Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
[This commentary was written before the tragic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue where 11 Jews were killed this past Shabbat. I am leaving it unchanged. Although the pain and sorrow are still raw for many of us, these words may resonate now more than ever as we begin to move through our grief towards healing.]
It seems ironic that chayei Sara, literally “the life of Sarah” is really about her death: “And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty-seven years, [these were] the years of Sarah’s life. And Sara died in Kiriat-Arba, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize and to bewail her.” [Gen. 23:1-2]
It seems ironic, but perhaps the point is not that she died, but that she lived.
The medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi shared a tradition which ascribed meaning to Sarah’s age when she died: that throughout her life she had the wisdom of a one-hundred-year-old, the beauty of a twenty-year-old, and the vitality of a seven-year-old. For this reason, her age was mentioned before her death.
We don’t know what Abraham said, but this is the first mention of a eulogy in the Torah – a tribute to how one lived. Before Abraham can negotiate a burial cave for Sarah, he feels compelled to speak of Sarah’s life.
We Jews have developed a highly structured and emotionally healthy approach to mourning, which may very well have its roots in these two verses. Consider, for example, the mourner’s kaddish – the preeminent Jewish spiritual expression in our times of grief. While the function of the kaddish has been tied to safeguarding the afterlife of the departed, the words themselves offer a different perspective. The kaddish, written mostly in Aramaic (the vernacular of the time) rather than Hebrew, does not mention mourning, death, sorrow, anger, loneliness or any of the feelings we might associate with the passing of a loved one. In fact, it contains a difficult-to-translate doxology, magnifying the supremacy and holiness of the Divine.
It seems to me that the mourner’s kaddish is actually a “thank you” prayer – not for taking our loved ones from us, but for God’s incredible generosity in sharing them with us in the first place. The kaddish teaches us to treasure each moment we have, and each memory that remains, as a precious gift from heaven – for that is true value of our lives.
Chayei Sara may record Sarah’s death, but it is really about life.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras