The life of Sarah begins with the death of Sarah

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

D’var Torah — CHAYEI SARAH

The name of the portion is Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah. Abraham comes to bury Sarah and to cry for her (Genesis 23:2). Something has separated them, Abraham comes to bury her and ends up paying everything. It seems as if he is not after a better price. 

There is something Abraham is working out over Sarah in her death that is left from the residue of their lives. Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, opens with the death of Sarah. There was something unfinished in the living that Abraham is left alone to work through in the dying. 

I’m going to skip the traditional explanations and go to a deep story I know that few reading this piece will have access to, a little lateral move to an extreme circumstance. 

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I visited the institution that is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention getter, like the opening of the portion the Life of Sarah begins with the Death of Sarah, but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. 

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language. 

Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. 

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison. 

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them have a calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes. 

The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice. But it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way. 

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains. I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep getting up? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains? 

So on the next visit I asked him: what sustains? Stay tuned and in the next piece I submit I’ll give over the answer.

The life of Sarah begins with the death of Sarah, out of descent, an ascent, what rises out of darkness might surprise. 

The life of Sarah begins with the death of Sarah. But it doesn’t end there.