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Chayei Sarah

Chayei Sarah - Regretting Good Deeds

Profound lessons for life based on Avraham's reaction to the death of Sarah

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After the dramatic episode of the Akeidah, Avraham Avinu discovers that his wife, Sarah Imeinu, has died as a result of hearing that Avraham nearly slaughtered their son, Yitzchak Avinu.

The Targum Yonasan[1] and Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer[2] record that the Satan (which is a manifestation of the yetser hara) was the one who told Sarah this news, and as a result, she died from the shock.  The superficial way of understanding this, is that the Satan, who had failed to prevent Avraham from performing the Akeidah, now turned his attention to causing the death of Sarah as a way of avenging the fact that he failed to prevent the Akeidah.

However, the Kehillas Yitzchak[3] asks, this understanding does not make sense; we know that the Satan is not, chas v’shalom, an independent force that is ‘fighting’ HaShem, rather it is a tool of HaShem to enable us to overcome, and it ultimately wants us to succeed.  Accordingly, why would it act vengefully by causing the death of Sarah, when it failed in its mission to prevent the Akeidah.

The Kehillas Yitzchak answers that the Satan’s actions were part of his ongoing efforts to prevent the benefits of the Akeidah.  Even after the Akeidah had taken place, there was an opportunity to negate its tremendous effect. The Gemara[4] teaches that if a person performs a Mitzva but later regrets doing that Mitzva, then it is considered as if he did not do the Mitzva, and its benefit is totally wiped out.  Indeed, the Kehillas Yitzchak posits that doing a Mitzva and then regretting it is worse than not doing the Mitzva at all.

The Satan had made great efforts to prevent Avraham from performing the Akeidah, by, for example, making the journey very difficult for him, by appearing as a man trying to dissuade him from killing his son.  He failed in all these efforts, but he made one final attempt to nullify the great power of the Mitzva by causing Avraham to have some level of regret for the consequences of the Akeidah.  He did this by making the death of Sarah come directly as a result of hearing about the Akeidah.  In this way, he hoped that it would cause Avraham to have some level of regret for Akeidah because it seemed to have been the direct cause of Sarah’s death[5].   

However, Avraham overcame this test as well, and did not feel any regret about the Akeidah despite Sarah’s subsequent death.  This is demonstrated by the fact that when the Torah states that Avraham cried over Sarah’s death, there is a small kaf in the word, ‘vebachta’, that describes Avraham’s tears[6]

The Baal HaTurim writes that this is to teach that Avraham only cried over her a small amount.  The Kehillas Yitzchak explains that he did this deliberately because he feared that if people saw him crying effusively, they would think that he had some level remorse over the Akeidah.  Thus, not only did Avraham not regret the Akeidah because of its connection to Sarah’s death, he was even careful that people should not think that he regretted it, because this would also take away from the Akeidah’s powerful effect. He realized that the positive effect of the Akeidah would endure through Jewish history, and he refused to let any negative consequences cloud that awareness.

This test of the yetser hara to try to make us regret Mitzvot is one that commonly applies to all of us. Some commentaries explain that this is the meaning of the request that we make in Maariv: ‘And remove the Satan from before us and after us.”  The Satan ‘before’ refers to his attempts to prevent us from doing Mitzvot, and the Satan ‘after’ is the Satan who attempts to convince us to regret the Mitzvot that we have already done[7]

In most cases, a person is not tested with a test such as enduring the death of a relative as a seeming result of a Mitzva, but there may be occasions when a person does a Mitzva and the immediate consequences do not seem so desirable. The Kehillas Yitzchak cites the example of people involved in the community who sometimes have to make rules that are not so popular, and as a result are denigrated and even despised. 

This can also be the case with regard to actions of self-sacrifice, such as devoting more time to learning Torah, or other Mitzvot, that one would expect, would be rewarded in this world as well as the Next.  However, the reality is that is often not the case, and the ultimate reward for Mitvzos done with sincerity is the Next World. 

Of course, in the general sense, keeping Torah and Mitzvot gives a person a sense of satisfaction in this World that other lifestyles cannot do, yet it is true that the immediate results of positive behavior are not so wonderful.  The challenge at these times is to realize that this is just another test, and that ultimately, Mitzvot only have positive consequences. 

As the Kehillas Yitzchak demonstrates, one of the reasons for this is the yetser hara’s attempt to cause the person to regret the Mitzva that appeared to be the cause of the undesirable aftermath.  Avraham’s reaction to the death of Sarah teaches us how we should respond to our own challenges that result from Mitzvot. 

Notes and Sources
[1] Bereishis,22:20.
[2] Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, Chapter 32.
[3] Written by Rav Yitzchak Ritbord, published in 1900.
[4] Kiddushin, 40b.
[5] It seems that Sarah was destined to die at that time regardless, so the Satan did not cause her to die earlier than she otherwise would have, rather it made it appear as if her death came about because of the Akeidah.
[6] Bereishis, 23:2.
[7] Heard from Rav Ozer Alport, shlit’a.