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Comings and Goings

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah's life. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba which is Hevron, in the land of Canaan; and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep (for) her. (Genesis 23:1,2)

It is not immediately clear where Avraham came from when he arrived in order to take care of the arrangements for her interment. While this may seem a minor point, the resolution of this question actually has far-reaching implications.

Rashi tells us quite simply that Avraham arrived from Beersheva. While this would explain the term "Avraham came" it does not tell us why Avraham was in Beersheva. Rashi resolves one problem by immediately creating a second one: If, indeed, Avraham did return from Beersheva, why was Sarah in Hevron? Where did the family live- Beersheva or Hevron? The answer is that for a while they lived in one place and for a while in the other. Where did they live when Sarah died, Hevron or Beersheva?

Rashi apparently makes reference to the preceding section in the narrative: in the aftermath of the binding of Yitzchak we find that Avraham traveled to Beersheva.

So Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheva; and Avraham lived in Beersheva. (Genesis 22:19)

Despite the apparently simple meaning of the text, Rashi makes a point of clarifying that the verse actually means that Avraham merely went to visit Beersheva, not to settle there:

And Avraham dwelt at Beersheva. This does not mean really dwelling there but merely staying there on his way home; because he was, as a matter of fact, living at Hevron; Twelve years before the Binding of Yitzchak he had left Beer Sheva and had gone to Hevron, as it is said, (Bereishit 21:34) "And Avraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days", i.e. exceeding in number the earlier days when he had resided at Hevron, altogether 26 years, as we have explained above (Genesis 21:34) (Rashi 22:19).

Rashi says that Avraham visited Beersheva on his way home to Hevron. Anyone familiar with the geography of Israel knows that this is a quite circuitous route. Why would Avraham take such a long way home? Furthermore, prior to the Akaida we are told that Avraham lived in the southern region (Beersheva).

And Avraham planted a grove in Beersheva, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God. And Avraham sojourned in the Philistines' land many days. (Genesis 21:33,34)1

The Ramban observes that immediately before the Akaida we are told that Avraham lived in Beersheva and immediately after the Akaida we are told he traveled to Beersheva. Therefore, based on a straightforward reading of the text, it is reasonable to assume that at the time of the Akaida Avraham and Sarah live in the south. Nonetheless, Rashi understands that Avraham and Sarah lived in Hevron at that juncture. Rashi would have to admit that Avraham makes frequent trips to Beersheva, but the purpose of these junkets is not immediately understood. As we shall see, things become much more clear when we understand the relationship between the binding of Yitzchak and the death of Sarah. In a separate comment Rashi links these two events:

The narrative of the death of Sarah follows immediately on that of the Binding of Yitzchak, 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 [lit., her soul flew from her] and she died (P d' R' Eliezer: 32) (Rashi 23:2).

A similar idea is found in the midrash, where two scenarios are suggested to explain where Avraham "arrived" from. According to the second suggestion, Avraham is on his way back from the Akaida when he hears of Sarah's death:

And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah (Genesis 23:2). Whence did he come? R. Levi said: He came from Terah's funeral to that of Sarah. Said R. Yosi to him: But Terah's burial preceded Sarah's by two years!?' In fact he came from Mount Moriah, (Sarah having died of grief.) [Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 58:5]

Both of these suggestions are difficult, one due to chronological considerations, the other due to geographic considerations. As the Midrash points out, Terah died two years prior to Sarah. The other suggestion is difficult because in the aftermath of the Akaida we are told that Avraham settled in Beersheva. The only possible understanding would be that Rav Yosi is claiming that Avraham never quite made it to Beersheva, but instead was heading to Beersheva and changed his route when he heard of Sarah's passing. This suggestion would defy the straightforward text of the Torah which states that "Avraham lived in Beersheva."

Because of these and other difficulties there are commentaries2 that simply suggest that the words "Avraham came" are a turn of phrase not meant to be taken literally. Rather, the verse intends to convey that Avraham turned to the task at hand - and made the funeral arrangements. While this may be the case, our earlier problem is unresolved. We were told before the Akaida that Avraham lived in Beersheva, and after the Akaida we are told that Avraham returned to Beersheva; why, then, did Sarah die in Hevron?

Logically, one can posit that Avraham and Sarah did not live together. Perhaps the Akaida caused strain on the marriage, and led to a separation. The Ramban mentions this idea only to immediately dismiss the suggestion as impossible. While this description is within the realm of logic, it disturbs us to even contemplate the possibility that Avraham and Sarah had become estranged from one another.3 The Alshiech HaKadosh (Torat Moshe 22:19) suggests that Avraham and Sarah lived in Hevron, yet Avraham did not rush home after his ordeal at the Akaida. According to the Alshiech, Yitzchak was wounded on the mount; the pressure of the blade left a scar. Avraham was afraid to return home with a wounded son and more afraid to return without their son at all. Instead, he traveled on to Beersheva. The Alshiech further suggests that Avraham feared that the knowledge of the Akaida would be too much for Sarah. He did not come home for he did not wish to be the one to tell her what had (almost) happened.

