Chayyei Sarah – Responses to Tragedy
An article written in 2012 by Rachel Rettner discusses how a community goes through ‘stages of recovery’ after a trauma, that are akin to the ‘five stages of grief’ that an individual mourner experiences after the death of a loved one. First there are outpourings of grief and talk of tragedy. The community is drawn together, and gatherings and vigils provide a network of support. Prayers and songs provide a language to work through suffering that our own words may be lacking. Later, conversations start to address the broader questions of ‘how do we prevent this from happening again?’ ‘what is our role in response to this’? Finally the focus on the incident subsides, which can happen both too soon or not soon enough for people in the community.
Anyone who has experienced grief will know that the five stages of grief may not actually come in stages and as we see from the responses to the great tragedy of the shooting in Pittsburgh last Saturday, Rettner’s ‘stages of recovery’ can come all at once too. Sadly, it seems an ever increasing event that the world needs to respond to a tragedy. A mass shooting, an act of terror, corrupt politicians, a rise of fascism, rise in hate crime across the UK. But this time, although geographically far, the tragedy that the world was faced with seemed far too close to home.
Although entitled ‘the life of Sarah’, our parashah this week in fact begins with Sarah’s death. In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah it says that Sarah died upon hearing the horrific news that Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac.
‘From where did Abraham come? From Mount Moriah, for Sarah died from that pain’.
According to the rabbis, the pain and tragedy Sarah felt at the mere thought of what Abraham was going to do, despite the fact that he did not sacrifice their son in the end, killed her. There are two other midrashim, similar but with significant differences, that describe the moment that Sarah hears of the Akedah. In the first midrash she hears the story from Satan, cries out and dies. In the second she hears the story from Isaac himself. Here too she cries out but does not die because she can see her son before her, healthy and whole. It is said that Sarah’s cries are the cries of the Shofar that we hear on Rosh Hashanah, the Shofar blast that is meant to stir us into action and awaken our souls. In all of these midrashim, the rabbis recognise the pain that the Akedah would have caused Sarah. Last week we heard of her laughter in reaction to the news that she would bear a child, and this week we witness her death in response to the tragedy of nearly losing that same child. Sarah’s responses have held the narrative of our Torah these past few weeks, and our own response to tragedy will feed the story of the community in the weeks to come.
Our community has responded in waves to last weekend’s massacre and I do not have anything new or profound to add but I am heart broken and I am angry, not just because innocent Jews praying were murdered, but because this time we were the target, and last time the shooting was at a school, and the other day a person was punched in the face for speaking Spanish in public, and there are constant attacks upon women wearing the hijab. And upon hearing of the various UK vigils happening in response to the murders in Pittsburgh, some people questioned the political leanings of the Jews who were organising those events.
We were the target this time, and next time we do not know who the target will be. We need to wake up, ignite our anger and grief and act. Act to make sure that we are acting with love and compassion.
According to the Rabbis, Sarah was so shocked by the news of the near murder of her son that she died. Let us run with the shock of this tragedy and let it open our eyes to push us into action. We must not only keep on living and thriving, we must stand in solidarity with each other as Jews and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. As tragedy after tragedy seems to fill our news alerts and Facebook feeds, let us find those places where we can make a positive impact. We are taught kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, all of Israel are responsible one for the other. That is why we mourn together at the murder of our brothers and sisters, and that is how we can work together to help to mend our broken world.
Anna Posner LBC student rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.