"The Burial of Sarah" by Gustave Dore
"The Burial of Sarah" by Gustave Dore

The death of Sarah is the Torah at its most relatable

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Chayei Sara

Genesis 23:1–25:18

This Torah column is very personal, for me, for you, and for Sarah and Abraham.

There are not many instances in the Biblical narrative that will happen to all of us absolutely. Dying is one of them.

The parashah Chayei Sara begins and ends with deaths and burials: first Sarah and then Abraham. There is also strong evidence for family healing and reconciling before one’s death.

The art of midrash, in prose and art, is to “fill in gaps” of a Biblical narrative. It can answer the question “How did that happen?”

Starting at 25:8 in Genesis, we come to the end of the life journey of Abraham: “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and sated with years; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.”

How did that happen?

The commentators say that not only did Abraham live long, but he was, in the end, contented and without regret. How? And Isaac and Ishmael buried him? When we last saw Isaac and Ishmael with Abraham, Abraham came very close to killing both of them — Ishmael through abandonment, Isaac through near-sacrifice.

And what of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, whom Abraham left in the desert to die?

The Ramban (Moses ben Nachman, commonly known as Nachmanides) says: “He witnessed the fulfillment of all the desires of his heart and was sated with all good things. In a similar sense is [the verse written in connection with Isaac’s life], and full of days [Genesis 35:29] which means that his soul was sated with days, and he had no desire that the future days should bring something new.”

He was B’Shalom, i.e., in peace. Complete. No more needs to be done. What must Abraham have done to become complete? What must we do?

One Friday night during this pandemic, when one of our adult children was marooned with us, while doing the Shabbat table dishes, I pulled out a new kitchen sponge. This is a nearly religious practice: change the sponge every Shabbat. I learned this from Dr. Andrew Weil in his free newsletter of healthy living tips. My unidentified adult child observed this and said, “That’s so very adult.”

So is buying our burial plots this year, so that when we have “breathed our last,” our children will not need to scramble like Abraham.

In Genesis 23:1, we read: “Sarah’s lifetime — the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and 27 years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, ‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’”

Wrong order. She dies, he mourns, and then he needs to make arrangements.

As a rabbi in congregations and the community, I too often have witnessed this scramble. I imagine, in my midrashic way, that after the death and burial of Sarah, Abraham decided to get his act together.

First he began to make repairs in his family. In Genesis 25:1, we find: “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.”

The rabbinic traditions say that Keturah was actually Hagar. The Targum Yonatan, an Aramaic translation/commentary that is attributed to Yonatan ben Uziel, makes an even stronger statement: “She was Hagar, who was bound to him from the start.”  What kind of family therapy took place?

Even I can’t imagine.

But with Hagar comes Ishmael. He was never far away.

Next, Abraham began to make amends. “Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac.  To Abraham’s sons by concubines [Hagar], Abraham gave gifts while he was still living.” (Genesis 25:5-6)

Now Abraham can have what is called “The Other Conversation: Talking With Your Family About Your Final Wishes.” Abraham must have sat everyone down and expressed what he wanted for himself.

In our day, “The Other Conversation” means talking with family about personal preferences for final wishes, such as end-of-life preferences, funeral planning, choosing a cemetery, picking a plot.

This is the conversation that Sinai Memorial Chapel and every rabbi under the heavens, not to mention our descendants, wants us to have. This is walking the Path of Abraham and Sarah all the way.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].