January 19, 2020

Torah portion: Lingering hopes

Parashat Chayei Sarah comes to us again this year in a time of wistfulness and worry, arriving as hostilities in Jerusalem and Hebron heat up. One would be hard-pressed to guess from the gentle stories told in Chayei Sarah of the deaths and burials of Sarah, Abraham and Ishmael that the site of their entombment in modern Hebron would eventually yield such conflict.

These few chapters of Genesis contain profound moments that stay with us emotionally and historically: 

• Abraham crying over the lifeless body of his beloved wife, Sarah, dead at age 127: “Abraham came to weep for Sarah and to bewail her” (lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah).

• Abraham negotiating to buy the cave of Machpelah: “Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there. …  And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan.”

• Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac: “Go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

• The servant’s fervent prayer: “O God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day.”

• Rebekah watering the servant’s camels, fulfilling the servant’s premonition and prayer for the right wife for Isaac.

• Rebekah, asked by her brother and mother, Eileiha hateilkhi im-ha-ish ha-zeh, “Will you go with this man?” — a man she did not know, to a place she did not know, echoing Abraham and Sarah’s journey decades before.

• Rebekah’s simple reply, Eilech, “I will go.” 

• Their blessing of her as they send her off to marry Isaac — “May you grow into thousands of myriads” — a blessing still given by many Jewish families to a bride on her wedding day.

• Rebekah falling off her camel when she first lays eyes on Isaac.

• Isaac taking Rebekah, at their first meeting, into his mother’s tent and finding comfort after his mother’s death; Isaac loving Rebekah, the first mention of romantic love in Torah.

• Abraham taking another wife, Keturah, after Sarah dies and Isaac and Rebekah marry. Keturah bearing six children with Abraham. Who remembers that when we think about the story of Abraham?

• Abraham providing for all his children: “Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; but to Abraham’s other sons, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living.”

• Abraham breathing his last at age 175, “old and contented” (zaken v’savei-ah). 

• Isaac and Ishmael — had they been estranged, or not, until that time? — coming together to bury their father, Abraham.

• Isaac settling near Beer-lakhai-roi, “the well of the One who sees me” (Genesis 25:11), the name of the place where long ago an angel of God promises Hagar that Ishmael “will dwell alongside/facing [al-pnei] all his brothers,” (Genesis 16:12).

• And finally, at age 137, Ishmael, like his father Abraham, “breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his kin.”

Is it today’s world that makes this Torah portion so poignant? The place names of Parashat Chayei Sarah ring in our collective memory and our collective present.

The cave of Machpelah — Hebron — the peacefully negotiated burial place of our ancestors (Sarah, Abraham and, later, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah) is today the site of ongoing conflicts between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac who came together here to bury Abraham. These conflicts often flare up on Shabbat Chayei Sarah, aka Shabbat Hebron, when many Jews make pilgrimage to Hebron, the sorely troubled “resting” place of our shared father.  

Framed by ongoing unrest between Jewish and Muslim residents, our modern world casts dark shadows on our storied past. But I suspect Chayei Sarah brings tears and deep emotion for other reasons as well. The beginnings are found here of traditions we still hold dear — of mourning and burial, of marriage with love, of regard and caring between parents and children, and among siblings. And there is the respect that our Jewish sacred text gives here to “Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s handmaid, bore to Abraham,” including the care given in Chayei Sarah to list Ishmael’s many descendants, when Ishmael too, like his father, Abraham, “was gathered to his kin.” 

Perhaps we are moved by all the promises hinted at and made in Parashat Chayei Sarah, and the lingering hopes that remain all these generations later, despite the intervening sorrows and shattered dreams. Or, perhaps it is simply the rhythm of life that pervades these stories: the human need to mourn; the deep respect given the dead; and the irrepressible life force pulsing through to the other side of grief — the longing again for love, marriage, new generations, reconciliations — all the ingredients offered here for a gentler, more peaceful future for ourselves and for the world we share. 


Rabbi Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), “House of New Life,” founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews, our families and friends.