Reaching wholeness: brief thoughts on Chayyei Sarah

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

 

For me the most striking feature of this parsha — which contains Sarah’s death, Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, Eliezer his servant going forth to find a wife for Isaac, Rebecca watering his camels at the well, and finally Avraham’s death — is that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father.

How often it happens that a death brings a family together, trumping distance and even estrangement. When we gather together to mourn, we are united in the most defining characteristic of human life: every life ends.

Torah doesn’t tell us how Isaac and Ishmael felt, reunited for this purpose. It doesn’t tell us how the brothers greeted one another, or whether there was animosity between them; whether they blamed their parents for the tensions of their divided family, or whether they were able to let all of that go.

I imagine them embracing, old resentments discarded in the face of their shared grief. I imagine them grateful to be together, caring for their father’s body lovingly as their descendants still do today. That imagining probably says more about me than about them; we know surprisingly little about their internal lives.

There’s a Hasidic commentary, from the rabbi known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, which translates the words “Sarah died” in a really interesting way. He says we should understand the word tamat, “she died,” as actually meaning wholeness and completeness. (This is a bit of Hebrew wordplay which is hard to translate — just roll with me on this.)

For the Degel, what happened to Sarah, in her hundred and twenty-seventh year, was that she achieved perfect wholeness and completeness. When she died, her life became complete, by definition, no matter what she had done or not done. She left the imperfections and the limits of her body and her health and her circumstance and entered into a state of perfect wholeness.

And at the end of the parsha, we read yamat Avraham – the same verb, “he died,” or “he reached perfect wholeness and completeness.” I like the Degel’s interpretation. When a soul leaves this life, brokenness and alienation and small-mindedness all fall away. The soul gets “breathing room,” as it were, for the natural expansiveness which connects it with God.

That doesn’t mean that Isaac and Ishmael didn’t grieve. For their sakes, I hope that they did. I hope they were able to mourn their parents. I hope they were able to embrace their loss as a sign of how fortunate they were to love and be loved, even by figures as flawed as our Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs seem to have been.

But I hope there was comfort for them in being with each other, and in knowing that Sarah and Avraham’s journeys were complete.

 

I followed this d’var Torah with the poem “In the Same Key,” which you can find in 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenecia Publishing, 2011.)

 

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