D’var Torah: The life of Sarah

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

The portion Life of Sarah (Chayei Sarah) begins with the death of Sarah, as if the confrontation with death refines the notion of life. At the end of life, life clarifies. Nothing brings a person to the long look at existence like the brink. When you stand with death, life clarifies. But this story, Sarah’s story and by extension Abraham, and their children, is not so tidy.  Even at the end.

The Zohar teaches that there is something chaser, missing, in the generation of Abraham and Sarah that they themselves could not supply or repair.  We are all victims of the limits of our own time, our own vision, our experience confined to our context. We are stuck with our problems as a generation; as a people, as persons. 

There’s that old joke made famous by the writer David Foster Wallace z”l, in a well known commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. A fish asks another fish, how’s the water? They swim on for a while, the other says: What’s water? We’re so in it we don’t know it.

And at the end of her life, Sarah seems alone. Abraham travels to an unfamiliar place to negotiate for her burial plot. Abraham comes to deal for the grave to bury his wife and cry for her.

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I will give you everything you ask — name your price.Abraham is willing to give anything for that piece of land, but it’s not about the land. There is so much patch-up to do. The terrible story of sneaking away with Isaac to the mountain that precedes the death of Sarah, a sequence in which Sarah’s voice is absent, hints that there is a missing resolution within this family. So it’s not about the land Abraham is dealing over, it’s about what’s left in the relations from the living. 

About the land: A river of tears and blood will be spilled over this land but here, it’s about this family, unresolved, unreconciled. 

Abraham will have to work in his own ways the hard dramas of his life, some of which he leaves to the future, what he could not repair. 

I returned to the young men, said Abraham. I dwelt at Beer Sheva. There are consequences for my behavior, I know this. I am crying for her, here at Kiryat Arba, Hevron. Children of Het — I will give you everything you ask for a burial place. I want this land.

The land, the land. Everyone wants this land. But here, at the end of Sarah’s life, it’s not about land, and the healing will come from the future. Whatever brokenness incurred in Abraham and Sarah’s generation, the legacy for their children, particularly Isaac and his step brother Ishmael, it will come to the children to make the repairs. We’re still working on that, all the Isaacs and Ishmaels of the future.

Some time into the future we will draw a line in the sand and in our consciousness and say — this stops here. 

The future has arrived.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.