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.
This week’s parashah is called Hayye Sarah, “Life of Sarah”. The name is derived from the first verse of the parashah:
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. “Sarah’s life was 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23.1)
This, however, is the beginning of what we would call Sarah’s epitath. In the next verse we are told of her death. In the parashat hashavua called by her name, Sarah does not appear as a living, acting person. She is, however, a powerful memory which shapes the ensuing acts of her husband and son. Sarah is mourned in this parashah, and in this third year of the Triennial Cycle, Abraham’s most trusted servant has gone back to the home country to find the proper wife for their son, Isaac. It sounds like a typical male-centered text, and the story of finding Rebekah is told with, sure enough, permission being granted by the head of the family in order for her to go and marry Isaac.
Modern Jews often struggle with the gifts of our people’s long memory. Among our inheritances is the gendered Torah text, which skews quite clearly male, both in identifying the Divine and in describing the cultural, social and religious practices of the humanity linked with that vision.
I am not saying “cultural, social and religious awareness”, only “practices”. Please note that we have no idea of the extent to which the Torah clearly describes the actual reality of our most ancient ancestors. The Torah transmits the formative narrative of our people, but it does so through the eyes and ears of those who passed the stories on faithfully from generation to generation. The Torah itself hints at this, by using terminology that expresses awareness that the story happened in earlier times, or is in some other way not fully told.
As a female Rabbi I am sometimes asked whether the Torah isn’t just an outdated misogynistic artifact that we must overcome in order for women and men – and all the genders in between the poles – to be treated as equally valuable, equally necessary, equally filled with the Divine. The answer I often offer comes from my teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, who once pointed out to me, many years ago, that rather than be angry at what I knew from the text, it might be advisable to learn more about the text.
That may have been a gentle way to point out to me that I didn’t completely know what I was judging, and he was right. He was also right to challenge me with the following: “Feminists don’t have to find arguments outside the sacred texts in order to rebut them; the texts themselves are diverse enough that you can find whatever you need within them.”
One of our greatest challenges is becoming aware of the assumptions, and baggage, that we bring to Torah. Is there some part of us that wants to stay angry at this central sacred symbol? Do we prefer to stay away from it and the associations we carry? In other words, do you come to Torah only to pick a fight and then walk away satisfied that there is nothing relevant here?
Here’s a case in point. When you look carefully at the story of Rebekah’s engagement to Isaac, you will see that the head of the household which gives permission for her to go is actually female. You can see it in the Hebrew grammar of the text. It seems as if perhaps someone telling the story later, or perhaps the scribe who first wrote it down, must have assumed that the story was meant in a patriarchal context, and so some words were changed. But they weren’t changed thoroughly enough, and you can see the fingerprints of the change all over the story. And then there’s the fact that Rebekah is asked if she agrees to go. She is not sold, or sent away against her will.
And when Rebekah arrives, it is a signal event for the family:
וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ. “And Isaac was comforted after his mother[’s death].” (Gen. 24.67)
Whatever role Sarah played in this more patriarchal culture than the one she and Abraham came from, she is clearly so central a presence that nothing will be right until there is once again a woman in her place. Attack it as you might, this is not a misogynistic story.
There’s much more just like this in the investigation of this endless book. You’re invited to dive in any time. What you find may dismay and infuriate you at times, but you will also find uplifting courage and kindness – and best of all, you will be challenged to grow.
May Torah always beckon you toward, and support you in becoming, your highest spiritual self.