Parshat Hashavua

Parshah Chayei Sarah: The Importance of Asking Questions

Shabbat shalom. In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah – the life of Sarah – Genesis 23 we are immediately greeted with a breakdown of Sarah’s life. We are informed that Sarah has lived 127 years, however her lifespan is broken up into three parts, 100 years, 20 years, and seven years. Rashi, as always, comments on these three numbers. He specifically mentions how each number corresponds to unique qualities that Sarah possessed. At 100 years, Sarah was sinless, as a twenty year old she was as beautiful as a seven year old…what does this even mean? Rather than focus on the name of the parshah or these numbers the overall event that this parshah establishes is Sarah’s death.

In last week’s sedra, Sarah banished Hagar and Ishmael and we read about the akedah – the binding of Isaac – in which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. Today, the sedra opens with the death of Isaac’s mother. But don’t ask any questions, as Rashi has written this is a sinless woman. The sages teach us that this parshah begins with the death of Sarah because she believed that her son Isaac had been sacrificed. Some sages attempt to defend Sarah’s wholesomeness by indicating that she believed that Isaac had been sacrificed b’kiddushat hashem, in the sanctification of God’s name – but don’t ask any questions! Sarah dies in Kiryat Arbah, her husband Abraham grieves, but then the parshah transitions to discuss a business transaction concerning Sarah’s burial place. Abraham is in shock and he is mourning. Today we benefit from the wisdom of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her five stages of grieving and it appears as though we find Abraham in the initial stage of grief, denial and isolation. Abraham seems to recognize this, in Genesis 23:4, “I am an alien and resident among you: grant me an estate for a burial site with you, that I may bury my dead from before me.” Abraham is in the land of Canaan and when he is speaking to the children of Heth, he is unable to even state who his ‘dead’ are. He does not state, ‘my wife has just died’, but rather he uses the more generic term, ‘my dead’…but don’t ask any questions!

Ephron, the son of Zohar, the owner of the land that Abraham intends to purchase as a burial site – offers to give the land to Abraham and does not seek compensation. Abraham cannot accept this as he seeks the security of knowing he has a proof of purchase for the land, should there be any disputes in the future…but remember we don’t ask any questions. Genesis 23:19, the transaction has been completed, “and afterwards Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan.” The biblical author glosses over the emotion, preferring to inform us of the location of Sarah’s burial place. Abraham couldn’t cry or weep for his wife the way that I’m wanting him to, because according to Rabbi Hirsch, the last word of 23:3, the kaf is written very small. Rabbi Hirsch explains the kaf is written in this manner intentionally to denote that Abraham concealed his pain and sadness in his heart and in the privacy of his home. But remember, don’t ask any questions!

How do we move forward when we have lost a loved one? Answer: Genesis 24 – you find a distraction. In this case you seek out a wife for your son. Abraham buried Sarah alone (according to the text there is no mention of anyone else present at the time Abraham buried his wife). The Rabbis indicate that Isaac and Ishmael were present, though this is not stated in the Torah. All of a sudden, Abraham has a best friend, a trusted servent, Eliezer. Where was he in Chapter 23? I broke my own rule, we don’t ask any questions. Eliezer makes a promise and enters into a covenant with Abraham by placing his hands on the ‘place of mitzvah’ and he goes out to secure a wife for Isaac.

So much has happened in conceivably a short time frame. Abraham had Ishmael with Hagar, Abraham had Isaac with Sarah, Abraham – at Sarah’s request – banishes Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham almost sacrifices his son, Abraham buries his wife, Abraham sends Eliezer on a mission to find a wife for his son, and Abraham himself finds a wife. In Genesis 25:1, “Abraham proceeded and took a wife whose name was Keturah.” In Genesis 25:7, we learn that when Abraham was 175 years old he died.

As a Chaplain I am concerned with the haste of Abraham’s decisions, but shhh don’t ask any questions! Just look at the outcome. Sarah was buried, Abraham received a deed in hand for the burial plot, Isaac was married, and Abraham himself remarried. Abraham then died and was buried alongside Sarah.

We are not simply the sum of our actions. I love to ask questions…why, how, when, who – my wife tells me I should have been a detective or interrogator because being inquisitive to me is as natural as breathing. Life is not simply about our outcomes, it is about how we achieve the outcome, what processes we go through, how we conduct ourselves. As we continue navigating sefer bereshit I implore all of you to ask your questions. Don’t be satisfied with the information presented. Today we read about the death of our first matriarch and patriarch, but there is so much more to uncover about life. The only way we learn and grow is by asking questions.

Shabbat Shalom!