This explanation leads us to a second, perhaps related problem: Where is Yitzchak? Why is he not present at his mother's death, funeral or mourning?4

Through most of this week's Parsha Yitzchak is missing. He was last seen on the mountain; when Avraham makes his way back to Beersheva, Yitzchak is conspicuously absent.

So Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheva; and Avraham lived in Beersheva. (Genesis 22:19)5

We may summarize our situation thus: We don't know where Yitzchak is. We don't know why Avraham and Sarah are separated. We don't know where Avraham is coming from, and we are not quite sure why Sarah is in Hevron. We assume that prior to the Akaida they were one happy family; now, after the Akaida, something has happened.

On closer inspection, we realize that our geographical confusion is even more severe than we might have thought: Not only are we unsure of where Avraham arrived from to prepare Sarah's funeral, we find ourselves uncertain of earlier markers and geographical "facts": When Avraham set out with Yitzchak toward the binding, from what location did they begin their trek? The two possibilities would seem to be Hevron and Beersheva. The Torah writes:

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Avraham, and said to him, Avraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love -- Isaac -- and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you. And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and broke the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place from afar. (Genesis 22:1-4)

Avraham was told the general area – the land of Moriah, and we are told that only after a three day journey he saw the place from afar. The Ramban suggests that we keep in mind the actual distances involved when we try to resolve the question of the point of origin of the journey: If they set out from Beersheva, the three-day journey described in the narrative would make sense. If they set out from Hevron, the distance should be negotiated in one day; why would three days be needed? The Ramban, acutely aware of the geography, prefers the suggestion that the family lives in Beersheva and Avraham sets out to perform the Akaida from Beersheva. This leads the Ramban to conclude that the death of Sarah does not follow the Akaida in immediate chronological sequence.6 The Ramban admits another possible understanding: if one prefers the Midrashic approach and posits that Avraham departed from Hevron (thus linking the death of Sarah with the Akaida), he and his party would have reached the general area within a day and then wandered for the next two days looking for the specific locale. This reading further heightens the ordeal of the Akaida: We can imagine the tension, and the temptation to excuse oneself from the horrific mission after arriving in the general area but being unable to find the specific place.

Alternative suggestions for a resolution of the question of the point of departure to the Akaida strengthen the connection between the Akaida and Sarah's death: The Netziv (23:2) is of the opinion that Avraham and Yitzchak did, indeed, embark from Beersheva, leaving Sarah behind. She sensed that something was amiss and followed them, heading toward their old home in Hevron, and passed away there as the Akaida was taking place. Avraham then returned to Beersheva, but did not find his wife at home, and a messenger arrived forthwith, bearing the bitter news. The Chizkuni offers two interpretations, both of which assume that Avraham and Sarah live in Beersheva and it is from there that the journey to the Akaida begins. The first suggestion is that Avraham sent Sarah to Hevron – in order to conceal the Akaida from her. Only after she is "out of the way" does he take Yitzchak and set out to do God's bidding.The second suggestion is that Sarah was visiting Hevron at the time of her death, seeking out the healing qualities of Hevron's high altitude and clear air. Sarah's health had begun to deteriorate, and she hoped, in vain, to be cured in Hevron.

In order to understand this entire issue we need to understand the significance of each locale. Hevron is one of the holy cities of Israel – primarily because it contains the graves of the founders of our nation. Rabbinic tradition7 adds that Adam and Eve themselves are buried in that sacred cave. Perhaps Sarah sensed that this was the place to die and be buried; after all, Avraham and Sarah are the two who redirect humanity, steering history back to the proper course from which it had been derailed by the sin in Eden.

But what is the spiritual allure of Beersheva? Our first thought is that its connection to spirituality is in the fact that Avraham and Sarah, and later Yitzchak and Rivkah, live there. Yet the Torah tells us something else:

He planted an 'eshel' in Beersheva, and there he proclaimed the Name of Hashem, God of the Universe: And Avraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many years. (Genesis 21:33,34)

These verses are not completely clear. We can make out that Avraham lived in the south, was involved in some type of agricultural activity and served God. The midrash links the eshel with an inn and with serving God:

R. Nehemiah said: Eshel means an inn, the word connoting; ask whatever you desire, meat, wine, or eggs. ...According to R. Nehemiah's view that it was an inn, Avraham used to receive wayfarers, and after they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, 'Now say Grace.' When they asked what to say, he would reply, 'Blessed be the Everlasting God, of whose bounty we have eaten.' Hence it is written, And called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God )Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 54:6).

