Sarah’s Sudden Death and the Power of Words

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November 14, 2022

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

Bereishis: 23:1-2: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, it is Chevron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah.”
Rashi: 23:2: Dh: to eulogize Sarah: “And the death of Sarah is juxtaposed with the binding of Yitzchak because through the news of the binding of Yitzchak that her son was brought be slaughtered, and he was nearly slaughtered, her soul flew out from her and she died.”

This week’s Torah portion begins with the account of the sudden death of Sarah. Rashi explains that after the Binding of Isaac (Akeidah), Sarah was told about what happened, and she died of the shock of the news. There are a number of ways of interpreting this Rashi, and a number of Rabbinic sources that describe this event in slightly different ways.1 In this article, we will focus on the interpretation of Rabbi Shimshon Pincus.2

Some sources state that the ‘person’ who told Sarah the news about the Akeidah was in fact the Satan, who was attempting to infringe on the success of the Akeidah by causing Sarah to die as a result of the news.3 However, Rashi himself makes no mention of the Satan. Accordingly, Rav Pincus understands that a regular person gave Sarah the news with noble intentions of relating to her how Yitzchak survived. However, when he told her the news, he began by saying how Yitzchak was brought to be slaughtered, and only after that, he added that in the end, Yitzchak was spared. However, after Sarah heard the initial words about Yitzchak being brought to be slaughtered, she was so shocked, that she immediately died without hearing the subsequent news, that he was fine.

Rav Pincus writes that the person bearing the news should have started by saying that Yitzchak was alive and well, and then relate the events of the Akeidah. Had he done that, then Sarah would not have felt such shock and she would not have died. However, a lack of attention to the use of his wordage by starting with the ‘negative news’ and only after that, relating the positive, had disastrous consequences.

Rav Pincus writes that this is a great warning of the importance of being very careful with how we speak. In his words:

“Events happen every day, where one tells his friend a certain matter, such as, ‘your son travelled on a trip with the school right? I heard that there was a car crash – but everyone is fine.’ The small moment between the mention of the accident and the informing that everything was okay, is enough to cause the heart of the father to jump, and even if we do not see someone die on the spot or get a heart attack [from such news] but there was here, an arrow to the heart, and the relater of the story, unless he is the Satan, is a friend…the examples are too great to mention, and fortunate is the man who looks at his actions and sees into the consequences of events.”

Rav Pincus continues with the idea that the ‘the positive is greater than the negative (mida tova merubah mi’mida raah’) which means that the reward for good deeds is greater than any negative consequences for bad actions. Therefore, if one can cause great harm with thoughtless words, then all the more so, he can do great good with thoughtful words.

For example, if a person is a bit late to return home, if he takes a few seconds to call home to tell his wife or mother, that everything is fine and that he delayed, then he saves unnecessary worry on the behalf of his loved one. Even if these words seem of minor significance, we see from the example of Sarah, that such seemingly insignificant words, can have a great affect. And even if they do not have a major effect, we should not downplay the significance of even a slight show of care that gives a person a small amount of comfort or joy.

May we all merit to be careful in our words to cause joy to others, and to never cause even the slightest pain.

  1. See Midrash Tanchuma, Sof Parshas Vayeira; Pirkei D’rebbe Eliezer, Ch.32, p.268.
  2. Tiferet Shimshon, Bereishit, pp.248-249.
  3. Some commentators add that the Satan had a further, nefarious motive in his actions here – he hoped that when Avraham would realize that Sarah died as a result of the Akeidah, Avraham would come to at least partially regret the great Mitzva that he did in following God’s instructions. If a person regrets a Mitzva then it is as if he did not fulfil that Mitzva, hence the Satan hoped that Avraham would lose some of the great merit of the Akeidah through his regret at its consequences. The commentaries add that Avraham also passed this test, and while obviously feeling great pain at the death of his wife, he did not let it affect his attitude towards the Akeidah.
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