Living Without Margins

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃ וַתָּ֣מׇת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.

לספוד לשרה ולבכתה. וְנִסְמְכָה מִיתַת שָׂרָה לַעֲקֵדַת יִצְחָק לְפִי שֶׁעַל יְדֵי בְּשׂוֹרַת הָעֲקֵדָה, שֶׁנִּזְדַּמֵּן בְּנָהּ לִשְׁחִיטָה וְכִמְעַט שֶׁלֹּא נִשְׁחַט, פָּרְחָה נִשְׁמָתָהּ מִמֶּנָּה וּמֵתָה:

לספוד לשרה ולבכותה TO BEWAIL SARAH AND TO WEEP FOR HER — The narrative of the death of Sarah follows immediately on that of the Binding of Isaac, because through the announcement of the Binding — that her son had been made ready for sacrifice and had almost been sacrificed — she received a great shock (literally, her soul flew from her) and she died (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 32).

Rashi's Sources Source #1: Satan's Deception, Sarah's Cries, Our Shofar

(ח) וכשבא אברהם מהר המוריה, חרה אפו של סמא״ל, שראה שלא עלתה בידו תאות לבו לבטל קרבנו של אברהם, מה עשה, הלך ואמ׳ לשרה, אי שרה, לא שמעת מה שנעשה בעולם, אמרה לו לאו, אמ׳ לה לקח אישך הזקן לנער יצחק והקריבו לעולה, והנער בוכה ומייליל שלא יכול להנצל, מיד התחילה בוכה ומייללת, בכתה שלש בכיות כנגד שלש תקיעות, שלש יללות כנגד שלש יבבות, ופרחה נשמתה ומתה.

(ט) בא אברהם אבינו ומצאה שמתה, שנאמר ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה. מהיכן בא, מהר המוריה.

(8) When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah in peace, the anger of Sammael was kindled, for he saw that the desire of his heart to frustrate the offering of our father Abraham had not been realized. What did he do? He went and said to Sarah: Hast thou not heard what has happened in the world? She said to him: No. He said to her: Thy husband, Abraham, has taken thy son Isaac and slain him and offered him up as a burnt offering upon the altar. She began to weep and to cry aloud three times, corresponding to the three sustained notes (of the Shophar), and (she gave forth) three howlings corresponding to the three disconnected short notes (of the Shophar), and her soul fled, and she died.

(9) Abraham came and found that she was dead. Whence did he come? From Mount Moriah, as it is said, "And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah" (Gen. 23:2).

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, 'The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis'

In this version of the midrash, Satan lies to Sarah. He paints for her the horror and pathos of an old, demented father actually killing a helplessly crying child. Her death from a stroke, or heart attack, might seem naturalistic, evoking no surprise, were it not for the strange detail about her “cries and wails,” which are transformed into the throbbing Shofar wails. This surrealistic connection is found in many sources. Essentially, the suggestion is that Isaac’s death cries, expressing the unsaveability of the creature in the grip of overwhelming forces, are echoed mimetically by Sarah, also held fast in an irremediable anguish, and that these are reenacted in our ritual to redemptive effect. “The Shofar blasts on the New Year are to transform Sarah’s death into atonement because the Teru’ah—the broken Shofar tone—is groaning and wailing.” This enigmatic etiology of the Shofar cry is found in a whole range of midrashic sources. The more obvious notion that the Shofar, the ram’s horn, evokes the substitution of the ram for Isaac at the moment of actual sacrifice thus takes on a more tragic and paradoxical cast. Isaac is saved, and the Shofar announces the possibility of redemption, of symbolic substitutions. But Sarah is not saved, and, in the world of her mind, Isaac is not saved, and yet the cries of her—and his—despair are retained in liturgy and ritual, “as an atonement” for her descendants.

Source #2: Dressed as Isaac, Almost Killed

מִיָּד, וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶ. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁשָּׁלַח יָדוֹ לְקַחְתָּהּ, יָצְאָה בַת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה לוֹ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר. וְאִלּוּלֵי כֵן, כְּבָר הָיָה נִשְׁחָט.

