Parshat Chayei Sarah: Where was Avraham?

“And Sara died in Kiryat Arba which is Chevron in the land of Canna’an. And Avraham came to eulogize Sara and to mourn over her.” (Bereshit 23:3)

Our parasha begins with the death of Sara. The Torah tells us that Sara passed away in Chevron and that Avraham came to eulogize and to mourn her. The phrase “and Avraham came” implies that Avraham was not present at the time of Sara’s death. He came or returned to Chevron when he heard of her death. Nachmanides discusses this issue. However, he concludes that this interpretation of the phrase “and Avraham came” is not necessarily correct. This phrase may not mean that Avraham traveled to Chevron at the news of Sara’s death. The phrase is sometimes used to communicate that a person is moved to engage in an activity. If the phrase is understood in this manner, then the meaning of the passage is that Avraham was moved to eulogize Sara and to mourn for her.

However, Nachmanides acknowledges that the phrase can be understood in the more common sense: Avraham came to Chevron from some other place upon hearing of Sara’s death. This raises the question: Where was Avraham? Why was Avraham not with his wife at the time of her death? Nachmanides notes the answer to this question is provided by the Sages in the midrash. Nachmanides does not quote their answers in detail. Rashi provides a more comprehensive treatment of their comments.

In order to appreciate Rashi’s presentation of the midrash’s response, we must return to the previous parasha. At the end of Parshat VaYerah, the Torah provides an account of the Akeydat Yitzchak – the binding of Yitzchak. Hashem told Avraham that he must take his beloved son to a place He would reveal. At the appointed place, he must offer Yitzchak as an Olah – a sacrifice. Avraham follows Hashem’s instructions without reservation. He takes Yitzchak to the appointed place. He builds an altar. Avraham places wood on the altar, binds Yitzchak and places him upon the wood. Avraham prepares to offer Yitzchak and a voice calls out to him from heaven and tells him to not harm Yitzchak. He has demonstrated there is nothing that he would withhold from Hashem.

The Sages of the midrash ask: Why is the death of Sara juxtaposed to the Akeydat Yitzchak? They respond that this juxtaposition communicates to us that the two events are related. When Sara heard the news of the Akeydah – that Yitzchak was almost sacrificed – her soul left her. In other words, her death was a response to the news of Yitzchak’s encounter with near death.[1]

Nachmanides notes that these comments explain our passage. Where was Avraham when Sara passed away? He was at the site of the Akeydah. He returned from the Akeydah and eulogized and mourned for Sara.[2]

The comments of the midrash are difficult to understand. Actually, they are shocking. Any sensitive person will be disquieted – if not disturbed – by the implications of the midrash. Hashem put Avraham to the most challenging test that one can imagine: He was asked to sacrifice his beloved son. He acted without hesitation. He was willing to demonstrate his total devotion to Hashem. Hashem praised Avraham for his wholehearted dedication. Immediately, Avraham lost his wife, Sara. This – in itself – is a great tragedy. Yet, Avraham lost his wife as result of his very devotion to Hashem. Yitzchak was spared but the news of the Akeydah killed Sara!

In order to answer this question, we must begin by considering another issue. The Torah characterizes the Akeydah as a test of Avraham.[3] This is a perplexing characterization. Certainly, the Akeydah was a test of Avraham’s dedication to Hashem, but was it not also a test of Yitzchak’s commitment? Yitzchak was not a child at the time of the Akeydah. He was a grown man. Should not the Akeydah also be characterized as a measure of Yitzchak’s resolve?

Perhaps, the Torah is communicating to us a message regarding the deeper nature of the test faced by Avraham. Certainly, the Akeydah tested is Yitzchak. This point is obvious and the Torah does not need to focus on this issue. However, the Torah’s intention is to draw our attention to Avraham’s experience. It wants us to carefully consider his experience and learn a fundamental message from it. What is this message?

A parent loves his or her child. The parent will make every effort to save the child from harm and to protect the child from pain. This protective attitude and behavior provides a nurturing environment in which the child can grow and mature. However, there are inevitable instances in which the parent must allow the child to face challenges on his or her own. If the child is to be permitted to truly face these challenges, then the parent must be willing to allow the child to fail and experience the painful consequences. This is not an easy task for most parents. As parents, we instinctually strive to protect our children from pain. It is difficult to allow our children to experience pain or failure. But if our children are to mature and become independent and responsible adults, we must sometimes step back and allow our children to experience unpleasant consequences.

As an educator, I sometimes encounter parents struggling with this challenge. One of the responsibilities of a school is to establish expectations. For these expectations to be meaningful, there must be consequences for the student who meets or fails to meet expectations. Failure to meet academic expectations may result in painful consequences: poor grades. Failure to meet behavioral expectations can result in disciplinary actions. Sometimes a parent will feel compelled to try to protect his or her child from these consequences. This is a natural and instinctual response. But, although the parent is responding to his or her deep love for the child, this attempt to intervene can cause the child more harm than good. The student must learn that decisions and behaviors have consequences. If the child does not learn this important lesson in school, it will be taught much more harshly by the dispassionate world outside of school.

