Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chayei Sarah: Did Sarah Die From The Shock or From The Kiss?

I don't see it accessible online, but I saw a dvar Torah this past Shabbos from Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss which I did not like, in this week's Jewish Press. (Here is a related one from a year ago where he makes some of the same points, of two mechanisms of Sarah's death.) But I can tell it over, and explain my reasons for thinking the dvar Torah is not correct. These reasons can serve to instruct, and lend insight into how to read a Rashi, and how to contrast midrashim. Or else explain how people can differ in their approach to sources. כשם שמקבלים שכר על הדרישה כך מקבלים שכר על הפרישה.

A quick summary of the dvar, reproduced from memory. The pasuk says Avraham came to eulogize Sarah. Rashi asks where he came from and answers it was from Har HaMoriah, from the Akeida. Because she heard the news of Yitzchak's near death experience and the shock and fear caused her death. The Rashi in full:

ויבא אברהם -
מבאר שבע:
לספוד לשרה ולבכתה -
ונסמכה מיתת שרה לעקידת יצחק, לפי שעל ידי בשורת העקידה שנזדמן בנה לשחיטה וכמעט שלא נשחט, פרחה נשמתה ממנה ומתה:
and in English here.

The "problem" with this is that we know she was buried in Mearat Hamachpela, and from elsewhere (he does not give a source) we know that only those who died via neshika (through a Divine "kiss") can be buried there. So how can Rashi say this?

He adds to this the explanation of the Paneach Raza that this was recompense for Sarah lying when she said she did not laugh. Thus, the Satan was able to fool her about this.

He then reads וכמעט שלא נשחט that she did not hear the full tale, with his being saved. (And indeed, there is support for this from Tanchuma.)

He then suggests that she was scared based on this, and this atoned for her previous sin. And therefore she was without the effect of this sin. And at that point, Hashem did neshika and took her soul. And that is why Avraham was able to bury her in mearat hamachpela.

Furthermore, he points out that this is indeed what Rashi is saying, because if he was saying that the shock caused her death, Rashi would have put his comment on the first pasuk, since after all, that is where the semichut is, and where her death is related. Instead, it puts it later on, on the pasuk of Avraham coming.

So much for my summary of the dvar Torah, from my recollection.

Now, on to why I did not like it.

Firstly, the fact that one can find a contradiction in midrashic sources does not mean that there is really a "problem." What is his source for requiring neshika in order to be buried in Maarat haMachpela? Whatever it is, who says that Rashi, or Rashi's source, Midrash Rabba on Chayyei Sarah, in Bereishit Rabba 58:5, agrees that such is a requirement? And the question can be turned around. Whatever that source for such a requirement, perhaps they do not agree with the midrash as to the method of Sarah's death from shock. There are contradictory midrashim all over the place -- enough to fill volumes. There is an idea of a machlokes, which occurs in mirash just as it does in halacha. It is therefore not a "problem" in need of solving. And especially in the process of solving it and harmonizing these midrashim, one does damage to the original intent of the midrash.

Secondly, I am not certain I agree with the rereading of Rashi. Syntactically and semantically, it makes much more sense to me that וכמעט שלא נשחט was part of the בשורת העקידה. Read it a few times and see what I mean. Though he is not the only one to read the Rashi that way. See for example here. If we look to Tanchuma, we may get plenty of support for this reading:

באותה שעה הלך השטן אצל שרה, ונזדמן לה כדמות יצחק, כיון שראה אותו, אמרה לו:
בני, מה עשה לך אביך?
אמר לה: נטלני אבי והעלני הרים והורידני בקעות והעלני לראש הר אחד ובנה מזבח וסדר המערכה והעריך את העצים ועקד אותי על גבי המזבח ולקח את הסכין לשחטני ואילולי שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא אל תשלח ידך אל הנער, כבר הייתי נשחט.
לא הספיק לגמור את הדבר, עד שיצאה נשמתה, הדא הוא דכתיב: ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה.

And it makes sense that this is where Rashi gets his details from, since the details are missing in Bereishit Rabba. Though Rashi does not mention the Satan explicitly here.

The question is what does וכמעט שלא נשחט in Rashi's words match, if we are to match it to Midrash Tanchuma? It could either match ואילולי שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא אל תשלח ידך אל הנער, כבר הייתי נשחט; or it could match לא הספיק לגמור את הדבר. I would understand it as matching the former, since there is stress that he was almost nishchat, and the echoing of kevar hayiti nishchat. And I would understand לא הספיק לגמור את הדבר perhaps as that he had barely managed to finish the matter.

He is not coming up with this out of thin air, of course. This has precedent in Sifsei Chachamim, citing Maharai. Squint at the picture, or else click on it to make it bigger. Start reading from os ches.

Sifsei Chachamim's problem is the language וכמעט שלא נשחט when it should have been וכמעט שנשחט, without the word שלא. Therefore, it is referring {in what I would consider grammatically awkward form} to the fact that the shaliach had not been able to say that he was not slaughtered. But I think that this is a fine echoing of the intent of Midrash Tanchuma, and the stress there of the peril and near miss.

If we are following this midrash Tanchuma as the source, I would point out, it would be extremely surprising to have Sarah believe falsely that Yitzchak had been killed, because after all, according to this midrash, the Satan appeared to Sarah in the form of Yitzchak. Though instead of being the Satan disguised as Yitzchak, Maharai and Siftei Chachamim transform him into a shliach. Would Rashi similarly strip out the idea that it was the form of Yitzchak, while taking the rest of it? And if he is not getting the idea from Tanchuma, where is he getting it?

Thirdly, I do not think that Rashi could have been clearer that it was the news which caused Sarah's death. The Hebrew above, but the English, from Judaica Press, here:
to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her The account of Sarah’s demise was juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac because as a result of the news of the “binding,” that her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her, and she died. — from Gen. Rabbah 58:5]
You can kvetch it that she heard this, and at that point her soul flew out, for a different reason, but it is an extreme kvetch. And you are doing the midrash, and Rashi, no favor in kvetching it this way in order to harmonize it with another, contradictory source.

Indeed, Rashi was getting this from Midrash Rabba, as is clear e.g. from his explanation of where Avraham was coming from. To cite that Midrash:

ה ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה מהיכן בא רבי לוי אמר מקבורתו של תרח לשרה בא א"ל ר' יוסי והלא קבורתו של תרח קדמה לקבורתו של שרה שתי שנים אלא מהיכן בא מהר המוריה ומתה שרה מאותו צער לפיכך נסמכה עקידה לויהיו חיי שרה:

Rashi has a perush on Bereishit Rabba, and he comments on this midrash, and echoes the words ומתה שרה מאותו צער. Thus, she died from that tzaar, not from neshika which happened subsequently. And even if you somehow free Rashi in order to harmonize him with the idea of neshika, and do so by creatively interpreting Midrash Tanchuma, I don't believe one can do this with Midrash Rabba. In which case, you gain nothing from the harmonization, and have a situation of conflicting midrashim anyway.

Finally, this idea of why Rashi puts the midrash on this pasuk, as opposed to the beginning of the parsha, one pasuk earlier. We see from Rashi's source, Bereishis Rabba, that the midrash was originally written on this pasuk. Sometimes, when Rashi changes from his source material, or moves a midrash from one place to another, we have what to comment and what to derive about Rashi's goal in doing so. Where he preserves the location of the midrash, it is much harder to make such an argument. But it is possible that Rav Weiss did not see it in midrash rabba, to see that it was in the same place as Rashi put it.

But why would Midrash Rabba put it here, rather than in the very beginning? This is where we realize that the two Rashis, of where Avraham was coming from, and what caused Sarah's deaths, are related, and they come from the same Midrash Rabba explaining this. Because in Midrash Rabba, as we just saw, there is a machlokes. Rabbi Levi says that he came from the burying of Terach, while Rabbi Yossi says that he came from the Akeida, from har haMoriah.

When Rashi says that Avraham came from Beer Sheva, this is really his way of saying that he came from the Akeida. Because in Bereishis 22, at the end of the akeida, we have:
יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע. {פ} 19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.
upon which Rashi comments:
and Abraham remained in Beer-sheba This does not mean permanently dwelling, for he was living in Hebron. Twelve years prior to the binding of Isaac, he left Beer-sheba and went to Hebron, as it is said (above 21:34): “And Abraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days,” [meaning] more numerous than the first [years] in Hebron, which were twenty-six years, as we explained above. — [from Seder Olam ch. 1]
So Avraham stayed for a little time in Beer Sheva, after which he went to Chevron. And Sarah had died in Chevron.

Since this is all rooted in this midrash, with the question of where Avraham came from, the answer is fairly why Rashi, and Midrash Rabba, put it here rather than on the previous pasuk. Even though an element of the proof to answer the question was the semichut of the parshiyot.


Shlomo said...

There is a source (Ramban?) who says that Moshe and Aharon are described as dying "al pi hashem", but not Miriam, because it is inappropriate to imagine God kissing a woman (think: Greek myths and Christian theology).

That seems relevant here.

A.B. said...

Hi Josh
I sent you an email to your yahoo address with information about how Sarah's death may have had nothing to do with the Akeidah, but was in fact caused by her treatment of Avraham when Hagar became pregnant. From various sources, it seems she was punished for the things she said, causing her to lose years from her predestined life span, which was either 175 (like Avraham), 170 (to die when Avraham was supposed to die), or 165 (to die when Avraham DID die).
Avi Billet

Ploni said...


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