November 19, 2022 /25 Heshvan 5783 – Chayei Sarah

How Do We Respond to Loss and to Grief?

Shabbat shalom on this beautiful morning.  I have missed you all and much has transpired here since my last visit on October 28, and of very significant consequence was TBI’s commemoration of the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  Thank you for videoing the gathering and for inspiring me through your commitment towards remembering and seeking a kinder, more civil, and less contentious world.  Which leads to this week’s Torah portion.  How do we respond to loss and to grief?  Chayei Sarah, our Torah portion, offers us some answers to this question.

As I have just read, the portion begins with the death of Sarah. Faced with his wife’s death, Abraham mourns and weeps for her, eventually finding a place to bury her.  There’s a bit of a back story here and a whole lot of unanswered questions that Jewish commentators have opined upon for ages.  Sarah dies but the Parsha is ironically called the “Life of Sarah.”

And how did Isaac suddenly re-enter the narrative in the following chapter as Abraham sends his servant to find an appropriate bride for this son?

Perhaps none of these questions are important, the why’s and wherefore’s.  Perhaps the answer is right in front of us in the text by virtue of juxtaposition.  With the re-emergence of Isaac after the purchase of Sarah’s burial site and no apparent eulogy in the text to tell us about Sarah’s life and legacy, we might conclude that Isaac was indeed Sarah’s legacy and what is meant by the life of Sarah, through Isaac and the continuity of the Jewish people.  And what might Yitzchak have learned from Sarah’s example while she lived? Sarah is full partner to Avraham and committed like him in building the Jewish people. and the dynasty. Once Yitzchak is born, Sarah is fiercely protective of him, insisting on the removal from the household of Hagar, her maid and Abraham’s surrogate wife, and the son of that union, surely due to her prophetic understanding of what was needed to protect the dynasty however cruel an undertaking. Even Sarah’s death demonstrates this commitment. The midrash explains that Sarah dies of anguish when she learns about the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, and the episode in which Avraham nearly offers Isaac on the altar. Aviva Gottleib Zornberg, in her book about Bereishit, “The Beginning of Desire,” describes Sarah’s anguish as resulting from her realization that Isaac had nearly been killed, that life is so precarious, and that the dynasty could have been upended in a single moment. Indeed, the midrash tells us that she achieved a greater level of prophecy than Abraham did.

What we do know from the text is that Abraham thoughtfully purchased a burial site for Sarah from the indigenous tribe of Hittites among whom he lived as a resident alien.  And he paid 400 pieces of silver for it.  He insisted upon it, even though the landowner, Efron son of Zohar, was more than willing to give the burial site to Abraham at no cost.

There are questions that run through the minds of our commentators over and over again.  I offer them to you as the TBI sages and invite your responses this morning.

  1. What could Abraham have said in a eulogy for Sarah? He could have recounted the hard life that Sarah endured–that she was childless for 90 years, that she was held captive by both the kings, Avimelech and Pharaoh, and that she struggled to maintain a household that included Ishmael and Hagar.  But, all we get in this Parsha is the follow-up story of Isaac’s betrothal to Rebecca and assurance of the continuity of our people as God had promised Abraham.  The story of Isaac’s life is, in essence, the story of Sarah’s life. In other words, Sarah’s determination to raise a future Patriarch of the Jewish nation.

All this said, does Sarah merit having a Parsha named after her because the story of her death reflects the accomplishments of her life? Indeed, the midrash explains the quirky way in which we learn at what age Sarah died:  100 years, then 20 years, then 7 years.  For the midrashic commentators, at the age of one hundred Sarah was as sinless as at the age of twenty and at twenty she was as wholesome and beautiful as a seven-year-old.  It’s a little way out for me.  I think we are either missing something in the text here or Abraham’s legitimate mission to find a burial site just isn’t enough to commemorate Sarah’s passing?  Thoughts about what is going on here and what isn’t going on?

  1. Also, why did Abraham want to bury Sara “out of his sight?” Why do traditional Jews still bury people in graveyards today rather than “within our sight, like we do with pets in our back yard?  Indeed when Jews are establishing a new town they build or buy a cemetery first (this is something near and dear as well to TBI congregants).

(From a Jewish heritage site:  In Hebrew, a cemetery is called bet kevarot (house or place of graves – Neh. 2:3), but more commonly bet hayyim (house or garden of life) or bet olam (house of eternity – Eccl. 12:5). According to Jewish tradition, a cemetery is a holy place more sacred even than a synagogue. Strict laws regarding burial and mourning govern Jewish practice. For Jews, the care of cemeteries is an essential religious and social responsibility. The Talmudic saying “Jewish gravestones are fairer than royal palaces” (Sanh. 96b; cf. Matt. 23:29) reflects the care that should be given to Jewish graves and cemeteries. In normal circumstances, the entire Jewish community willingly shares the protection, repair, and maintenance of cemeteries.

On the other hand, a cemetery is also a place of impurity. Ancient Jewish law requires that a burial ground be at least 50 ells (a distance of at least 25 meters) from the nearest house. Care should be taken to alert visitors and passersby to its presence (through signs, fences, or other markers). Similarly, visitors should wash their hands upon leaving a cemetery, and many Jewish cemeteries have facilities for that purpose at the gates.

Because the cemetery is a holy place and a place of prayer, Jewish customs avoid the use of graves and cemetery grounds for pleasure, levity, or even study. Thus, visitors wear modest dress (including head covering for men), and they do not eat or drink within or near the cemetery boundaries. Jews abstain from extraneous conversation and music or other entertainment, and visitors should avoid stepping over or sitting on gravestones (it is acceptable to sit on benches or other supports near graves). The traditions on these topics all derive from respect for the holiness of the place and for the dead who are buried there.

Identifying the cemetery as holy ground also underlies the traditions which avoid using the place for private purposes. Jews adhering to some religious movements shy from picking flowers and tree fruit that grow by chance in the cemetery, and for these Jews the grass which grows there should be managed (by grazing or cutting) without profit to the Jewish community. The neglect of many Jewish cemeteries in central and eastern Europe today is primarily due to the absence of Jewish communities in those towns since the Shoah, but cemeteries lacking ongoing care exist anywhere the founding communities have moved away or been displaced.

  1. There is also the matter of the 400 shekels of silver Abraham paid for the burial site. Today that would most likely be worth what? (Then, a shekel would have had $320 worth of purchasing power. The field, at 400 shekels, thus today would sell for the equivalent of $128,000)  Abraham was offered the land at no cost – why did he insist on paying for it, and overpay?  Did he have a short-term or long-term strategy?  And where is that burial site today?

I know Raanan will be addressing the Israeli elections at our kiddush lunch today, so perhaps he can address Abraham’s purchase as a geo-political strategy 4 millennia ago. 

Thank you all for participating as a think tank and modern commentators of Torah.  I hope we can continue the discussion when we read this Parsha next year and come up with new interpretations for a new time.