This week’s parshah opens up by informing us of the death of Sarah. The Midrash reveals that it is not by chance that the account of Sarah’s death was placed right after the final event of last week’s Torah portion, the Akeidat Yitzchok (the binding of Isaac). With this juxtaposition, the Torah is informing us that the cause of Sarah’s death was the shock and distress that she had experienced when she heard that her husband, Abraham, was about to slaughter her only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.
Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, contrasts Abraham’s reaction to God’s instruction of the Akeidat Yitzchok with that of Sarah’s. The Torah tells us that on the morning of the impending sacrifice, Abraham woke up particularly early out of eagerness to fulfill the command of God, even though that command was difficult for him. Yet, Sarah died from shock when she heard the news! Surely she was also on the same high spiritual level as Abraham and should have also been excited at the prospect of being able to give up what was most dear to her for the sake of God. Why was she so distressed to the point of death?
There is a concept in Judaism called ‘dying al kiddush Hashem’, dying for the sanctification of God’s name. When a Jew is killed solely because he is Jewish, regardless of the status of his observance, he is considered to have died while sanctifying God’s name. Though one does not necessarily request to be placed in such a situation, ‘dying al Kiddush Hashem’ is considered to be one of the greatest merits in all of Judaism.
Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575; Tzefat, Israel) is considered to be one of the greatest rabbis of all time. He codified the entire body of halachah, Jewish law, into a book entitled Shulchan Aruch. To this day, Shulchan Aruch is the primary source for one studying halachah. When Rabbi Karo was nearing the end of his life, he was a bit disappointed; he had merited to fulfill many of the mitzvot of the Torah, but it seemed that he would not have the opportunity to die for the sanctification of God’s name. He shared this regret with a colleague. His colleague responded that though Rabbi Karo wouldn’t be able to die al kiddush Hashem, he had done something much greater; he had lived his life al kiddush Hashem. Rabbi Karo’s entire life was filled with act after act of sanctifying God’s name. He had lived a life exemplifying and disseminating the beauty of Torah and Judaism. By its very definition, dying al kiddush Hashem can only be fulfilled once, while living al kiddush Hashem can be performed countless times.
This was the reason for Sarah’s distress at the news of the impending sacrifice of Isaac by her husband Abraham. Though it must have been unbelievably difficult for her to imagine the loss of her only son, her excitement at the opportunity to fulfill God’s direct command to her husband was even greater. At the same time, however, Sarah was extremely distraught that Isaac would lose the opportunity to live a life filled with sanctification of God’s name.
Throughout our history, it was unfortunately common for Jews to be targeted with violent anti-Semitic attacks. Millions of Jews over the past millennia have been murdered al kiddush Hashem. Notwithstanding frightening current events, these days most of us live in relative safety and security. Though most of us thankfully don’t have the opportunity of receiving the merit of dying al kiddush Hashem, let us make sure that as we conduct ourselves through our days, we sanctify God’s name with our honesty, our respectful behavior, and our caring for others. Let us make sure that we live al kiddush Hashem.