Sarah died in Kiryas-Arba, which is Chevron in the land of Canaan. Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her.
Be’er Mayim Chaim: From where did Avraham come? We can best answer this question by piecing together several themes in the lives of members of Avraham’s household.
The meforshim call our attention to the remarkable honor that the people of Chevron accorded to Avraham – even if the opportunistic Ephron could not resist taking advantage of Avraham’s need to close a deal quickly. We sometimes forget that not everyone treated Avraham quite as respectfully. A well that Avraham had dug became a source of contention between him and his Philistine neighbors. Avraham had to appeal to Avimelech; the agreement they came to conferred the name Be’er Sheva upon the place. Surprisingly, when the dust settles, the Torah tells us, “Avraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines many years.”2 Why did he stay so long? And why is this important to us?
The answer might well be Yitzchok – and how to raise him.
Avraham first traveled from Chevron to Gerar in Philistine territory to distance himself from Lot, whose name was tainted by the scandalous episode with his daughters. (Alternatively, the overturning of Sodom resulted in fewer visitors to his home, so Avraham travelled to a place where he could extend more hospitality.) Avraham noted the difference in the way he was treated.
Nonetheless, Sarah became pregnant with Yitzchok shortly after the encounter with Avimelech. When Yitzchok was born, Avraham voluntarily took upon himself the harshness of exile. He reasoned that the four hundred years of exile his descendents were destined to endure could begin in the life of Yitzchok – but only if Yitzchok lived a life stripped of advantage and security. If the exile clock would begin ticking with the birth of Yitzchok, many people suffering in Egypt would leave that much earlier. In Chevron, Yitzchok’s life could hardly be described as exile. Among the Philistines, however, Avraham would not fare as well, and there would be spillover to the life of the young Yitzchok. Avraham exiled himself for “many years,” in order to reduce the number of years that the Bnei Yisrael would have to spend in Egypt. He remained in self-imposed exile until just after the Akeidah, at which time Sarah died, and he had to return to Chevron to bury Sarah in the special cave that had been earmarked for that purpose from the beginning of time.
The journey back was not an easy one. Besides dealing with the loss of Sarah, Avraham had to deal with guilt. According to a midrash,3 the Soton tried to convince Avraham that he had been the cause of Sarah’s death. Since she expired in fright upon hearing of the near-slaughter of her son, Avraham was to blame.
In fact, the Ari z”l taught, the Akeidah extended Sarah’s life! Yitzchok’s original neshamah was only destined to stay in this world for thirty-seven years as an outer limit. During the Akeidah, Yitzchok’s neshamah departed his body. It did not return. Instead, it was replaced with a different one, a neshamah with much more longevity. Had the opportunity of the Akeidah never presented itself, Yitzchok quite likely would have already died – and sent his grief-stricken mother to the grave as well. The Soton’s calculus was all wrong. The Akeidah was a life-extender, not abbreviator.
Soton’s argument, in fact, was totally off base. Sarah’s death had nothing to do with the Akeidah, one way or another. She was meant to live for 127 years of righteousness and constancy – but no more. Her time had come. It was as simple as that.
Meanwhile, Avrohom had returned to Gerar after the Akeidah, not to Chevron. He resumed his life of internal exile. Miraculously, word of Sarah’s death came to Avraham in time for him to rush back to Chevron. (Alternatively, no one informed him of Sarah’s death. Avraham, as a spiritual giant, sensed something lacking within himself. Losing his life’s companion meant that half of himself had been ripped away. He determined that Sarah must have died.)
He rushed back to Chevron, where Sarah resided. He made good time, arriving just at the end of the three days after death that Chazal say are occupied with crying. (He had to have traveled quite a distance. Philistine territory had to be far away enough that food could not readily be shipped during a famine, necessitating the trip they had earlier taken to escape the lack of food in Canaan.) Because very little of these three days remained, there was little crying left to be done. Therefore, the small letter chaf in the word livkosah, indicating that the crying was minimized.
What remained to be done was to eulogize Sarah. The time to cry had all but passed.
Additionally, crying serves as an adjunct to the eulogies. Its function is opening the heart to the words of inspiration and reproach that the eulogy may convey. The point of all of it is to prod the listeners to do teshuvah. Everything now comes together. Hesped is mentioned ahead of crying in the pasuk because it had the larger role to play. The time for crying had largely expired; the audience was not a good one for teshuvah-oriented speeches. (Avraham and Yitzchok as tzadikim didn’t require any teshuvah. All the other listeners, not being part of Avhaham’s belief system, were unlikely candidates to be moved to repentance. So eulogy counted for only a little, and crying for even less.
Nonetheless, Avraham made the attempt to make positive use of eulogy for Sarah. And it included just a bit of crying – signified by the small chaf in the word livkosa.
1. Based on Be’er Mayim Chaim, Bereishis 23:2; 22:21; 21:34
2. Bereishis 21:34
3. Bereishis Rabbah 58:5