Chayei Sarah 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The portion Chayei Sarah- the “life of Sarah”- serves as a bridge between the story of Avraham and Sarah and the next generations. Sara dies, and Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah in which to bury her. Avraham then sends his servant to find a wife for his son Yitzhak; the servant finds Rivkah, and we meet her family, including her brother Lavan, who will figure prominently in the story of Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah. At the end of the portion, Avraham dies, and is buried by his two sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael.

“Avraham rose up from the from the presence of his dead, and spoke to the tribe of Het, saying: I am a stranger and a resident among you. Grant me an inheritance of a burial site, that I may bury my dead from before me.”
(Genesis 23:3-4)


Up until this point, Avraham and Sarah have wandered all over the map, from what is now Iraq all the way down to Egypt and various places in the land of Canaan. Now, however, he needs a permanent place in which to bury his wife, and which will become a burial place for his descendants as well. Even today, the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, is revered as the burial place of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzhak, Rivkah, Yaakov, and Leah- Rachel died on a journey, and is buried (according to an ancient tradition) near Bethlehem.

In a sermon based on this verse, Rabbi Morris Adler points out a contradiction when Avraham calls himself a “stranger and a resident among you” [
Ger v’Toshav]. A stranger, or alien, is someone who is just passing through, or here temporarily, someone without attachements or committments. A resident is more like a citizen or a permanent dweller in the community- someone who has settled somewhere, made a dwelling, chosen a home.

How can Avraham be both a temporary passer-through and permanent resident? Rabbi Adler suggests that this is not so much about one’s citizenship status, as it were, but a description of a religious attitude towards life itself. Life in this world is temporary and unpredictable- when it comes to life, we’re all “just passing through.” Like travellers, we should burden ourselves with only the necessities: love, good deeds, reverence, true connections to family and friends. We might try to cheat death by building up a huge store of wealth or an impressive career, or we might adopt an attitude of “party hard, because life is short,” but these things too are only temporary, gone before we know it. A mature person recognizes the reality of death, and thus lives with greater urgency and purpose.

Yet in another sense, this world is what we have; we are “residents” here, and must be committed to the improvement and betterment of our homes, communities, and societies. We can’t just say, “oh, I’m just passing through, it’s not my problem, I don’t care, and what’s the use?” No, insists Adler:

    “He who gives himself to justice and peace, he who recognizes that life is too short for men to be little, he who honors life as the medium for that which is abiding and permanent, will not fritter it away on that which is shallow and petty. . . This is the balanced attitude: Not to try to escape life or to underestimate it; not to see it only as an insignificant moment between birth and death, but also, in recognizing its brevity, to cherish the opportunity it gives us for producing that which is eternal.”

Adler extends the metaphor to include our attitude towards love, teaching that the balance is to regard our relations with those we love as temporary, yet permanent at the same time. Thus, we must love people as best we can every moment, for we never know what accidents of fate or twists of life may remove us from our cherished ones. Yet we must also be “residents,” fully present, in our relationships, and not flit from love to love in fickle and unreliable ways. If we think of ourselves as “permanent residents” with those we love, we risk taking them for granted; if we think of ourselves as only “passing through,” we can never become deeply rooted in true relationships. Adler calls this “loving with intensity but seeing with clarity.”

Returning to our verse, the paradoxical wording of Avraham’s plea to the tribe of Het makes more sense: having just lost his wife of so many years, we could understand how Avraham feels lost in the world, unattached and lonely, even “alienated:” “I am a stranger among you.” Yet precisely at that moment he needed to attach himself to something permanent, to make himself a home in the world, represented by the establishment of a family burial plot, where one person’s life story is bound up with the other generations: “I am a resident among you.” Ger v’Toshav: seeing with clarity, but living with intensity.

* Historical note: Rabbi Morris Adler was a Conservative rabbi in the 50’s and 60’s, serving a congregation in Detroit but also also achieving some measure of national and communal prominence. After his passing many of his sermons and teachings were transcribed from recordings and notes, and published in the collection The Voice Still Speaks, long out of print but possibly available in libraries.

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