When I was at the Pittsburgh vigil Sunday night, I stood near the back of the crowd, taking scrupulous care of my candle. It was a single Shabbat candle with foil wrapped around the bottom. The wind was slight, but it was enough to make me fear for the candle. I kept a hand cupped around it to guard it against the onslaught. I watched the candle dwindle and then flare up again. My friend’s candle went out a few times, and I carefully lit her candle with my flame. When my candle went out a few times, she carefully lit my candle with her flame. When both of our candles went out, we asked people nearby who didn’t know us to give us some flame, and they readily gave.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah [the life of Sarah], we lose people. The matriarch Sarah passes away at the age of 127 years. Abraham passes away. We even skip forward in time, a la Six Feet Under, and see Ishmael pass away.
A midrash tells us that Sarah undertook a small journey of her own before she passed away. Since midrashes are always based on a question, for this midrash the question is: Why is Sarah not discussed during the Binding of Isaac, which takes place immediately before Sarah’s death? Is there a connection?
Sarah wakes up in the morning to find that both Abraham and Isaac are gone. Sarah travels to Hebron to seek them out and meets three giants gifted with great powers of sight. They find Abraham and Isaac on the top of Mt. Moriah and describe to her the scene. Sarah screams, her heart gives out, and she passes away. (Some modern midrashes write that the voice that called out, “Abraham, Abraham!” was in fact Sarah.)
The book Shevut Yehudah notes the strangeness of the wording of the opening verse of the parashah: “The years of the life of Sarah were 127 years; the years of the life of Sarah.” Why the superfluous phrase at the end? Shevut Yehudah writes that the extra phrase is meant to inform us that Sarah died at the time she was destined to die, lest we think that since Sarah died as a result of hearing the news of the Binding of Isaac, it was before her time to die.
The Shevut Yehudah further takes this to mean that it was part of God’s plan for Sarah to die then, although I personally don’t know the workings of the Eternal, I don’t believe that God predetermines the world, and I certainly don’t think this is a helpful thing to tell people in mourning. That being said, I believe it is the way many people express a belief in accepting the reality of the world, in accepting that everyone has their own story. The Hebrew name of God, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, includes the root letters of the Hebrew verb “to be” – Hey-Yud-Hey. God is “Being Itself.”
In the wake of the horrific deaths in Pittsburgh, where people died before their time, many of us are in mourning, shock, horror, anger. Maybe numbness. Confusion. Perhaps we knew the people; perhaps we knew the community. Perhaps we didn’t. No matter: in the Talmud, it says, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” [“All Israel are mixed up in one another.”] When one Jew hurts, the entire Jewish people hurt. This may not be true for every one of us, but it is a phenomenon among the Jewish people. Moreover, Jewish tradition gives us a regimented way of processing our grief – from burying the dead as soon as possible, to an intense 7-day mourning period, to 30 days of less intense mourning, and culminating at 11 months, the official end of the mourning period – to move to an acceptance of the death.
However, as I heard wisely put at a T’shuvah group a few weeks ago, acceptance doesn’t mean complacency. Accepting the incident does not mean being complacent around anti-Semitism, around acts of hate. Candles may flicker. They may burn out. And we can light them again for each other, for others, and fight with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might against bigotry – the desecration of God’s Name.