Mourning the Loss of Sarah by Rabbi Yoni Mandelstam


It is not surprising that the Torah describes how Avraham came to “eulogize and cry” (“VaYavo Avraham Lispod LeSarah VeLivkotah,” BeReishit 23:2) after the loss of Sarah. Even one without a family relationship with Sarah can understand the need for one to cry after her passing. Indeed, the classical commentaries such as the Or HaChayim and Keli Yakar explain that, in light of Sarah’s extreme righteousness, Avraham may have been crying over the loss of a truly great person, family ties aside. Yet, Avraham, of course, did have more of a reason to cry. He had lost his spouse, his life’s partner. Rabi Yochanan (Sanhedrin 22a) teaches that “anyone who loses a first wife is compared to one who witnessed the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.” The Gemara there records similar statements from other members of the Sages. Evidently, the loss of a spouse is a devastating experience. I would like to elaborate on the tears of Abraham, which can highlight a unique aspect of family relationships.

It might be surprising to some that the Torah does not tell us about the actual feelings of love that Avraham and Sarah shared while they were still alive. For example, nowhere does the Torah tell us about a first date, an anniversary party, or a heart to heart conversation that Avraham and Sarah enjoyed together. Certainly, romance is not found in the Torah with regards to Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu. Furthermore, Chazal tell us (Bava Metzia 87a) that when the angels visit Avraham Avinu as recorded in Parashat VeYeira, they specifically asked Avraham “Ayeih Sarah Ishtecha,” “where is your wife Sarah” (BeReishit 18:9), in order to enhance the relationship between them. Specifically, the angels wanted Avraham to recognize Sarah’s modesty, which is evident in Avraham’s informing them that she “was in the tent.” Rav Chaim Shmulevitz understands this to mean that even our forefathers appreciated assistance with regards to the spousal relationship. In other words, even the healthiest of marriages have room for improvement.

It is important to note that Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu clearly worked side by side. Chazal relate (BeReishit Rabbah 39:14) that “Avraham influenced the men to follow the word of God and Sarah influenced the women to follow the word of God.” This implies that the two represent a power-house couple. They were a tag team who worked together in order to accomplish a common goal. We also know that Avraham and Sarah saw eye to eye because she was immediately prepared to follow his instructions when Avraham told her to “quickly prepare three Sa’ah of flour for cakes” (BeReishit 18:6). Sarah was ready to play her role and Avraham was excited to play his. These sources portray Avraham and Sarah as ideal partners. Yet, the Torah does not describe a love story in the classical sense. The Torah does, however, tell us that Avraham cried over the loss of his wife. Why would the Torah not tell us about Avraham’s love for his living wife but choose to emphasize the grief that Avraham felt over the loss of Sarah?

Rav Soloveitchik (Rabbi Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe, p.8) relates that he once woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of a thunderstorm. He quickly ran downstairs to close the window of the room where his wife was sleeping. However, after closing the window, reality settled in to remind the Rav that his wife was no longer alive. In the Rav’s words:


I found the room empty, the couch where she slept neatly covered. In reality, she had passed away the previous month. The most tragic and frightening experience was the shock that I encountered in that half second when I turned from the window to find the room empty. I was certain that a few hours earlier I had been speaking with her, and that at about 10 o’clock she had said good night and retired to her room.


One lesson to learn from this story is that the Rav did not necessarily miss anything specific about his wife’s personality or charm. He does not write that he missed her jokes, her insights into politics, or the taste of her food. Rather, he missed his life partner, the one who was side by side with him for a lifetime.

As we read about Avraham Avinu’s tears, I think it is important to put relationships into perspective. One does not need to explain why tears are shed at the funeral of a family member. There is simply something to be said for living life side by side. While siblings and spouses tend to have a fair share of disagreements, family will always be family. Shlomo HaMelech (Kohelet 4:11) describes how a friendship allows people to feel a sense of warmth knowing that someone is constantly by their side. Certainly, family members provide a sense of encouragement and warmth for each other whether or not positive feelings are expressed. Let the tears of Avraham remind us to appreciate our loved ones for simply being there to keep us company.

Geir VeToshav by Jacob Rosenfeld

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