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Parshat Chayeh Sarah – Judaism’s Loving Approach to Loss

11/01/2018 12:00:00 AM


Although our parsha this week is called “The Life of Sarah”, it tells the story of her death.  This story teaches us the importance of our conduct upon the loss of a loved one – our mourning practices establish our presence and dignity as a people.   This horrible and painful week, we have been shocked, bereaved, have mourned, have reached out and been answered by people of faith and hope and have taken action.  We are in the process of making meaning from the tragedy of the snuffing out of 11 precious lives at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age at death is recorded - 127 – the ideal age we wish for in Jewish life – 120 – plus the sacred number 7.    Sarah’s death inspires Abraham to make his first purchase of land in Canaan – establishing a temporal, legal claim to a portion of the land God has promised him and his descendants.  Abraham purchases an entire burial site – cave, field and trees. He refuses to accept the land as a grant or gift and Ephron the Hittite demands an exorbitant sum. Abraham does not haggle, quickly makes the required payment and asks that it be made according to custom in the presence of the town’s leaders, at the city gate, the traditional seat of justice and notarization of transactions.  At the end of the parsha, Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage is consummated in Sarah’s tent – showing that she lives on in the next generation.

Our word for “eulogy” the formal speech in praise of someone who has died – comes from this parsha.  The text says “Va-yavo Avraham lis-pod l’Sarah v’liv-ko-tah.”  “And Abraham proceeded (went) to mourn Sarah and weep for her.”  Our word for the eulogy comes from this root and is “ches-ped” – very similar to our word “chesed” which means loving kindness.  The difference between the two words is the letter “peh” – which means “mouth”.  Our words at the grave of our loved one can be translated as “loving speech”. 

It has been one of the greatest gifts of my life as ordained clergy to prepare for and conduct funerals and shiva services.  No study or seminary training can truly prepare one for the experience. It is a great honor, filled with mystery and holiness, to respond to and serve our people at these times when they need us the most. 

A few months after I began my first pulpit in El Paso, Texas, my rabbi went on a six-month sabbatical.  I immediately was called upon to conduct three funerals in quick succession.  In one case the surviving spouse spoke almost no English – and I had to reach deep into emotional intelligence and high-school Spanish to comfort her.  Another was a Holocaust survivor, another a scion of an old El Paso family from pioneer days.  I stayed up all night preparing each eulogy and was granted a series of miracles.  I learned that with careful listening, prayer and commitment, it is possible to authentically characterize a life, bring tears and laughter and strengthen a family to bear their sorrow – despite never having known the departed.

Death brings great sorrow, painful emptiness, confusion and despair.  There are also many blessings that lightly touch our hearts, surprising us with gentle joy and insight.  The gathering of a family – renewing acquaintance, sharing love and pain is one such blessing.  Giving eulogies  and comforting the bereaved has taught me more about the history of our people in America, about the commitment of a life’s hard work to provide for and ensure the future of a family, about love that lasts a lifetime and what makes marriages strong – about what it means to truly live a Jewish life – than any book I have ever read. I have learned that what people need the most is a safe environment in which to grieve – to allow the tears to flow.  A story in the Talmud likens the tears of loss to diamonds – each tear becomes a jewel that is stored in a treasure box of memory in the World to Come.  The deeper the love, the deeper the sorrow – and the more diamonds in the jewel box.  We can then welcome our tears, smiling at their beauty at the same moment our faces crumple in sadness.  We then learn what someone’s life truly meant, and will always mean, to us.  The lessons and blessings of that life become clear – and we know that our loved one lives on in us.


Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779