Wednesday, 04 Nov 2015

Written by Naomi Goldman

There is a paradox right at the beginning of this week’s parashah: it is called Chayyei Sarah, the lives of Sarah, but in fact the narrative is about Sarah’s death and burial.  Not just her burial – much of Genesis 23:1 is taken up with the intricate details of the purchase of her burial plot. 

Sarah’s death and burial tell us something profound about her life.   Her life has certainly been long and eventful.  She and Abram are immigrants who immigrated in mid-life to Canaan.  When there is famine in the land, they travel to Egypt, the regional superpower, where Abram passes her off as his sister, protecting himself, but exposing his wife to life in Pharaoh’s harem.  She struggles with infertility, like all the matriarchs, and laughs with incredulity when she gets a divine message telling her that she and her aged husband will conceive.  And she ensures her son’s inheritance by somewhat ruthlessly telling her husband to throw Hagar and Ishmael out.  God tells Abraham to “do whatever Sarah tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be called yours.”

Only Abraham doesn’t listen properly. Perhaps he never has. He doesn’t do whatever Sarah tells him. When he hears a voice telling him to offer up his only son, he sets out to slaughter him on Mount Moriah without consulting her first. Perhaps in old age he is too tired to work through the contradictions inherent in being promised descendants and then being told to kill ‘your only son’.    Maybe he has forgotten that God speaks to his wife as well and maybe he should talk to her.   

The rabbis take the death of Sarah to be immediately related to the Akedat Yitzchak because her death follows so closely.  In more than one midrash, either Isaac or Satan disguised as Isaac tell her that her husband will have murdered her son, and she dies of grief.   What is curious is that, in the midrashim, she knows that her son has survived. Her grief then, presumably, is that her husband has proved capable of such an act.  That is what is too much for her to bear.

Sarah and Abraham’s relationship is deep, complex and intense – as is every life-long committed relationship.  Their marriage is by no means perfect.  They have known each other all their lives – there are textual interpretations suggesting they might have been cousins – they have emigrated from one land to another together, they have gone through other partners, infertility, the miracle of late parenthood. They must have had to forgive each other for so many things over the years.  And then Sarah dies and Abraham is deeply, deeply bereaved. He mourns and bewails his wife – and then he sets about the process of organising her burial.

Most of Genesis 23 is a description of financial negotiations with the local Hittites around the purchase of a burial plot.  The Hittites invite him to bury his wife in any of their graves – they don’t want his money.  Abraham however wants to buy the cave of Machpelah and he wants to pay for it – he does not want it as a gift that can be taken away.  On the one hand the transaction can be seen as a shrewd attempt to purchase a stake in the land – the field of Mamre and its cave – for his descendants.  But there is a raw urgency in the language used between Abraham and Ephron, the Hittite Chief. Abraham says: “If only you would listen to me! I am giving you money. Take it from me and I will bury my dead there.”  And Ephron, recognising the pain behind the words, accepts the money and replies: “Bury your dead.”  Abraham’s heart has been ripped apart and he needs to accomplish this one thing for his beloved wife – to have somewhere physical to bury her and, perhaps, to visit and remember.  

The tension between the need to grieve and the need to deal with practicalities will be familiar to anyone who has had to organise a funeral for a loved one, particularly if it is without the benefit of a burial society.    There is something profound about the purchase of land for burial, particularly for an immigrant community.  Once we have buried our loved ones in a particular place, we have roots there.  There will always be something of ourselves in that place.  It’s why we feel so viscerally about the protection of cemeteries and why their occasional desecration is so painful.  The first burial in a land means we have been here for one generation.  It is a marker in time as well as a personal loss.   Abraham is grieving for his wife, who has shared a long and extraordinary life with him.  But he is also purchasing land and giving himself and his descendants a stake in the future.

The field of Machpelah is mentioned in the Talmud in a curious and challenging section about marriage.  The Mishnah, edited around 200 CE, says that  one of the ways a man can acquire a woman – and yes it does use the language of purchase – is through money.  The Sages were concerned to find a Scriptural proof text for this custom.  They quote Abraham’s purchase of the field from Ephron – just as he acquired the field with money, so a man can acquire a woman with money.  It feels like a long way from Abraham’s grief in Gen 23:2 to 2nd century patriarchy and the discussion of women as chattels.

But life-long relationships are complex creatures. Establishing a family, a home, a place to live, a way of living together and in the world is multi-faceted – economic, social, practical as well as emotional and spiritual.  Marriages live and die by how we deal with the practical realities of life – how we manage money, property, debts, the cost of child care – just as much as the emotional side.  Perhaps, hidden in the layers of this week’s parashah, is a lesson about the reality of a long life shared – the compromises over money, the building of a home, the children or lack of them, the joys and the disappointments, and the knowledge that the likely price of a life-long love, is that one day, one of you will have to bury the other.  It is the final act of love that we can perform. No wonder the Torah devotes a whole chapter to Abraham getting it right.

Naomi Goldman Student rabbi LBC

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.