Immediately after we read about the Akeidah, we learn of Sarah’s death (23:2). Why? Rashi tells us, in the name of Midrash Tanchuma, that when Sarah heard that Isaac had nearly been slaughtered “her soul burst from her and she died.”
What exactly does this mean? According to some commentators this means very simply that her shock at the frightening news of what had almost happened to her son was so great that her heart gave out and she died. Others commentators take the exact opposite view. Taking note of the idiomatic expression used for “nearly slaughtered,” kim’at shelo nish’chat, which translates literally as “he almost wasn’t slaughtered,” they suggest that Sarah’s profound disappointment that Isaac wasn’t taken as a sacrifice to God caused her death.
Perhaps we can also suggest a slightly different interpretation. Sarah’s overriding purpose in her life was to raise Isaac, the patriarch who would form the central link in the Avos between Abraham who was the initiator and Jacob from whom the nation of Israel commences. When God showed that he considered Isaac worthy of being a perfect sacrifice (olah temimah), and when Isaac showed he was ready to offer himself up with a perfect heart, Sarah realized she had accomplished her purpose in life. She experienced such a spiritual expansion that “her soul burst from her and she died.”
Thus, Sarah did not die from mental anguish. She had fulfilled her life’s duties. There was nothing more she needed to give to Isaac. Abraham’s work, however, was not complete. He still had to arrange the marriage of Isaac and teach the concepts of the Torah to his grandson Jacob. This work would take many more years.
The language of the Midrash lends some credence to this approach. It would appear that she did not die from any physical complication but rather that “her soul burst from her and she died.” Apparently, her soul was no longer able to maintain its tenuous connection to her physical body. Her life was not terminated. It was completed.
We also find support for this approach in the first verse of the parashah (23:1), “And Sarah’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life.” Rashi, in the name of Bereishis Rabbah, notes that the use of this unusual expanded language rather than a concise “one hundred and twenty-seven years” is instructive. It teaches that into her hundreds she was as free of sin as a twenty-year-old (who has just reached the age of responsibility), and she had the pristine beauty of a seven-year-old.
In the view of our Sages, a person’s death has an element of atonement for the sins of his life. But Sarah, according to the Midrash, was free of sin. Why then did Sarah die? She is not listed among those who died only for the sin of Adam. Perhaps it was because she did not die from sin or physical fatigue. She had fulfilled her life’s work, and her exalted soul sought to return to its Creator.
Burial grounds did not come cheap in ancient Canaan, or at least that was how Abraham wanted it. The Cave of the Machpelah, where he wanted to bury Sarah, was on the lands of a Hittite named Ephron, and he offered to buy it (23:7-9). He asked the Hittites to approach Ephron and request that he “grant me his Cave of the Machpelah, on the edge of his field; let him grant it to me for its full price, as a burial ground in your midst.” The initial offer was for the Cave itself and nothing else.
And yet, at the conclusion of the sale we read (23:20), “Thus the field with the cave that was in it were confirmed as Abraham’s as a burial ground from the Hittite people.” All of a sudden, he has bought not only a cave but also a field. And the amount he pays for it is the exorbitant sum of four hundred silver shekels.
How and why did this purchase metamorphose into a larger transaction?
Ephron, it seems, was quite a crafty and greedy fellow. He wants to extract as much money as possible from Abraham, yet he must keep up appearances in front of his people. Abraham had asked to purchase the Cave, and the protocols of nobility call for Ephron to offer it as a gift instead. But he does not want to. So what does he do?
He offers to give Abraham not only the Cave but the field as well. In doing so, he indicates that the two form one indivisible package in his mind, and the offer of the Cave must include the field as well. He knows Abraham will not accept a burial ground for Sarah as a gift, and that he will insist on paying. He wants him to pay for the entire package, not just the Cave.
Ephron is right. Abraham declines the gift but accepts Ephron’s coupling of the Cave and the field. He insists on paying for both the Cave and the field (23:13). Ephron comes back with the inflated price of four hundred shekels (23:15). Had he sold him only a cave, he would have been embarrassed to ask a steep price for a simple cave in front of his townspeople. But now that he was selling Abraham a field as well, it had become a substantial purchase, and he could name a grossly inflated price.
A person selling a bag of apples is restricted in the price he can ask. But if he is selling an apartment building he has much more leeway. The more substantial the purchase the vaguer the price guidelines. By selling the Cave together with the field, Ephron put himself in a position where he could name his own price.
Abraham readily accedes to Ephron’s exorbitant price without a hint of protest. In fact, according to the Midrash, Abraham overpaid voluntarily by using the highest quality currency (over lasocher) even though the deal did not call for it.
It would seem that Abraham saw two benefits in purchasing the cave for a ridiculously high price. One, he created a hubbub (kol) about the sale, i.e. people would be telling their neighbors, ‘did you hear what Ephron got for his field?’ By doing this, Abraham achieved the largest possible public awareness that the cave in the field belonged to him and his descendants. The second benefit was that a high price was a testimonial to Sarah’s greatness. Abraham did not wish to have it appear he bought her plot at bargain basement prices. The price of four hundred shekels was a public expression of his highest regard for Sarah, his beloved, departed wife.