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One Step Ahead

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

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's portion begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. The Torah tells us (Genesis 23:2) that upon Sarah's passing, Abraham eulogized her and wept. According to our tradition, the letter kaf in the word "v'livkota" ("and he wept over her") is written smaller than the other letters in the word. The commentator Kohelet Isaac understands this small kaf as an indication that Abraham cried only a little bit over Sarah's passing.

We might find this comment surprising. Surely Abraham was devastated over the loss of his beloved wife. Why would he cry only a little bit?

This question becomes even stronger when we look at Rashi's comment (Genesis 23:2) regarding the juxtaposition of the binding of Isaac and the death of Sarah. According to Rashi, when the news reached Sarah that Abraham had brought Isaac as an offering to God, Sarah was so overwhelmed that she died. How can we understand Abraham weeping only minimally in such a situation? Not only did his wife pass on; it seems that, indirectly, his own actions actually killed her!

A deeper examination of Abraham's motives will help us resolve this troubling question. When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah to find that Sarah had died, he could easily have regretted following God's will. This would have been an understandable reaction; after all, his obedience to God resulted in the death of his beloved wife! Yet Abraham understood the tremendous power of regret to undo the effect of past actions. When repentance is used positively, as part of the teshuva process, it has the ability to erase our misdeeds. But repentance can also erase the reward we receive for performing mitzvot. Had Abraham regretted bringing Isaac as an offering, countless future generations would have lost the ability to draw from the merit of his actions.

Therefore, Abraham cried only a little bit over the passing of his beloved wife to show that, despite the challenges, he did not regret having performed the Divine will. He knew that there are no negative consequences to performing mitzvot wholeheartedly, and that his actions could therefore not have been the true cause of Sarah's death. In overcoming this test of faith, Abraham preserved the merit of the binding of Isaac as a powerful spiritual inheritance for generations to come.

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This idea also helps us understand a puzzling passage from the evening prayers. Before reciting the Amidah of the evening Ma'ariv, we beseech God to remove the Satan from before us and from after us (v'haser satan mil'faneinu u'mei'achoreinu). What does this strange phrasing signify?

The Satan is the evil inclination (yetzer hara) that challenges our connection to God. The Satan "before us" is the yetzer hara that tries to prevent us from performing mitzvot and following the Divine will. If the yetzer hara does not succeed in convincing us to give up before we've even started, however, it tries again after the fact. This is the Satan "after us," that wants to undo the positive effect of the mitzvot we have performed by causing us to regret our actions. If the yetzer hara can make us think we've lost out in some way by doing mitzvot, then we are robbed of the reward for performing them.

Thus, we ask God both for the strength to resist temptation "before us" - so that we can carry out His will, as well as for the ability to remain committed to our decisions after the fact and not lose the reward.

May we merit to perform all the mitzvot and to be happy with them, knowing with certainty that no negativity or bitterness is caused by our fulfillment of the Divine will. May our wholehearted performance of mitzvot cause us to be blessed with reward - both in this world and the next.


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