The end of Parashat VaYeira left us on a tremendous high. Avraham had successfully performed all that was asked of him at the Akeida, and as a result Yitzchak was spared and Avraham’s hereditary line was saved. But, this triumphant mood is brought to a harsh stop when, in the first section of Parashat Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies. Avraham takes it upon himself to find a final home for her and all of his descendants forever. This theme of transition continues throughout the rest of the Parashah, as by the end, Avraham dies as well and it is entirely up to Yitzchak to lead the family.
One of the most detailed instances of Avraham’s preparation for the future was his search to find a wife for his son. He takes upon himself the almost impossible task to find a matriarch as fit as Sarah Imeinu. The Midrash tells us (BeReishit Rabbah 60:16) that Sarah’s presence had supernatural effects on her home. Her presence created an ever present cloud over her tent, extreme hospitality, blessed dough for baking, and a lamp that burned from one Shabbat to the next. These all ended upon Sarah’s death and returned when Yitzchak brought Rivkah into the tent. What could be a more fitting sign that Rivkah would pick up where Sarah left off? Rivkah was the perfect individual to fulfill the matriarchal role of keeping a proper home for the Jewish people.
We can use this Midrash to explain a difficult Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat. The Mishnah reads, “Al Shalosh Aveirot Nashim Meitot BeSha’at Leidatan. Al SheEinan Zehirut BeNidah, UVeChalah, UVeHadlakat HaNeir,” “Women die in childbirth because of three transgressions: for not being careful with the laws of Nidah, Chalah, and lighting [Shabbat] candles” (Shabbat 2:6). The Mishnah sounds tremendously out of line. Do these sins truly warrant death? Death in childbirth may have been common, but it is in no way a minor punishment. In addition, this idea in the Mishnah seems to be applied inconsistently; many women who are meticulously careful die in childbirth, whereas many who are lax survive.
The Gemara explains that childbirth is a time that is truly in God’s hands. It is so dangerous that the slightest error can push a woman away from God and cause her to die, as nature dictates is the norm. She is very vulnerable and needs to be pristine to warrant Hashem’s salvation. Still, the apparent injustice of death resulting from slight transgressions remains an issue.
Rav Michael Hattin suggests an entirely new way to understand the Mishnah. He sees the punishment not as literal death, but as death of a Jewish home. When a woman brings new life into the world and into her household, the child’s new home must be a nurturing and caring environment in which he or she can grow. The three Mitzvot mentioned in Mishnah are vital to a functioning and caring Jewish home. If a woman is not careful in their fulfillment, it is impossible to successfully raise Jewish children - essentially a death to the family. The Mishnah does not mean that the woman is deserving of death, but it is as if she dies as soon as she gives birth; there is little hope for her family in the future.
The list in the Midrash and the list in Masechet Shabbat are very similar. Sarah reached such a high level in these Mitzvot that they manifested in divine ways. She was responsible for a spotless Jewish household which could raise perfect children. Eliezer saw Rivkah’s strength as a matriarch at the well in Nachor. When he brought her to Yitzchak, he saw her ability in how she ran a family. She would be able to pick up where Sarah left off and create a home fit to continue the Jewish tradition.