Parashat Chayei-Sara begins with the death of Sara, and tells that after Avraham wept and eulogized his beloved wife, “Avraham arose from the presence of his deceased [wife]” (23:3). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 58:6), seeking to explain the meaning of Avraham’s “arising” from the presence of Sara’s remains, writes, “This teaches that the Angel of Death was opposite him, warning him” (“Melamed she-haya mal’akh ha-mavet matris ke-negdo”). Avraham “arose” from his wife’s remains, according to the Midrash, because the Angel of Death stood over her remains, as though “warning” Avraham that he, too, would soon die. (In reality, Avraham lived for another thirty-eight years.) Rather than remain exposed to this frightening spectacle, Avraham left.
How might we explain the meaning of this image depicted by the Midrash, of the Angel of Death intimidating Avraham as he was near his wife’s remains?
It would seem that the Midrash here seeks to warn against excessive wallowing in sorrow and self-pity during times of grief and anguish. It is, of course, perfectly natural, appropriate and important to mourn and grieve after the loss of a loved one. However, the Midrash warns that a person can, in a sense, “die” as a result of inordinately focusing upon his or her sorrow, in that one can thereby lose his or her vitality and vigor, the ambition and passion that we all need in order to live meaningfully and productively. The “Angel of Death,” which is often associated with human weaknesses and negative instincts, lurked at the site of Sara’s remains in the sense that excessively dwelling upon our grief, our failures, our disappointments and our pain is harmful, and can lead to self-ruin. Chazal here urge us to follow Avraham’s example of “arising” from our sorrow and angst, of being able to regain our energy, enthusiasm, joy and vitality even after painful experiences, rather than spending too much time wallowing in grief and thereby squandering the great potential and numerous opportunities that we have to achieve and accomplish during our limited time in this world.