This is one of the greatest tests we face as parents. We must exercise careful judgment and control, and even suppress our instinctual need to protect our children. But if we cannot pass this test our children will ultimately experience far harsher consequences and much greater pain. And we will be powerless to intervene.

Perhaps, this was Avraham’s test. He was challenged by Hashem to allow Yitzchak to be tested without intervening. He was required to put aside his love for Yitzchak and allow him to experience the test of the Akeydah without intervening or attempting to save him from this challenge. The Torah is presenting to us a lesson in parenthood. It is portraying Avraham as the paradigm of a loving but insightful parent. We are being forewarned that, as parents, we must be willing to conduct ourselves as Avraham. We must allow our children to face the tests and challenges that are flung upon them by life. Occasionally, we must step back, control our instinctual desire to protect our children, and allow them to face these challenges.

But the lesson of Avraham’s test should not be viewed in isolation. We should not draw hasty conclusions. There is another – and equally important – parenting lesson in the previous parasha. These two lessons complement one another. We cannot consider one without giving the other due consideration. Before returning to the issue raised by Sara’s death, we must recognize and consider this other lesson.

Yitzchak was Avraham’s second son. He had previously fathered a child with Hagar. This son was Yishmael. Sara recognized that Yitzchak must be protected from his older brother Yishmael. She approached Avraham and insisted that he send Hagar and Yishmael away. Avraham was reluctant. He loved Yishmael. He did not want to part with him. But, Hashem told Avraham that Sara’s perceptions of danger and her counsel were accurate. He must accept her guidance. Avraham complied and sent Hagar and Yishmael away.[4]

Sara illustrates a complementary element of parenting: We must protect our children. We sometimes must enter into conflicts and battle for their welfare. We must understand our children and their needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Our children are not miniature adults. There are times and occasions at which they cannot effectively protect themselves from harm. We must heed the instinctual message to protect our children and act with vigor and determination. Imagine Sara’s situation. She perceived that Yitzchak was in danger. She knew that her intervention was needed. But, she recognized that she could only help Yitzchak through making demands that would place her relationship with her husband at risk. She could not depend on Hashem’s intervention on her behalf. Yet, without hesitation, she acted. She demanded that Avraham protect Yitzchak and send away Yishmael.

I see this dynamic as well. My students are teenagers. They are bright and capable. But they are still adolescents. They need their parents’ guidance and support. Most of my students are members of families in which both parents must work outside of the home. Most of my students are not the only child in the family. It is not easy for parents to live professional lives and, at the same time, maintain focus on the needs and sometimes erratic development of their teenagers. The years leading up to adolescence present enormous challenges. Parents have already dealt with countless parenting challenges before their children enter adolescence. It almost seems to be a cynical prank that, after all of these challenges, their children reach adolescence – the most complicated years of their development. It is not as if parents get a few years off between pre-adolescence and adolescence.

They do not have an opportunity to retrench, refresh themselves, and then deal with the adolescent years. Yet, somehow we must maintain our focus. As parents, we must constantly remind ourselves that although our teenagers look like adults and want to be treated like adults, they are not quite yet there. And, if we are not diligent, adolescence can bring our teenagers its own disasters.

These two lessons complement each other. We must respect and pay attention to our instincts to protect our children. We must be willing to sacrifice our own welfare on their behalves. But there are times we must suppress this response. We must let go and allow our children to face challenges. Sometimes they will succeed and experience elation and joy. At other times they will fail and experience disappointment and pain. Neither element of parenting is meaningful by itself. These two elements must coexist and complement one another. As parents, our greatest test is to know when to protect and when to step back. We must respect our instincts but not abandon ourselves from them. We must exercise careful judgment. We must evaluate the development of our children and their needs at their stage in life and in regards to the specific challenge. Only after this evaluation can we decide whether we should protect or step back.

Now, let is return to the issue of Sara’s death. Our Sages tell us that Sara heard news of the Akeydah and she could not bear to consider that Yitzchak had come so very close to death. What does this tell us? Avraham recognized that he must allow Yitzchak to submit to the test of the Akeydah. Sara, who had protected Yitzchak from Yishmael, could not bear this thought. She was overcome with fright and anxiety at the thought of Yitzchak’s near death. Yitzchak had reached a point in his development that required letting go. Avraham was able to make this transition. He was prepared to allow Yitzchak to face challenges and experience consequences. He recognized he could offer support and encouragement. But he could no longer protect or insulate his son. Perhaps Sara was not prepared to take this next step that was essential to Yitzchak’s further development. She had been a wonderful mother. She had protected her son from all harm. But now her job was done and she let go the only way she could.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:3.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:3.

[3] Sefer Beresheit 22:1.

[4] Sefer Beresheit 21:9-15.