Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Kindness Trumps Rights

Throughout many generations of wandering in Exile, our ancestors would begin to develop our community institutions whenever we came to a new place, and it seemed like we would be able to stay for a while. The first such institution was neither the beit midrash (learning center) nor a beit knesset (center for gathering and prayer) – it was, rather, a beit avot v’imahot (a place for our parents/ancestors) – a cemetery.

In this week’s parashat hashavua (weekly parsha) Abraham yet again models for us for the first time this ancient Jewish cultural norm. Sarah dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham, after the shock of the loss, realizes that he has done no preplanning. Sarah must be appropriately and respectfully buried, but he has no beit avot v’imahot – no place where he and his descendants might bury those who go before them into death.

Such is the life of an immigrant. All of his family of origin, and hers, were buried back in Ur in Haldea, the city in which they were born and raised. Abraham must now approach the people of the land – our text calls them “the Hittites”, not necessarily naming their ethnicity – and he speaks the ancient words which still speak of the immigrant’s condition, of loneliness and vulnerability:

I am a stranger living among you (Bereshit 23.4)

Abraham goes about the business of purchasing a cave in which he buries Sarah, and in which he will, in his turn, be buried. That cave, called Makhpelah, is today often invoked as the first “proof” that today’s Jews, descendants as we are of Abraham and Sarah, belong in the Land of Israel – we have holdings there, some say, that go all the way back. For that reason, some Jews insist on residing in the ancient city of Hebron which is next door – to assert that ancient “right”.

I put “quotes” around the words “proof” and “right” because both words are problematic. In our Torah tradition, much of what is written is not necessarily proof; and in Jewish law, there is no category of “rights” – rather, to be a Jew is to consider what our obligation is in any given situation that may confront us.

Consider the situation of Abraham the Ivri, that stranger who immigrated from another place. What “proof” might it offer for us?

In our own day, in these uncertain times, let it prove a reminder: that Abraham offered generous hospitality when the moment called for it, and when he needed it in return, the Hittites among whom he lived offered it to the stranger who lived among them. He was allowed to buy the land with the cave in it, and he was allowed to bury his dead in peace. He was safe with those people among whom he appeared as an immigrant – no documents, no papers, no “proof” of any “right” to what he needed. 

Abraham is for us a role model – not only for our own behavior, but also for considering our treatment of the immigrant who appears among us. The Torah tells us that HaShem commanded Abraham to “walk with G*d”, and our ancestors tell us what that means:

Rabbi Hama beRabi Hanina said, what does it mean to walk after the attributes of the Holy blessed One? It means to clothe the naked, for it is written:  HaShem made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them, so should you also clothe the naked. The Holy blessed One visited the sick, for it is written: HaShem appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, so should you also visit the sick. The Holy blessed One comforted mourners, for it is written: It came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son, so should you also comfort mourners. The Holy blessed One buried the dead, for it is written: G*d buried Moshe in the valley, so shall you also bury the dead. 

We can learn from Abraham the further instance of parashat VaYera – as G*d sustains the living, so shall we, by offering hospitality (shelter, food and rest), and from the Hittites’ treatment of Abraham in this parashah – as Abraham sought to live in peace with his neighbors, and as the Hittites dealt kindly with the immigrant in their midst, so shall we, by acting to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, “treat others with the loyalty to our common humanity as you desire it for yourself.”

The passage finishes this way:

Rabbi Simlai concluded: Torah begins with an act of gemilut hasadim (altruistic loving kindness) and ends with an act of gemilut hasadim. It begins with it, for it is written: HaShem made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them; and it ends with it, for it is written: G*d buried him in the valley. (BT Sotah 14a)

Rashi said of Sarah that she was as ethically pure at twenty years as at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred years as she was at twenty. May it be said of us that even when we became older and more skeptical, more tired and more given to cynicism, we continued to see the stranger in our midst and hear in our hearts the command to walk with G*d, that we – whether we find ourselves to be the vulnerable stranger or the safely settled, might always respond in g’milut hasadim.

Mitzvot come at you from every direction these days. Here is one in which I hope you will join me should the occasion truly arise: 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Live This Day As If It Is Someone Else’s Last

I believe passionately that the key to meaningful life is learning. And I am not simply offering you my personal opinion. Our Jewish tradition asserts that if we are open to learning new insights, new perspectives, new ideas all the time – even in situations that don’t seem suited to learning – we can redeem a moment, even one that seems bleak and unforgiving.

This Shabbat we read Hayyei Sarah, “Sarah’s life”. The parashah begins with the death of Sarah, our first Matriarch. Abraham mourns. He must buy a plot of land in which to bury her (until this point he has been a landless nomad). Then we read that Abraham gives some thought to his children’s future at this point, and the parashah ends with the marriage of his soon Isaac to Rebekah, at which point we are told that “Isaac was consoled after the death of his mother Sarah”. 

There is so much to learn from this parashah, from Abraham’s experience of Sarah’s death, to the family dynamics and the behavior that ensues, and, finally, the entrance of Rebekah on the scene. It is easy to note that we move in one parashah from death to new life. It has also been noted that Isaac may have some issues with the women in his life, since he was consoled by taking his new wife into his mother’s tent. Maybe a little over-involved with Mom? To be fair, a loving partner is often the key to our ability to overcome grief and go on with our lives.

I ask you to focus with me on something a bit more subtle.  If we look carefully at the end of last week’s parashah, we can see that Abraham was living in Be’er Sheva – and Sarah is living in Kiryat Arba, also called Hevron. They are, at best, distanced from each other, perhaps even estranged. (Understandable! after Dad took the only son of the couple out to sacrifice him, without even telling Mom where they were going.) There may have been quite some distance between this couple for quite some time.

But then Sarah died, and Abraham “came to mourn her”. The wording suggests that he had to travel in order to be with her – that he was not near at hand. 

Imagine the journey that he took – the distance, not in physical steps, but in emotional stages. Guilt. Sadness. Self-recrimination. The sting of memory. Regret. Resignation. And, finally, steeling himself to see it through.

Abraham arrived at Sarah’s deathbed too late to bid her goodbye, but in time to mourn her. And that, perhaps, was enough of a reconciliation.

On Yom Kippur, if you have wronged someone and s/he has died before you had the chance to beg forgiveness, you are required to go to the grave of that person and ask for it anyway. Not because we believe that you will contact that person in some possible afterlife, but because you need to take the steps Abraham took. 

We are all told, “live each day as if it is your last”. On this Shabbat, our parashah seems to be suggesting that we might also want to try our best to live each day as if it was someone else’s last.