindness we encounter in the Tanakh is that of Rebecca's at the well. Abraham's servant - the tradition has it that he is Eliezer - says that the wife-to-be for Isaac is the woman who will offer water to the thirsty servant and who waters his camels.

Enjoy this 1648 painting of the scene at the well, when Eliezer encounters Rebecca. What is highlighted?

Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman lived and worked in Rome. At a time when seventeenth century art was often overabundant and unrestrained, Poussin was a classicist. His work was controlled and organized intellectually; he noted, “I am forced by my nature towards the orderly.”

While technical problems in painting were being resolved [in his time], the use of oil paints and great artistic skills brought about an appreciation that went beyond subject matter. The manner in which a work was painted – the accepted sense of “beauty” at the time it was made – appealed aesthetically to the senses and led to connoisseurship.

Jean Pointel, a wealthy French banker and silk merchant was among the collectors of Poussin’s work. Without suggesting subject matter, Pointel commissioned Poussin to create a painting that, “would portray ‘several women’ in which you can see different beauties.” Poussin used this commission as an opportunity to depict the meeting of Eliezer and Rebecca at the well of Nahor.

from: https://smecsundaymorningforum.org/2017/07/09/eliezer-and-rebecca-art-for-proper-9a/

How does the Jewish conception of Rebecca's character get undermined by Poussin's use of the story to meet Pointel's demands?


The Rebecca story in Chapter 24 of Genesis presents a revolutionary commentary about the free agency of women in the biblical era. This story at the very least goes against the grain of other texts that put women into the category of property in the ancient world, and a stronger read stands it as a reminder when conceiving of laws regarding women's status from ancient times to our day.

(נז) וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ נִקְרָ֣א לַֽנַּעֲרָ֑ וְנִשְׁאֲלָ֖ה אֶת־פִּֽיהָ׃ (נח) וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ לְרִבְקָה֙ וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יהָ הֲתֵלְכִ֖י עִם־הָאִ֣ישׁ הַזֶּ֑ה וַתֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלֵֽךְ׃

(57) And they said, “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” (58) They called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will.”

(א) ונשאלה את פיה. מִכָּאן שֶׁאֵין מַשִּׂיאִין אֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶלָּא מִדַּעְתָּהּ (בראשית רבה): (א) ותאמר אלך. מֵעַצְמִי, וְאַף אִם אֵינְכֶם רוֹצִים:
(1) ונשאלה את פיה AND ASK HER MOUTH — From this we may infer that a woman should not be given in marriage except with her own consent (Genesis Rabbah 60:12). (1) ותאמר אלך AND SHE SAID, I WILL GO — of my own accord even though you do not consent (Genesis Rabbah 60:12).

Were women in control of their own destiny in the biblical era and times gone by?

What do these foundational texts reveal about the Jewish attitude towards free will and equality?