The Life of Sarah: Loss and Reflection

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

The Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, meaning “The Life of Sarah,”
actually begins with the story of her death and burial. Sarah dies
in Kiryat Arbah- what we would now call Hebron – and the
narrative seems relatively straightforward: we are told that Sarah
dies, Avraham comes back from his travels to mourn her and to
weep for her, and then he purchases some land to make a
family burial ground.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve given three eulogies this week, but I
saw something this week that I never noticed before: the Torah
says that Avraham “came,” he “mourned,” and he “cried,” in that
order. (Genesis 23:2) Maybe I’m leaning too hard on a simple
declarative sentence, but it seems to me that first one would cry,
upon hearing the news of a death, and then one would “mourn,”
in the sense of taking on the rituals and internal orientation of
someone in grief. So why does the Torah tell us that Avraham
“mourned” before he cried?

The word usually translated as “mourned,” [l’spod] has the same
root as the Hebrew word for “eulogy,” [hesped], and thus
perhaps we could understand that “mourning” in this context
means reflecting on the meaning and goodness of the life that
has ended. A eulogy is not a biography or a resume, but a
reflection on a person’s unique, irreplacable character traits and
their lived values – the “why” of a life. So maybe Avraham cried
after he “mourned” because it was only after a period of
reflection that he was able to comprehend – and thus feel more
deeply- his loss.

This makes sense to me, both as a rabbi and as a mourner
myself. Grief can be terrible at first, but sometimes the shock of a
death is so great that it’s hard to deeply reflect on how somebody
else’s life has affected one’s own. For me, such a moment came
on Tuesday, when I walked into a voting booth for the first time in
my life without having discussed the election with my mother, z’l.

The election caused me to mourn for my mother- in this sense of
reflection- because it helped me to remember and be inspired
by her passion for civic affairs and strong belief in the democratic
process. (I have to confess- for the first 4 or 5 elections after I
was eligible to vote, I used an absentee ballot and filled it out
with my mother on the phone, because she had well-informed
opinions of everything on the ballot from President down to the
local city school board and municipal bond issues.)

So perhaps “mourning” comes before “crying” because it takes
time to think about the meaning of a life well lived. Loss isn’t
something that happens all at once, but something that unfolds
over months and years, bringing with it both tears and –
hopefully- inspiration. In Hebrew, we say we say of the
dead:”zichrono l’vracha,” [may his memory be a blessing], and I
think this captures the same idea: grief brings tears, but we can
redeem the tears into a blessing by seeking inspiration in the
greatest acts of those we love.

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