Love is Stronger than Death

Sermon Chayyei Sarah 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Love is Stronger than Death

One of the most beautiful verses from Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) is ‘ki azah chamavet ahavah’ - ‘for love is stronger than death’ (8:6).

I had been asked to attend a funeral of a local Lutheran Iowa woman as a proxy for her beloved grandson who is a dear friend of mine. The pastor, who had been a personal friend of the deceased, delivered a beautiful and heartfelt homily on her life, integrity and love of God. Being invited to witness this moment of transcendence and intimacy and supporting a mourning family was a privilege. As I sat in the pews something else struck me. This salt-of-the-earth Midwestern pastor, himself in his mid-eighties, spoke with great love and tenderness. For a man of his generation, speaking about tenderness, love and intimacy may not have been the cultural trope of his upbringing and I realized what a great gift our faith traditions give us: the gift of articulating our deepest thoughts and yearnings through sacred poetry and prose and finding healing and insight therein.

This is where we find ourselves in our Torah portion also. We could describe Abraham and Sarah as ‘disruptive innovators’: they radically broke with their past to shape a new future. They were unrelenting in pursuing their vision. But they also paid a personal price: like most revolutionaries in history, their familial relationships incurred damage. Hagar and Sarah were trapped in a toxic power dynamic of infertility and surrogacy. Isaac and Ishmael were cruelly marked for a destiny of their own, traumatized by two parallel near-death experiences.

The implicit, and perhaps, explicit question that the Torah asks us in Parashat Chayyei Sarah is: how are we going to deal with the consequences of trauma and abuse? Abraham has alienated his wives and damaged his sons. How will he be able to transition from innovation to consolidation, and heal his legacy for the next generation?
The Parashah is titled ‘Chayyei Sarah’ but imminently and ironically deals with her death. ‘Vayihu chayyei Sarah me’ah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanah, shenei Sarah’ – ‘and these were the lives of Sarah, one hundred years, and twenty years and seven yers, these were the years of Sarah’ (Gen. 23:1). I’ve purposely translated the passage as literally as I could because I believe this literal translation invites Midrashic reading (see the commentary of the Etz Haim chumash!) A proposed Midrashic reading is that her live was complex and compartmentalized: there were the giddying heights of her partnership in the Abrahamic mission and the devastating lows of her family dynamics. Midrash Rabbah recounts her she died upon hearing about the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac – out of paralyzing shock. One midrash even states that Satan (!) misled her, telling her Isaac had died upon the sacrificial altar. Be what may, there is a definite existential break between this week’s parashah and last week’s. Sarah dies, Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Isaac and Ishmael do not engage. The family has to contend with the broken pieces of their lives.

And yet, as is not uncommon at funerals and weddings, the seeds of healing lie in their broken shells. It was not Abraham who was able to heal but rather Eliezer, his respected servant. It is Eliezer who is charged to find Isaac a wife and who succeeds: not through fortitude of vision, like his master, but through emotional intelligence and a deep, intuitive trust in God. Eliezer is a remarkable character in his own right: he stabilizes and by proxy ultimately guarantees the continuation of Abraham and Sarah’s legacy:

V’Avraham zaken ba bayamim va’Adonai berach Avraham bakol. Vayomer Avraham el avdo zaken beito, hamoshel bechol asher lo’ – ‘And Abraham was old in his years and the Eternal had blessed Abraham in everything. And Abraham said to his chief servant of his house, who was in charge of all that was his—‘ (Gen. 24:1). I would propose a different reading ‘avdo zaken beito’ – ‘his servant who was wise in his house’ and ‘hamoshel bechol asher lo’ – ‘and who reigned over all his’. Being ‘zaken’ is not just a chronological passing of years; it is deeply linked with wisdom, as the rabbinic acronym ‘zeh kanah chochmah’ (this one has acquired wisdom) suggests. Eliezer is not just loyal, but competent, balanced, intuitive, empathic and in control. When Eliezer sets out to the city of Nachor, back in the lands of Abraham’s ancestry, to find Rebecca, he prays: ‘O Eternal, the God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day and deal graciously with my master Abraham…’ (Gen. 24:12). His prayer is the first prayer in the Torah that someone prays spontaneously, from the heart, on behalf of someone else. Not only that, but he prays for character virtues. He prays for Isaac’s wife to be kind to the most vulnerable (beasts of burden) because he knew what Isaac needed.  

There was such wisdom in Eliezer’s strategy. The story, as we know, has a happy ending. Rebecca enthusiastically consents to the union and travels back to Canaan where she meets Isaac in the field. She proactively takes charge of her destiny and proves to be a woman of fortitude, intelligence and empathy. ‘Vayive’ah Yitzchak ha’ohelah Sarah imo vayikach et Rivkah vat’hi lo le’ishah vaye’ehave’ah vayenachem  Yitzchak acharei imo’ – ‘and Isaac brought Rebecca into the tent of his mother Sarah and took her to wife and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother [‘s death]’. (Gen. 24:67).

Love is indeed stronger than death. Eliezer and Rebecca stand as subtle heroes and lasting exemplars who give a broken family the gift of empathy, kindness and healing. They give the powerful men in their lives the great gift of being able to voice their deepest emotions. They shift, at least for now, definitions of masculinity away from the toxic fallout of domineering disruption to more gentle, relational modes. They build a culture of respect and consent, where a woman is given agency and choice. Ultimately, their modeling of kindness, consent and empathy become the sole guarantors of Abraham’s legacy.

Isaac finds love and healing in the arms of his strong and loving wife. Ishmael and Isaac find closure at the graveside of their remarkable father. Abraham marries his wife Keturah, who according to the Midrash is Hagar, bringing his Egyptian handmaiden to full personhood. And Sarah is honored as a matriarch and leader in her own right.

May we merit to see a tikkun, repair of our world and our understanding of relationships through these Biblical virtues virtues, modeled by those called to unexpected yet redemptive leadership.

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