Chayai Sarah is a many layered portion, one that touches us in so many ways. It is the story of a family in transition, of the obligation of parents to children and other interesting questions. Sarah dies at the very beginning of the passage and many commentaries look at the cause as the trauma of learning of the just concluded Akedah. Abraham concludes the purchase of a burial plot, reminding us in today’s world of the importance of pre-need funeral planning. In a scenario that is played out often in our world, Abraham marries again, and his life goes on. The Patriarch fulfills a parental duty of the time in chapter 24 as he sends Eliezer out to find a wife for Isaac, who reappears in the text. Where has he been?
There is also an interesting issue in this portion that I raise with you. Sarah dies, as we said, at the beginning of the portion and is buried in that cave that Abraham purchased. The funeral? Look at 23:19, the text that just says that “And Abraham, buried his wife Sarah”.
No Isaac. No Ishmael. Fast forward to the end of the portion and 25:7-9. Here we read that Abraham died at 175, died “at a ripe age, old and contented” and then we read “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him”. The two sons appear together to bury their dad, despite the estrangement. No sons are reported at Sarah’s funeral. Isaac and Ishmael appear in the text for the burial. Like so many times in our day and age, it is a funeral that may bring estranged family members together. They fulfill the mitzvah to attend to the ritual, then go their separate ways. One can only imagine, if you were staging this scene, what these men were thinking at that funeral!
Many of us have lived aspects of this portion. Some of you reading this have had to bury a spouse, to plan a funeral even as grief overwhelms you. Many may have, as did Abraham, found, after time, the ability to move on in life and re-marry or find companionship. Some of us may have had to deal with (or still deal with) aspects of estrangement within our family systems. In every family journey we face the challenges of moving on. This portion speaks to so many aspects of our own journey, but a theme continues to be the responsibility of family members to take care of each other, of parents to provide for children and for adult children to honor their parents. These themes become so much more powerful as we get older.
This portion is in many ways symbolic of man times in our life. It is a portion of transition. Abraham and Sarah die, the text will move in rapid fashion to Isaac, the next generations. What of Abraham and Sarah does Isaac carry with him into his future? Where shall his descendants and those of Ishmael again meet? The transitions of families and each of us are part of life, just as they are part of Torah.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.