The cycle of life and death is an elegant dance

Haye Sarah
Genesis 23:1-25:18
I Kings 1:1-31

I always think of my grandmother at Thanksgiving time. Thanksgiving was her special holiday. She was the one who always carved the turkey; she was the one who always made delicious turkey soup after the holiday with the leftover scraps of meat.

Even now, when I walk into my parents’ home on Thanksgiving Day, some part of me still expects to see Grandma standing there in the warm, steamy kitchen, brandishing a knife over the turkey carcass, her face radiant with smiles at the sight of all her dear ones gathering together.

This is our 11th Thanksgiving without her. Our family is bigger than ever: my parents and their six children, all of us now married with our own kids, along with assorted uncles and aunts and friends. There are 30 of us now — so many that we can no longer fit into one room.

Seven children have come along since Grandma died — all of them loaded with personality, from the sociable sixth-grader Jared to twins Jake and Cary, just 16 months old.

I thought about how Grandma would have enjoyed kissing and cuddling these great-grandchildren that she never met; how happy it would have made her to see the large and loving family that she and my grandfather brought into life.

I like to think that somewhere, somehow, she knows that we are going on without her, that we still use her special flowered dishes and her familiar recipes, that her picture sits on the mantel in all of our houses, that her name comes up often, that we talk about her with love when we gather for these holiday dinners.

“Now this was the life of Sarah: one hundred and twenty-seven years, the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah died in Kiryat-arba, now Hebron, in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” (Gen. 23:1-2)

With these words the Torah portion for this week begins; named, as all of them are, for the first Hebrew words in the portion, Haye Sarah (the life of Sarah).

The Torah is notably concise in its style — terse, elliptical, sparing of details. Yet last week’s portion Vayerah ended with a passage of seemingly irrelevant information: Abraham is told that “Milcah too has borne children to your brother Nahor [including Bethuel], Bethuel being the father of Rebecca.” (Gen. 22:20-23)

Why does the Torah take pains to allude to Rebecca’s birth before recounting the death of Sarah? Our sages explain this juxtaposition by citing a verse from Ecclesiastes: “The sun also rises and the sun sets.”

Rabbi Abba said: “Do we not already know that the sun rises and the sun sets? But the meaning is that before the Holy One causes the sun of one tzadik, one righteous person, to set, God causes the sun of another righteous person to rise. Before God allowed Sarah’s sun to set, God caused that of Rebecca to rise.” (Midrash Genesis Rabba)

Our sages found consolation for the loss of a beloved matriarch in the promise of a child who will continue the line of Israel.

One generation passes away and another comes to be. We lose the people we love, but even as we mourn for them and yearn for them, the life force refuses to be stifled. New babies come into the world, new suns appear over the horizon, lighting up our hearts to keep sorrow at bay.

During the season of Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the great and elegant dance of the generations, for the progression of sunset and sunrise that never leaves us utterly in darkness. And we give thanks for the people whose loving warmth once sustained us, knowing that now it is our light that shines, our time to warm and sustain the people we cherish. There is, after all, no other way to repay those who have come before.

Sarah is gone now, but Rebecca has been born, bringing gifts we can only begin to imagine.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.