Apparently, Beersheva was where Avraham would do his "outreach" work. People traveling from the desert were surely famished, and Avraham established an inn to receive them. This is where he would perform his Chesed and this is where he would introduce people to God. The Ramban therefore suggests that Avraham traveled directly to his inn after the Akaida in order to "give thanks". Avraham took his private experience and used it as a means of teaching others. He surely told of the test, and the revelation that followed, the conclusion of the Akaida that God does NOT want human sacrifices. After the Akaida Avraham excitedly travels to his followers in order to share his experience with them. Whether Sarah lived in Beersheva or Hevron at that point, we now understand why Avraham would have proceeded directly to his inn.

The question of Yitzchak's disappearance still remains. Midrashic opinions suggest that Yitzchak went to "Yeshiva"8 or even that Yitzchak went to Gan Eden until his wound was healed.9 These opinions share the understanding that descending the altar to pursue a pedestrian life would not have been the easiest thing for Yitzchak to do. Last seen with his neck outstretched, awaiting the blade, in compliance with the divine edict, Yitzchak is spared when Avraham has an epiphany. The angel informs Avraham that the test has run its course; Yitzchak will live. Avraham quickly returns to his inn, but where is Yitzchak? The next time Yitzchak is seen is when he returns to meet his bride.

Now Yitzchak came from having gone to Be'er-lahai-roi, for he dwelt in the south country: Yitzchak went out to supplicate in the field towards evening and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold! camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62,63)

We are clearly told that Yitzchak dwells in the south; the particular place he comes from is called Be'er-lahai-roi. This place has been mentioned before; it is the name of the well to which Hagar escapes when she is chased out of Avraham's home. Rashi explains the motivation of Yitzchak's trip there:

For he had gone there to bring Hagar back to Avraham that he might take her again as his wife. (Rashi 24:62)

There is a certain poetic justice and a very tender message in this teaching: While Avraham is concerned with his son's happiness and the continuity of the family, and therefore concerns himself with finding a bride for his son, Yitzchak is equally concerned with his elderly father, and seeks a companion for Avraham. Father and son are still "walking together" just as they did on the way to their earlier ordeal.

But this is not a one-time trip for Yitzchak; he is drawn to this place and eventually settles there.

And it was after the death of Avraham that God blessed Yitzchak his son, and Yitzchak settled near Be'er-lahai-roi. (Genesis 25:11)

What was it that attracted Yitzchak to this well? It was by this well that Hagar had her own epiphany:

And an angel of Hashem said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her domination." And an angel of Hashem said to her, "I will greatly increase your offspring, and they will not be counted for abundance." And an angel of Hashem said to her, "Behold, you will conceive, and give birth to a son; you shall name him Yishmael, for Hashem has heard your prayer: And he shall be a wild-man - his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and over all his brothers shall he dwell." And she called the Name of Hashem Who spoke to her "You are the God of Vision," for she said, "Could I have seen even here after having seen?" Therefore the well was called "The Well of the Living One." It is between Kadesh and Bered. (Genesis 16:9-14)

This well is where Hagar went many years ago – but more importantly, it is a place where the Will of God was revealed. After the Akaida Yitzchak is drawn to this place as if by a magnet, and he eventually makes it his home. Just as Avraham works through his Akaida experience and translates it into a spiritual lesson, Yitzchak too moves on from the Akaida to spiritual pursuits. The difference is that Avraham uses his experience to reach out to others, to get other people involved, while Yitzchak's concerns seem more parochial. The Ramban and Seforno name Be'er-lahai-roi as Yitzchak's place of meditation and service of God.

The Ramban goes one step further and suggests that according to the Targum this well was in Beersheva – and this is the same place as the eshel (inn) of Avraham – and for this reason it is such a special place for prayer.

That being as it may, it is interesting that Yitzchak chose this particular place, which was identified with Hagar, as his own place of prayer. We have already noted Rashi's explanation, that Yitzchak went there to bring Hagar back to Avraham; it is possible that while Yitzchak did not engage in outreach work the way his father did, there was one other person whom he did bring back, both literally and figuratively.

And Avraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people. His sons Yitzchak and Yishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Genesis 25:8,9)

Despite being sent away years earlier, some sort of arrangement was made whereby Yishmael returned.

From this we gather that Yishmael repented of his evil ways10 and yielded the precedence to Yitzchak; this is what is meant by the "good old age" mentioned in connection with Avraham. (Rashi 25:9)11

An effort was made to bring about reconciliation, to heal the rift in the family. Even though Yitzchak was the true heir of Avraham, Yitzchak did not desist from reaching out to Hagar and her wayward son. This observation may have had far-reaching implications for the relationship between Yitzchak and his own wayward son Esav. If we were to interpret the text on a psychological basis we could claim that Yitzchak was guilt-ridden about having displaced his elder brother, and attempted to compensate later in life. The Torah, though, is more than mere literature; the patriarchs operate on a different level than the rest of us.

