What is life? This week's Parshah begins by telling us that Sarah passed away. It then describes how she was buried in the special Jewish burial cave in Hebron. Although the opening topic is the fact that Sarah had passed away, the Parshah is called Chayei Sarah, "The Life of Sarah." What indeed was the life of Sarah, the first mother of the Jewish people? What does her life teach us about our lives today?

There is no doubt that Sarah had to face many challenges. As a young woman, married to Abraham, she discovered that she could not bear children. Despite this she devoted herself to the spiritual task of teaching people about the existence of G‑d, together with her husband.

Rashi tells us that Abraham taught the men and Sarah taught the women.1 Presumably, even in those days one did not simply assume that the women would follow the wishes of their husbands. Women themselves had to discuss and think about the nature of life, in their own right. Sarah inspired women who, together with their husbands and families, became followers of the new teachings of Monotheism.

The task of teaching that there is one G‑d, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was highly dangerous. The norm was to follow a variety of idols. The Sages tell us that on account of Abraham's and Sarah's belief Abraham was arrested by King Nimrod and was thrown into a furnace. We can only imagine Sarah’s feelings. Did she feel foreboding, or trust in G‑d? Miraculously Abraham was not harmed. After this escape, Abraham and Sarah were commanded by G‑d to travel westwards towards the Land of Israel. At this time Abraham was seventy-five years old and Sarah ten years younger.

When they reached the Land of Israel they continued their work of teaching people about Monotheism. Sarah knew that it was essential for Abraham to have a successor, and yearned that this would be a child from her womb. In expression of a plea to G‑d, she gave her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham. Perhaps through that she would merit to bear a child herself.2 Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.

Later G‑d gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. His physical body thus attained a new level of holiness. With that came a promise of a miracle, that he and Sarah would bear a child together. At this point, aged ninety, Sarah was beyond childbearing. She laughed at the idea of having a child, but in fact gave birth a year later to Isaac, whose name means "laughter."

Sarah saw that the key question, strangely topical today, was going to be: who is the true inheritor of Abraham. G‑d said clearly that His unique Covenant would be with Isaac.3 Yet Ishmael posed a grave threat to Isaac’s life, and today, over three millennia later, Ishmael is claimed as an icon by some Islamists hostile to the Jews.

Abraham, the living expression of Kindness, was at first unwilling to send Ishmael away. Sarah did all in her power to protect her son Isaac from Ishmael, both physically and morally. G‑d told Abraham to follow Sarah’s advice: she had greater prophetic power than her husband, 4 and account of her efforts the Jewish people eventually came into being.

In our Parshah we see, after the passing of Sarah, the initial success of her endeavour. Indeed it is Isaac who carries forward the special Jewish covenant with G‑d. The central topic in the Parshah is his marriage to Rebecca. His young wife, Rebecca, became the living expression of Sarah.5

Thus, through Sarah’s effort, the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, began to be formed. For this reason our Parshah is called “The Life of Sarah”, even though it concerns the time after she had passed away. For it is with the focus on Isaac and his marriage that we see the continuity of Sarah: just as her progeny are alive, so too is Sarah herself alive.6 This is Sarah’s message to us, her descendants: to bring Jewish children into the world, whether through teaching others, or with G‑d’s blessing, teaching and guiding our physical progeny, thus continuing life for us and our people.7