The strain of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, in last week’s parashah, is too much for Sarah, according to the Midrash. This week’s parashah, named for her,
begins with the announcement of her death. Immediately after the initial mourning which is Abraham’s purely human response, he has to pull it together. Why? Because after all these years living in the Land promised to their descendants, Sarah and Abraham apparently had never settled down.
They didn’t own any land. As a result, in the midst of his mourning, Abraham had to set about identifying and purchasing a burial plot for Sarah. There is possibly nothing more stressful than trying to figure out burial arrangements for a loved one in the immediately aftermath of death. Why had Abraham and Sarah not considered this? True, Jewish law requires us to consider a person to be living in every way until the moment of death, and, also true, there’s a wide streak of superstition in our tradition. A people that won’t move the baby furniture in until after the birth is similarly, perhaps, disinclined toward planning ahead for death.
Yet Rabban Gamaliel, one of the greatest Rabbis of the Talmudic Era, did so in a very deliberate way, in order to make an ethical point. Funerals in his day were very showy, which caused financial strain and social resentment in his community. He – a rich man – mandated that he would be buried in an undyed linen shroud, in a plain pine box. He was able to discern the potential of a mitzvah not yet articulated, and his example echoes all the way to us, who still consider simple burial to be the highest form of dignity.
As well, there is potential for an overlooked mitzvah within the story of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Makhpelah for a burial place. It is the mitzvah of pre-planning. This mitzvah requires each of us to exercise our empathy. How will your loved ones feel when you die? How might they feel if they were to find that you had not left for them the questions “what would she want?” too often answered by “how should I know?”
It is said that caring for our dead is the most altrustic mitzvah, since the dead cannot thank us. Similarly, taking care of our own after-death arrangements is perhaps the greatest gift we can send after we’re gone.