A Legacy of Kindness
Parashat Chayei Sarah
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
A Legacy of Kindness
Abraham is bereft. Not long after the events of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, he hopes to return with his son to the normalcy of family life. However, he will find that all his changed and
his legacy challenged, as he loses his beloved Sarah.
Midrash Tanchuma, a late midrash from the 9th century C.E. connects the two events of the Akeidah and Sarah’s death and establishes a causality between them. The Midrash posits that Satan appeared before Sarah disguised as Isaac, when Isaac and Abraham were still upon Mount Moriah. Satan goes on to describe in painstaking detail how Abraham intended to slaughter their precious son. Even before Satan has completed his account, Sarah died from sheer horror.
Both the p’shat – the plain text – of the Parashah and the rabbinic imagination of the Midrash confront us with a deep sense of irreversible loss. ‘Vayavo Avraham lispod le’Sarah v’liv’chotah’ – ‘And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and wept for her’ (Gen. 23:2). Can we even come close to the trauma upon trauma that Abraham’s family experienced these past chapters? The pain of infertility, the loneliness of emigration, the destabilisation of a new and unknown religious mission, the guilt over sending away Ishmael and the fear over Isaac’s near-sacrifice. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac must all have been reeling. It seems a cruel irony, that only a few chapters ago, Abraham was promised offspring as numerous as the sand of the sea and the stars of the sky and yet he suffers loss upon loss; some by fate and some by his own doing. The clarion call of Abraham’s bold mission must have sounded weak indeed.
So, the portion opens with a family in conflict and crisis. Isaac and Sarah never get to see each other again; the relationship between the Abrahamic household and Hagar and Ishmael is irrevocably broken and rumour has it that even Abraham and Isaac never speak to each other again. In terms of family dynamics, it feels like a Hobbesian war of all against all – a far cry from the noble ideals we encountered in Parashat Lech Lecha. This Abraham’s heroism has faded: he is a man plagued by grief and marred by loss.
Are we today no different?
We are nearing December and 2016 draws to a close. And what a year it has been. Maybe we too started out with high hopes and noble ideals but we too have encountered hurt, loss and anger, despondency and fear. There’s no denying that current developments affect us too – here in the UK, across the Atlantic, across the Mediterranean, or anywhere else in the world. Currently, Israel is combating a deluge of fire encroaching upon Haifa, and at the same time, a Reform synagogue in Ra’anana has received death threats spray-painted onto its walls and had knives with murderous messages left on its threshold by Orthodox Jewish vandals. The instability of our current timeframe is having real effect on our mental health – and it reaches across the political divide. 60% of Republican voters and 55% of Democratic voters experienced anxiety during the 2016 election campaign, according to the American Psychological Association. The time we live in is a bruising, polarising time; where we self-select our media sources through the Internet and where many of us are becoming increasingly isolated from difference and immune to learning from it. As our ideological positions appear to harden, we experience ever-increasing feelings of loss, anger and alienation.
‘V’liv’chotah’ – ‘and he wept for her’.
The current situation, as debilitating as it may feel, prompts us to a response. Like Abraham, we must take stock of the trauma and divisions that we have encountered and we must mourn what we have lost. Acknowledging the current pain and anxiety is crucial to coming to a deeper understanding of it. But we are also called to do much more.
Rashi comments on the opening of the chapter, ‘V’chayyei Sarah me’ah shanah v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, sh’nei chayyei Sarah…’ – ‘The life of Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years…’ (Gen. 23:1). Reflecting on the words ‘V’chayyei Sarah’, Rashi adds the following: ‘kulan shavin l’tovah’ – ‘all of them were good’. In as high a regard as our tradition may hold our beloved Matriarch, I’m sure that not all of Sarah’s years were equally splendid. Some of her experiences were difficult and some of her decisions were morally compromised. Yet Rashi teaches us this because it is a declaration of retroactive hope in the face of immense grief. Sarah’s life, despite her flaws and challenges, had incredible value and held incredible meaning. She left a profound legacy in her wake.
Grim though the parashah starts out with, there is a redemptive momentum that gathers as we read on. Despite the brokenness of Abraham’s experience, Abraham still manages to broker a marriage for his one remaining son, Isaac. Isaac meets Rebecca at the well and is impressed by her kindness as she waters his camels. Isaac marries for love and finds healing with his wife in his mother’s tent. At the same time, at the end of Abraham’s life, Isaac and his estranged brother Ishmael come together to bury the formidable Patriarch who shaped both their lives so indelibly.
The question of our current predicament is answered by the parashah. We can only overcome whatever distresses us by living out our values, by not forsaking our mission. The Abrahamic covenant would have been for naught had Isaac not embraced love; had Rebecca not lead through audacious chesed, compassion, had Ishmael not had the graciousness and greatness of heart to bury his father alongside his privileged younger brother. This family, through all their flaws were not revolutionaries because they overturned kingdoms, but because they absolutely believed in the power of simple human kindness. The protagonists of our portion were willing to cross the aisle, to challenge their assumptions, to forgive and to listen to each other despite their trauma and hurt.
Should we not follow their example? To be ‘b’not and b'nei Avraham’ – ‘sons and daughters of Abraham’ – is to do exactly that. Our values are our lodestar, our Torah is our guarantor. We have no other choice but to sit together, cry together, talk together and listen. Only this will break the stranglehold of despair and allow us to carry the torch of our heritage and bring a little healing where it is needed most.