(ה) בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה הָלַךְ הַשָּׂטָן אֵצֶל שָׂרָה וְנִדְמָה לָהּ כִּדְמוּת יִצְחָק. כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאֲתָה אוֹתוֹ אָמְרָה לוֹ: בְּנִי, מֶה עָשָׂה לְךָ אָבִיךָ? אָמַר לָהּ: נְטַלַנִי אָבִי וְהֶעֱלַנִי הָרִים וְהוֹרִידַנִי בְקָעוֹת וְהֶעֱלַנִי לְרֹאשׁ הַר אֶחָד וּבָנוּ מִזְבֵּחַ וְסִדֵּר הַמַּעֲרָכָה וְהֶעֱרִיךְ אֶת הָעֵצִים וְעָקַד אוֹתִי עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְלָקַח אֶת הַסַּכִּין לְשָׁחֳטֵנִי. וְאִלּוּלֵי שֶׁאָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר, כְּבָר הָיִיתִי נִשְׁחָט. לֹא הִסְפִּיק לִגְמֹר אֶת הַדָּבָר עַד שֶׁיָּצְאָה נִשְׁמָתָהּ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב, וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. מֵהֵיכָן בָּא? מֵהַר הַמּוֹרִיָּה.

(. As he reached out to grasp the knife again, a voice emanated from heaven, saying: Lay not thy hand upon the lad (ibid., w. 13). If this had not happened, Isaac would certainly have been sacrificed.

(5) While all this was transpiring, Satan visited Sarah in the guise of Isaac. When she saw him she asked: “What did your father do to you, my son?” He replied: “My father led me over mountains and through valleys until we finally reached the top of a certain mountain. There he erected an altar, arranged the firewood, bound me upon the altar, and took a knife to slaughter me. If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not called out, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, I would have been slaughtered.” He had hardly completed relating what had transpired when she fainted and died, as it is written: And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her (ibid. 23:2). From where did he come? From Moriah.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, 'The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis'

In this version, a more subtle anguish, a more terrible irony leads to Sarah’s death. For the devastating fact is that Isaac clearly is alive, in Sarah’s eyes, as he tells the unbearable saga of his father’s murder of him. On the face of it, Sarah dies, simply because of lo hispik, because she cannot endure to the end of the story. But before Satan can furnish the redemptive dénouement, he has destroyed, artfully, precisely, Sarah’s vision of her husband and of her life’s mission. Satan’s tale is told as subversion; the ending is almost irrelevant, for Isaac stands before her—a ruined Isaac, who can only elicit horrified questions from her—“What has your father done to you?” The ironic force of the midrash, then, lies not so much in the lo hispik, in the fact that the relief of resolution is delayed (a classic literary strategy, the love letter that arrives fifty years—or one day—late) as in the eelulei, the remorseless fatality that is interrupted, almost arbitrarily. Abraham’s will to kill Isaac, narrates the midrash, would have known no softening. Effectively, Isaac would have been dead, were it not that … eelulei.…

She dies of the truth of kime’at shelo nishḥat—of that hair’s breadth that separates death from life. This is what Sartre calls “contingency,” the nothingness that “lies coiled in the very core of being, like a worm.” Maharal explains the concept of Sarah’s death from contingency in his own terms: “This is the human reaction of panic, on realizing that only a small thing separated one from such a fate.”(This is a literal translation of kime’at shelo nishḥat—“a little thing decided his fate.”)... The knowledge of one’s contingency, the vertigo of being, is expressed in the instability, the dizzying symmetry of equivalent possibilities..

Negation of Negation: Affirmation
(סז) וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃ {פ}
(67) Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, 'The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis'

According to one midrashic source, at least, Sarah has been dead three years, when Isaac marries Rebecca, and what he needs comfort for is not simply the fact of her death:

Three years Isaac mourned for his mother. Every time he entered her tent, and saw it in darkness [dimmed], he would tear his hair. But when he married Rebecca and brought her into the tent, the light returned to its place. “And Isaac brought her into the ohel [the tent]”: ohel means “light,” as it is said, “Till the moon will no longer shine” [Job 25:5]. He was comforted and [lit.] saw it as though his mother were still in existence. That is why it says: “Isaac was comforted after his mother.”

The implicit understanding behind the midrash is that Isaac does, in reality, suffer a kind of death at the Akedah. His mother dies and with her the light of her tent. In an astonishing fusion of images, the tent of her intimate life becomes the energy that affirms life. Light, claims the midrash, is by definition the meaning of ohel (tent). To have left one’s tent in darkness is to deny the value of being. The anguish of Isaac’s reaction, as he enters the condition of his mother’s life, expresses a desperate involvement in the wailing of her end. With Rebecca’s coming, the energy of hope returns because he now can see his mother’s life as though she really had her Being. Through the prism of his relationship with Rebecca, his mother’s existence, her kiyyum, becomes vital again.