SPOILER ALERT! There is a lot of living and dying in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Translated as the “the life of Sarah,” the portion provides us with models (and guidance) on how to embrace and “hold on” to what we have, while also accepting what we need to do.
We start off by learning about the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the original matriarch of the Jewish people. As we read through the next several chapters, we learn about how Abraham mourned his loss and honored Sarah’s memory. Grief is a highly personal experience, impacting each of us differently. Much like recovery, there is not one “way” to deal with loss. Yet, Abraham’s experience is instructive because it provides us with an understanding about the dynamic between our feelings and our actions.
The actions Abraham takes immediately following Sarah’s death provide us with valuable lessons about navigating life after losing an essential piece of our being. We are shown how he continues to live, by listening and following G!D’s call to him.
…Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying… (Genesis 23:2)
We see Abraham mourning, wailing, enveloped in deep, fresh, biting grief. It’s not often that the Torah includes descriptions about the emotional state of its characters; the tradition (and the reader) is often left to fill in these details. Which makes it all the more significant that we’re invited into Abraham’s world – to better understand how much pain and hurt he’s experiencing. This is an essential part of the story because it sets up the context for happens next.
Then Torah tells us about the action he takes, all the while still grappling with the loss of the love of his life, his life partner and remaining connection to his life before he responded to G!D’s call. As we read, Abraham rises from his loss and engages in a detailed and delicate negotiation with the Hittites, the local townspeople he’s been living amongst, to purchase land for Sarah’s burial.
Among the notable aspects of the ensuing negotiations is how Abraham models transparency, faith, and humility – all key principles of recovery – in a moment of deep instability in his life. Abraham goes back and forth with the Hittites, eventually settling upon a price (overly inflated, but agreed upon) for the land that he seeks.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (who died earlier this week), scholar and the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, described these negotiations through this lens:
What we see in this brief but beautifully nuanced passage is the sheer vulnerability of Abraham. For all that the local townsmen seem to pay him deference, he is entirely at their mercy; he has to use all his negotiating skill, and in the end he must pay a large sum for a small piece of land… Yet Abraham is content. The next chapter begins with the words, “Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed him in all things” (Genesis 24: 1).
Rabbi Sacks understands how relatively powerless Abraham is in this moment, squeezed between the loss of Sarah and being alone and dependent on strangers. Yet, despite his compromised position, he takes action, and as Rabbi Sacks points out, his action leads to a sense of contentment, having been blessed by G!D “in all things.”
Our tradition views Abraham as the exemplar of faith, undergoing ten separate tests throughout his life.
It all started with a call from G!D
to leave almost everything he had known
for an uncertain promise
accompanied by G!D
to a Holy life.
Through these tests, Abraham learned (and modeled) that willingness to take action, even in the face of great pain and loss, is a key factor in finding contentment and wholeness.
I was on a conference call this week about the faith community’s role in ensuring the legitimacy of the vote count in Georgia, and it was stated that “uncertainty is the only thing we can be certain about.” Abraham’s actions wouldn’t be possible without his ever-developing sense of faith. Abraham was hurting and lonely, but he deemed himself not alone. Despite his vulnerabilities, he maintained his connection to a Divine call.
At times, living with faith may create a sense of perceived vulnerability. Staying stuck – in our heads, in our beds, on our “meds” – can seem like the better or more certain path to follow, but it’s our willingness to rise up, despite the pain, that ultimately strengthens our ability to follow a path of Holiness to contentment and wholeness.
Chaplain Adam Siegel