Chayei Sara 5777 - 2016
Post date: Nov 24, 2016 11:35:34 PM
This week, following the akedah (Binding of Isaac), we read parshat Chayei Sara. This parsha, translated as “the life of Sara,” ironically begins by recording the death of Sara at age 127. The parsha continues to recount the story of Abraham purchasing the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. Ephron disingenuously offers to give the cave to Abraham, saying that the 400 shekel price meant nothing to him. Abraham declines the “gift”, and insists upon paying Ephron the 400 shekels of silver he stated as the price for the land. After paying for the cave, Abraham buries Sara.
According to the Torah, Abraham is now “advanced in age,” and turns his attention to finding a wife for his son, Isaac. Abraham sends his servant back to the land of Haran – the land from which Abraham came – in order to find a woman. Abraham insists that the servant not find a Canaanite woman, but rather travel to Haran and bring back a woman from that land.
Next, the Torah describes Rebekah. She is introduced as a woman so kind-hearted that she not only offers to fetch water for Abraham’s servant, but also to fetch water for his camels – presumably an unnecessary nicety in desert communities. Abraham’s servant returns to Abraham and Isaac with Rebekah.
The Torah is unusually descriptive in these next passages, noting that Isaac loved Rebekah and, in doing so, found comfort after his mother’s death. Interestingly this is the first time the Hebrew word for “love” (ahava, root aleph-hey-vet) in the Torah. Typically this is the word for emotional or spiritual love, and not a euphemism for intercourse. The implication, then, is that falling in love with Rebecca brought Isaac happiness after his grief.
Abraham, on the other hand, is noted to take another wife with no description provided.
Shortly after marrying his third wife, at age 175 years, Abraham dies. Again, here, the Torah is extraordinarily descriptive. The translation from the JPS Tanach states, “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin” (Bereshit 25:8). Following Abraham’s death, both his sons – Isaac and Ishmael, bury Abraham in the cave of Machpelah – with his wife, Sara.
In many ways, this parsha is one of the easiest to understand and to teach. Many students I have encountered accept without question that Sara dies immediately after her son and husband return from the akedah. They seem to intuitively sense that a family would discuss all that had happened, and surely the shock of such events would cause Sara to die at her advanced age. Likewise with the story of Rebekah – children latch easily to the idea that a person who cares as much for animals as for people must certainly be someone worthy of marriage.
I wonder now whether this parsha is so intimately familiar in part because of its highly descriptive language. In writing, you hear often that “form follows function” – the structure of a story mirrors its content. Here, the story is filled with adjectives and emotions, as are our own lived experiences. We rarely have times that are experienced with no description of feeling whatsoever – like the akedah in the parsha last week*. Rather, we imbue our own stories with color, sound, taste, smell, joy, sadness, fear, and love. In that way, this week’s parsha is a story we can know easily and deeply.
If we know that our own experiences are rich and complex, why is it that we so often find ourselves taking away the complexity of the lived experiences of others? I have done it myself recently – painting all those values different from my own with the same monochromatic brush.
Labeling huge swaths of our country with derogatory, shallow words has been a hallmark of our most recent national election. If we are concerned with the future of our nation and our community, as many are today, I believe the first thing we must do is to add back nuance, depth and richness into our understanding of those with whom we disagree most intensely. It is much easier for me to step backward in righteouss indignation, anger and frustration, and certainly that is my first instinct. However, as parshat Chayei Sara illustrates, love, grief, family, and community are common to us all.
If we have the courage to step forward into dialogue, and the humility to do so without prejudice, I am certain we will find our commonalities more powerful than the ideological beliefs that divide us.
* Another instance of a tragic event in which the Torah has no articulation of feelings is the death of Aaron's sons, Nadav & Abihu, when the “offer strange fire” upon the completion of the Tabernacle.