5756 - #3

Sarah's Death: The Change in Avraham

In Bereishit 25:1-11, we are told, ever so briefly, of the final years of Avraham Avinu's life. In a certain way, these final years were even more prolific then the years preceding them as, we are told, Avraham fathered six more children and truly established himself as an av hamon goyim, "a father of many nations"[1]. Yet our account of these years is brief? Furthermore, we are specifically told, in Bereishit 25:9, that it is only Avraham's sons Yitzchak and Yishmael that participate in Avraham's burial; what of these other sons?

Perhaps, the most straightforward way of answering this question is that only Yitzchak and Yishmael participated in the burial because only they were in the vicinity. Bereishit 25:6 informs us that Avraham sent these latter children away to the land of the east; they did not participate in the burial because they were not nearby. The verse describing Avraham's burial, though, does not seem to describe the participation of Yitzchak and Yishmael as a practical reality; rather, it seems to point, through their participation, to a specialness that marks specifically these two sons of Avraham. Honestly, when we think of the children of Avraham, we indeed only think of Yitzchak and Yishmael, not of the others. The words of Malbim, Bereishit 25:3,4 would seem to support this contention: lo nityachsu l'Avraham rak hayu bnei Ketura, "[the other children] are not connected to Avraham but only were the children of Ketura." Yitzchak and Yishmael, though, are "his sons"[2], the sons of Avraham.

Abarbanel, Bereishit, Chayei Sarah, d.h. V'yosef Avraham, in fact, clearly states that Yishmael was more esteemed than the sons of Ketura, pointing to Yishmael's participation in Avraham's burial as proof of Yishmael's more honoured position. There are clearly other indications in this regard. The Torah continues with a description of the descendants of Yishmael and Yishmael's death.[3] Rashi, Bereishit 25:9 explains that Avraham's death was deemed to be at a "good old age" for Yishmael did teshuva before Avraham died. Avraham's other sons, though, did not do teshuva; yet Yishmael's repentance was deemed sufficient for Avraham to feel completion and fulfilment. The question must be asked: why was Yishmael special?[4]

This question intensifies if one accepts the view, expressed in Rashi, Bereishit 25:1, that Ketura is actually Hagar, the mother of Yishmael. According to this view, why should there be any distinction between Yishmael and the bnei Ketura when they, in fact, shared the same mother and father? An argument could even be made that it should be the bnei Ketura with the more enhanced status for, as Rashi states, "she was called Ketura for her actions were as pleasant as incense." Hagar/Ketura would seem to have been more righteous during her second tenure with Avraham yet it is the child of her first coupling with Avraham that is deemed to have the greater status. Why? And why is it, in fact, Yishmael that accomplishes teshuva while the bnei Ketura themselves are not so indicated? The answer may actually lie in Sarah.

When Avraham Avinu's name was changed, reflecting his status as the "father of many nations", Sarah Imeinu's name was also changed.[5] There are two types of marriage relationships. One brings together two people who through the bond of marriage are able to share their lives and accomplish achievementsthat they otherwise would not be able to reach. For example, almost simplistically, one cannot have a child alone. There, though, is another bond of marriage whereby the effect of the relationship not only exists external to the individual but touches the very self of each partner in the bond. The marriage is not only marked by what it accomplishes externally but also internally inside those who share the connection. Such was the bond of Avraham and Sarah. If Avraham's name was to be changed, so must Sarah's name be changed. And so, when Sarah died, Avraham not only lost his akeret bayit, his life partner but also part of himself. Avraham while Sarah was alive was not the same Avraham after Sarah's death. And so the child fathered by Avraham while Sarah was alive, even by a another woman, was different than the children fathered by him after Sarah's death.

Upon Sarah's death, the story of Avraham as Avraham, father of our nation, also ends. The focus shifts to Yitzchak. Only in the brief sentences marking the latter years of Avraham's life do we return to Avraham's story. The same occurs with Yaakov after the death of Rachel.[6] The focus shifts to Yaakov's sons.[7] Yaakov without Rachel is not the same Yaakov just as Avraham without Sarah is not the same Avraham. The union of their love affected their very beings.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] See Bereishit 17:4. See, also, Abarbanel, Bereishit, Chayei Sarah, d.h. V'yosef Avraham.

[2] Bereishit 25:9. See also T.B. Nedarim 31a including Rashi and Ran.

[3] Bereishit 25:12-18.

[4] In all fairness, it should be mentioned that there are also sources that seem to present Yishmael's status as being beneath that of the sons of Ketura. Or Chaim, Bereishit 25:6 explains Yishmael's exclusion from Avraham's giving of gifts by describing Yishmael as, legally, the slave of Yitzchak. See, further, Or Chaim, Bereishit 16:5. The Abarbanel, maintaining his position, actually deals with Yishmael's seemed exclusion from the gifts by stating that Yishmael indeed did receive gifts for he was also one of the bnei hapilagshim, the sons of the concubines. Of further interest, in regard to Yishmael's status vis-a-vis the sons of Ketura, would also be the position of Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 10:8 that obligates the descendants of the sons of Ketura in mila, circumcision, yet excludes the descendants of Yishmael. An argument could be made that this would also seem to imply a loftier status for the sons of Ketura although such an argument would not be fully conclusive. It should also be mentioned that this view of Rambam is not accepted universally. See, further, Encyclopedia Talmudit 3:382,383. In conclusion, I believe, the normative position is the one presented in the body of the article, that maintained by Abarbanel, that Yishmael's status was indeed higher.

[5] See Bereishit 17:3-6, 16-17.

[6] See Bereishit 35:19 and forward from there.

[7] Notice should also be taken of the fact that all of Yaakov's children were born while Rachel was alive.

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