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Chayei Sarah 5777-2016

“Sarah Dies at Age 127”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, opens with the grim news of the passing of the great Matriarch, Sarah, at age 127.

The opening chapter of parashat Chayei Sarah concerns the burial of Sarah in the Machpelah Cave that Abraham purchases from the Hitites (a fascinating story in and of itself) (Chayei Sarah 5772-2011). However, the commentators are particularly intrigued by, not only, the age of Sarah when she dies, but also the way that the age is formulated in the Hebrew text.

The Patriarch Abraham lived until age 175, Isaac until age 180 and Jacob reached age 147.

The fact that Sarah dies at the relatively young age of 127 is attributed by the Midrash, to Sarah being informed of the near-death of Isaac at the Akeida. The Midrash states that Satan came to Sarah and described how Abraham had gone to slaughter Isaac on Mount Moriah. Before she had a chance to hear that Isaac was miraculously saved, her soul flew out from her and she died of shock.

As already noted, the rabbis focus on the strange way the Hebrew text phrases the years of Sarah’s life. The verse, in Genesis 23:1, reads, וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.

Rashi, citing the Midrash Rabba 58:4 explains that the Hebrew word, שָׁנָה-“year” appears after every whole number in Sarah’s age, to teach that every “year” is to be expounded on its own. Just as Sarah was regarded as sinless at age twenty, so too, was Sarah without sin at one hundred years old. Similarly, when Sarah was twenty years old, she possessed the natural beauty of a seven year old. The apparent superfluous phrase, “the years of Sarah’s life,” teaches that Sarah maintained her saintliness throughout her life, even beyond the age of one hundred.

The Midrash Rabba on Esther 1:8 asks, in the name of Rabbi Akiva, why Queen Esther merited to rule over 127 states? The Midrash responds that it comes to teach that Esther, the great great-great-granddaughter of the Matriarch Sarah merited to reign over 127 states because of Sarah’s 127 years of righteous living.

The Midrash Rabba on parashat Noah 3, relates a similar teaching with an added anecdote. The Midrash states that Rabbi Akiva noticed that his students were very tired and inattentive. He decided to spark their interest by telling them that Esther merited to rule over 127 provinces because she descended from Sarah who lived 127 righteous years.

Rabbi Nison Alpert, in his writings on the weekly portion, further explains the connection between Esther’s meriting to rule over 127 countries and the righteousness of Sarah. Citing the Talmud in Brachot 13a, he explains that Sarah’s original name, שָׂרַי-“Sarai,” meant that she was a minister over her own (single) nation, but in the end, she became שָׂרָה-“Sarah,” a minister over the entire world (many nations).

It could very well be that at that time of Ahasuerus and Esther, the 127 states that they ruled over were considered the whole world, justifying the claim of ministering over “the entire world.”

Rabbi Alpert argues that we never really see that Sarah rules over the entire world. To the contrary, we know that Sarah was abducted twice, once by Pharaoh and then by Avimelech. Sarah did not even own a grave for burial, and the great Abraham had to pay “full price” for it.

Rabbi Alpert suggests that the Hebrew word, “Sarah,” which generally means to rule, could also mean to prevail, to maintain, to rest and to dwell.

Rabbi Alpert, therefore, suggests that the Torah does not mean that Sarah was a temporal monarch who ruled over the entire world. Rather, explains Rabbi Alpert, no matter what happened to Sarah, her spiritual essence always remained the same, “unscathed and unaffected.”

When Sarah was abducted by Avimelech and Pharaoh, she remained steadfast, maintaining her exalted spiritual level. As a woman who was childless, she showed inspiring faith that she would eventually conceive and bear a child. Sarah, says Rabbi Alpert, ruled over the entire world by always staying above the world and never allowing the world to rule over her. That is why she was called “Sarah.”

The Matriarch Sarah thus blazed a trail for Esther, who was to become queen over 127 provinces. Even though Esther, like Sarah, was taken against her will from a place of righteousness (Mordecai’s home) to the palace of the nefarious Ahasuerus, she remained unscathed and untarnished, maintaining the same faith and fear of G-d that she had in her youth.

Sarah’s commitment to goodness and righteousness sets the standard for future generations of Jewish men and women. It is in the merit of the righteous Matriarch Sarah, that Jews have committed themselves throughout the centuries and millennia to practice and teach the ethics and morality of G-d and His Torah to the entire world. It is due to the commitment of the Matriarch Sarah that we hope that those teachings will soon rule and dominate the world, heralding the redemption of all humanity, with the coming of the Messiah (Mashiach).

May you be blessed.