Already on the way to the Akaida we are told that Avraham brought some young men with him aside from Yitzchak:

So Avraham woke up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey; he took his two young men with him and Yitzchak, his son; he split the wood for the offering, and stood up and went to the place of which God had spoken to him. (Genesis 22:3)

Rashi explains:

His two young men: Yishmael and Eliezer.

When they see the place Avraham says:

And Avraham said to his young men, "Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship and we will return to you. (Genesis 22:5)

The lesson here is that there was a time for separation but also a time for reconciliation. Avraham and Yitzchak needed to separate from Yishmael and Eliezer in order to reach spiritual heights – "to climb the mountain" - but there was also a promise to rejoin the others.12

Sarah had insisted that Yishmael be separated from Yitzchak in his youth. Yitzchak needed to learn from Avraham, and Sarah was concerned that he would be corrupted by Yishmael. But Avraham taught him that although we need to climb the mountain by ourselves, when we descend from our spiritual heights we need to rejoin the others down below and bring them a bit closer to God. It is for this reason that after the Akaida Avraham goes back to the place where he impacted so many people and taught them about God. It is for this same reason that Yitzchak went to the place where he could find Hagar and bring her back. Yitzchak prayed by the well. He served God there. Eventually he succeeded in bringing back her son Yishmael, who remained at the foot of the mountain. Yitzchak had heard his father say to Yishmael "wait here", but he also heard his father say that they would eventually return for him.


1. Rashi here explains the entire calculation: Many days - or More days: More than those he sojourned in Hevron; in Hevron he had stayed 25 years and here 26; For he was 75 years old when he left Haran (Bereishit 12:4), and of that same year it is said (Bereishit:13:18) "And he came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre [which are in Hevron]" for we do not find that he had settled down anywhere prior to settling there, since in every place where he went he was only like a traveler who pitches his camp and then goes or journeying, as it is said, (Bereishit:12:6) "And Avraham passed on"; (Bereishit:12:8) "And Avraham removed from thence"; (Bereishit:12:10) "And there was famine in the land and Avraham went down to Egypt"; In Egypt, too, he stayed only three months, for Pharaoh sent him away (Bereishit:12:20); Immediately (Bereishit:13:3) "He went on his journeys" until (Bereishit:13:18) "He came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre which are in Hevron"; There he resided until Sodom was overthrown, and immediately afterwards (Bereishit:20:1) "Avraham journeyed from thence" on account of the shame he felt at Lot's doings and came to the land of the Philistines; He was then 99 years old, because it was on the third day of his circumcision that the angels came to him; Consequently you have 25 years from the time he settled in Hevron until he came to the land of the Philistines; Now, here it is written that he sojourned in the land of the Philistines Yamim Rabim more days, which means more than the preceding days in Hevron; Scripture does not intend by these words to leave the number indefinite, but to state it explicitly, for if the "more days" exceeded the former period in Hevron by two years or more, it would have said so plainly, so that you must admit that the excess was only one year that gives 26 years in the land of the Philistines; He immediately left there and returned to Hevron, and that year was 12 years before the Binding of Isaac; All this is explained in Seder Olam. (return to text)

2. Rashbam explains the verse in this manner; Ramban suggests this among other interpretations. (return to text)

3. The Rabbis tell us that Adam and Eve had become estranged from one another after the debacle of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 23:4. (return to text)

4. Rabbenu Bachaye poses this question. (return to text)

5. In his commentary to this verse, the Ibn Ezra suggests that Yitzchak is included in Avraham's entourage, though Yitzchak is singled out only on the way to the Akaida. (return to text)

6. The question of when the Akaida took place would effect the age of Yitzchak at the time, and the age of Rivka when she and Yitzchak married. If Yitzchak is 37 years old at the Akaida, then he is 40 and Rivka is three when they marry, but if Yitzchak is 27 at the Akaida then Rivka is at least 13 when they marry. See Seder Olam, and Da'at Z'kenim m'Baale Hatosafot 25:20, who say that Rivka was 14 years old when she married Yitzchak. (return to text)

7. Bereishit Rabbah 58, Rashi 23:2 (return to text)

8. Bereishit Rabba 56:11, Targum Yonatan 22:19. (return to text)

9. Yalkut Shimoni section 109, Midrash Hagadol. (return to text)

10. See Baba Batra 16b. (return to text)

11. See Bereishit 15:15 and Rashi. (return to text)

12. Rabbi Soloveitchik made this point. (return to text)


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