Archive for Chayei Sarah

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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Chayei Sarah 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18)

OVERVIEW

The portion Chayei Sarah- the “life of Sarah”- serves as a bridge between the story of Avraham and Sarah and the next generations. Sarah 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 then goes to meet her family, including her brother Lavan. Lavan will later 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.

IN FOCUS

“Avraham was old, advanced in age, and God had blessed Avraham in everything.” (Genesis 24:1)

PSHAT

After burying Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, Avraham turns his attention to finding a partner for Yitzhak, so that the family covenant may be continued. (One might say that worries about Jewish continuity are nothing new!) In between settling the last details of the burial and Avraham’s instructions to his servant, the Torah tells us that Avraham was blessed with “everything,” bakol.

DRASH

An obvious difficulty with our passage is that it seems out of place. Why is Avraham described as blessed with “everything” before he sends his servant out to find a partner for Yitzhak? Wouldn’t it make more sense after the servant comes back and Yitzhak has children? In fact, Rashi, among others, notices this problem and therefore links this passage to Avraham’s desire to find a wife for Yitzhak- this would make the blessing truly complete.

On the other hand, some classic midrashic sources offer very different interpretations of Avraham’s blessing in “everything.” Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of midrashim dating back to the era of the Talmud; it records diverse opinions about this verse:

    . .and God had blessed Avraham in everything. R. Yehudah said: It means that God gave him a female. R. Nehemiah replied: [You mean] she was the centre of the king’s household [i.e., Avraham’s] household, but there is no record of a blessing about her!

    Maybe and God had blessed Avraham in everything doesn’t mean God gave him a daughter? R. Levi gave three [interpretations.] “Everything”- he ruled over his desires. “Everything”- that Yishmael achieved reconciliation in his [Avraham’s] lifetime. “Everything”- that his storehouse never lacked for anything. R. Levi said in the name of R. Hama : It means that God did not test him again.

    (Genesis Rabbah 59:7, translation mine, based on notes in the Mirkin edition.)

R. Yehudah says that Avraham’s blessing was complete because he had a daughter. What I like about his midrash is that it softens the patriarchy of the Biblical narrative, which is so focussed on sons. R. Yehudah points out that the blessing of “everything” comes from both sons and daughters together. While I appreciate R. Yehudah’s effort to restore balance to the text, R. Nehemiah also has a good argument against this reading of it: we have no mention in the Torah of God making Avraham blessed with a daughter, and lots of mentions of the blessing of a son.

R. Levi offers three reasons why Avraham’s blessing was described as “everything.” One, Avraham achieved spiritual discipline and self-knowledge, controlling his passions and desires. Two, that Yishmael and Yitzhak were reconciled in their father’s lifetime. This interpretation is based the traditional rabbinic understanding of Yishmael as destructively jealous of Yitzhak, yet coming together with his brother to bury their father, in verse 25:9. The rabbis say that Yishmael’s reconciliation with Yitzhak happened before Avraham died; there is scant textual evidence for this, but it’s a lovely midrash. Finally, R. Levi says that Avraham was blessed with sufficient sustenance.

R. Levi then offers one last theory of Avraham’s extraordinary blessing: that his tests were concluded with the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak, in ch. 22. There is a strong midrashic tradition that Avraham had 10 tests, beginning with the call to leave his homeland, and ending with the Binding of Yitzhak- R. Levi points out that having calm and peaceful time, without a new crisis every day, is a complete blessing in and of itself!

Turning R. Levi’s words around, we might point out that calling something a “blessing” is to name it as a spiritual value or goal- we don’t feel “blessed” by things we don’t really value. R. Levi is then setting out a vision of the ideal life, a life that encompasses emotional, material, and spiritual goals. Avraham, he says, had deep self-knowledge and discipline; was able to experience harmony in his family; had enough material possessions so that he never suffered want; and came through life’s challenges with a sense of peace, a sense that the “tests” were not so dramatic anymore.

“Everything,” in R. Levi’s interpretation, means all aspects of life, both the inner world and outward reality. It seems to imply a harmony between one’s spirituality and one’s situation, which we might note Avraham is not described as having till he was “advanced in years.” Thus R. Levi teaches us not only about our sacred texts, but what might become our sacred values.

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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.

OVERVIEW
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.

IN FOCUS
“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)

PSHAT

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.

DRASH
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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