by Richard Walden, adult member
November 26, 2005
Death will always be the great unknown. Time ticks forward and each moment passes from the ‘here and now’ to the ‘then and there.’ Each sweep of the clock’s hands is a small death of time—we literally kill time—and yet, time does not die does it? We each have vivid memories of past glories and pleasures, don’t we? We can easily get stuck in the past—or learn from history, marching forward better prepared for future moments, time not yet born. If time can live on, can’t we too? Don’t we also each live on—our legacies etched into the genetic code of our offspring or into the memories of others by virtue of our thoughts, ideas and the good things we have done?
In this week’s portion, Chaye Sarah, we mourn the passing of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, the first “children of Israel,” the progenitors of our religion, the first “Jews.” The story line is simple and unembellished. Sarah dies and Abraham buys her a burial spot, the cave at Machpelah. There is no description of any particular funeral, nor is there a eulogy of any kind. He buries her in the cave and moves on. At the very end of the portion Abraham dies, and he too is buried simply, no fanfare, no ziggurat or pyramid, no gold, no procession of thousands. He is laid to rest next to Sarah, and God takes up with Isaac, moving the story of the Jewish people to the next generation.
So where is the eulogy? Where is the mourning? How can we move so easily from one generation to the next? From this perspective, the death and burial of our most revered of ancestors seems stark and unfriendly, almost inappropriate for the man who listened to God and established a people more numerous than the stars in the sky. And what of Sarah, a woman who built Abraham’s wealth, kept him strong when he might have been weak, and bore him a child while old with age? Commentators speak of the importance of buying the cave at Machpelah—Sarah’s burial site being the first toe-hold of owned land in what will one day be Eretz Israel, the promised land.
But, it remains most striking that this process of burial and mourning is devoid of any emotion—where is her family? We want a eulogy for Sarah, we want to know who stood by as she was laid to rest. Who wept at her passing? All of the pomp and circumstance we might associate with burial is absent. Instead, the focus is on the future. Attention is immediately thrown forward, away from the “then” and even away from the “now.” Death is not about someone being gone, but about ensuring that there will be a future, a generation that will remember the past—thereby keeping history alive and vibrant.
The moment that seems to touch us in Chaye Sarah, that stands out for its hint at the deep seated process of grieving and release, comes when Isaac takes Rebekah as his wife. When she first sees Isaac, she knows in her heart that this is the one, almost having known it from the moment that she met Abraham’s servant at the well. And now, with the next generation of Bnai Israel seemingly established, there is a pause, and we hear this line: “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Gen. 24:67).
Not exactly a steamy romance novel, but the power of this line fills in those unanswered questions about the death of Sarah. Her loss was a real loss to her husband and son; there was a huge void that needed to be filled, and Abraham has helped by filling his son’s heart with the love of another. The picture becomes clearer. Isaac and Abraham honor their loved one not with a mausoleum, but instead, by creating another link in the chain that will ensure Sarah’s memory throughout the ages. This kind of mourning helps them heal and move on, remembering the past but not being lost in it. And with those thoughts, death becomes connected to all that is Jewish, uniquely Jewish.
The pace of Jewish time is not like that of contemporary Egyptians or Greeks. Jews don’t build structures in space, instead, we build moments in time. Death is about the future, that often repeated phrase, L’dor V’dor, from one generation to the next. It is not about life in the afterworld, it is about building links and connections to this world. And, as in this week’s portion, after the sound and fury of a death and burial, there is a pause—and it is in that pause that we are able to absorb and understand. The tradition of a pause is our legacy, it is what we call Shabbat, and we celebrate it each week, allowing us to comprehend the past, live in the moment and prepare for the future.
Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “a sanctuary we build, a sanctuary in time. In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.” And thus, it seems, Abraham and Isaac regain their spirit through their own sanctuary in time, by creating the next link in the chain connecting the then to the now.
And, in death, our tradition is the same kind of pause and memory. Each Shabbat, when I see people stand to remember loved ones no longer here, I do not need to know who they were, or what they did. Instead, sadness is seen as love and compassion, and it helps fill Shabbat with life. Knowing that there will always be a tomorrow, a next, is comforting. Then and now are not the only moments of our lives.
Time marches on, but memory can connect the past to the present and seemingly to the future. I lost my grandmother last year, but her voice still rings in my ear and when I close my eyes, I can see her smile. She lives on. Each Shabbat, she and all our forebears, from Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and our most recently departed, mingle with us in the moments of silence, this time out of time. Shabbat is full of magic and mystery, delight and wonder. On this Shabbat, remember to be thankful for life. Remember to give thanks for this gift from God, enjoy each precious moment and let its beauty fill your world. There is a purpose, believe it, and make something out of the precious gift of our few moments in the now. Make yourself a bridge from the past to the future. What once was is still part of what is, and together, they can create a new tomorrow.