How to Save a Life – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5773

What is your legacy?  What is your life story?  How will your life be measured and your story told?
In the days, weeks, and months following the death of a close friend or relative, we spend time thinking about their life, examining their history and legacy.  This is the time when we most often turn the question on ourselves.  During rabbinical school, my teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson spent time with me talking about grief and death.  I was taken aback when she asked:  What is your legacy?  What would your eulogy say?
I didn’t know what to say, mostly because my head was flooded with ideas.  Would someone talk about my teaching?  My path in life?  My smile?  What lessons would someone take away from my life?  It was in that very moment that the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, started to make sense to me.  Our Parshah is called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, and yet the first thing we learn about is her death.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה:
“The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.”
The first part of her eulogy is her age, how long she graced the earth with her presence.  The various commentators expound on this with talk of her beauty and wisdom.  And then, instead of a story about what she did or where she lived, the text moves on to the living, to what happens after she dies.  Abraham mourns, he cries for her, and then he tries to find the perfect burial place he can for her.  He will spare no expense to make sure that her final resting place is one of honor.  The text then shifts to Isaac and Abraham’s quest to find a wife for him from his own people – a wife that would help him and someone that perhaps Sarah would have loved.
Abraham charges his servant to go back to his homeland, the land he and Sarah had journeyed from, to find Isaac a wife who was kind and caring, compassionate and gentle.  It is in this moment of the story that we see Sarah’s legacy unfold.  Sarah’s life is not just the number of her years, but the legacy of her family.  In Sarah’s eulogy, her life is summed up by what will live on long after she has died.  Family, compassion, and a quiet, pioneering spirit.
The parshah tells us that Isaac sees Rebecca, marries her, and then loves her.  And it is through this love that he found comfort after his mother’s death.  Part of me wonders if the comfort Isaac found after his mother’s death stemmed from his sense that life would go on and he would be taken care of.
The Talmud teaches in tractate Sanhedrin that when one saves a life, it is as though they have saved an entire world, and one who destroys one life destroys an entire world.  When you think about the people who are closest to you and what they mean to you, this philosophy makes complete sense.  One life can be your whole world.  We often talk about the small worlds that form in our individual communities; each loved one gives us a reason to go on, to continue to find meaning in our lives.  When someone dies, it feels as if we lose a world, but Parshat Chayei Sarah reminds us to allow their story and their legacy to live on by sharing, loving, and learning.
A life – and a world – survives through the stories told about it.  Our parshah this week urges us to tell our own stories and to listen to others.  Our years are only the beginning; they bring us wisdom, but our values are what we will be remembered by.  Embrace the challenge this week to tell a piece of your story, and together as a Jewish people we will continue to live out the legacy that began with the life of Sarah.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Books like “The Help,” “Kitchen House,” and “Rashi’s Daughters” all tell the story of the past and allow the legacy of truly incredible people to live on.  Your story might not become a best-seller like those mentioned above, but years down the road, your family will treasure it more than any other book.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5772

I’ll never forget my first trip to Israel.  I was in 10th grade, and I went on the Ramah High School program for a semester.  I remember landing in Israel and feeling a rush of emotions as I realized the history of the land I had just entered.  I had always been told that this was my land, the land of the Jewish people.  I wondered if it would feel like it was mine.  Shortly after I arrived, we settled into our dorm and began classes, trips and exploring.  As I soaked it all in, the land did feel like mine and I had an instant connection, but at the same time, I still felt a little out of place.  I wasn’t Israeli and I had no family there, so on weekends when other kids would visit their family, I would feel left out, like this wasn’t my land at all.
I imagine that this feeling of being at home and yet not being settled is a common one.  These days people are constantly on the move and settling in new places.  The same holds true for the patriarchs and matriarchs in our Torah.  In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, we find Abraham in this same predicament.  The narrative continues with Abraham finding a wife for Isaac, Isaac marrying Rebekah, and Abraham’s death.  But what happens at the very beginning of the text is the death of Sarah and Abraham needing to find a place to bury her.
Abraham and Sarah are living in the land of Canaan, the land that God had promised him, but they are not native to this land and are living as liminal people.  Abraham recognizes this as he proclaims in chapter 23, verses 3-4.  “Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, ‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’”  Abraham is described as ger v’toshav, literally, a “stranger and a dweller.”  These are two opposite identities that come together in this moment for a singular notion.  The underlying reason that Abraham mentions this is because as a non-resident, he cannot purchase land.
What lurks behind Abraham’s statement is his own uncertainty about his standing in the community.  At this moment he makes a jarring transition from being a husband and part of a couple to being on his own.  For the first time in the Torah, Abraham is without his partner, and the land that he is living in feels foreign to him.  Abraham is fearful that with this new status, those who’ve known him all along will see him as other, alien and different.
The people of Abraham’s community had a choice.  They could have pushed him aside or left him on the outside because he was different.  Instead, they chose to welcome him and accept him as a fellow resident.  They respond in verse 6 by telling him that they admire him, saying “You are the elect of God among us.”  The people with whom Abraham was living didn’t see him as a stranger, they saw him as one of their own.  Their eyes saw what Abraham couldn’t see himself.  Abraham was the one who called himself a stranger and alien, he saw them as different from him, while they saw him as part of their community.
As we move through our lives, we each end up in different positions and hold different statuses.  We can’t expect every place we go to feel as familiar and comfortable as Norm’s bar stool at Cheers. We might find ourselves in a place of radical change and feel very different from everyone else around us.  Or, we might feel like this is our place, but everyone else has changed.  Parshat Chayei Sarah stands as a model where all people were accepted.  When vulnerability was not only recognized, but embraced.  It’s easy to obsess about an uncomfortable situation or about being in a new environment, but consider the example in this week’s parshah, and let us aspire to embrace each other in our vulnerable times.
 ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: this week we learn about the immediacy of burial after the death of a loved one.  The text teaches in chapter 23, verses 3-4 that Avraham did not waste a minute in his grief focusing on himself; rather he immediately focused on finding an appropriate burial ground for Sarah, his wife.  This text teaches us that the human dignity extends not only to the living, but to the dead.  That even in our moments of deepest grief, we must seek to comfort all in our presence.  For more information check out different books on Judaism and mourning such as A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort by Ron Wolfson.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  Too often we shy away from talking about what makes us uncomfortable and how we can make sure others don’t feel the same discomfort.  Discuss with your kids the criteria for creating a welcoming and inviting space?  Also for discussion:  when you’re in a place that doesn’t feel comfortable but needs to, how might you change the feeling of the space?