The Torah Portion this week is entitled, “Chayye Sarah- the Life of Sarah.” Strikingly, the portion opens with a report of Sarah’s death stating,
Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.
The narrative immediately turns to Abraham and his reaction to Sarah’s death. In general, Torah shares little about people’s emotional responses to events. Here, however, it is quite specific and tells us,
Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.
In other words, despite having lived a long and eventful life, or perhaps because of it, Abraham is overwhelmed by grief when he learns Sarah has died. But then the Torah tells us this…
Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”
On a surface layer many of us can relate to this turn of events. Anyone who has suffered a significant loss knows that, even in the midst of the initial wave of grief and sadness, there is still “business” that must be addressed. Family and friends need to be notified, the funeral home needs to be engaged and countless decisions must be made. It was, it seems, no different for Abraham. He was overwhelmed by grief but still knew he o needed to make arrangements for Sarah’s burial.
Rabbi Solomon Zalman ben Meir, an 18th century Hungarian rabbi, offered a different way to understand the verse, “Then Abraham rose from beside his dead…” He writes,
Generally, when a person suffers a loss or other great misfortune, he becomes bent over under the burden he is carrying, falls from the spiritual level he had attained, and is often overcome with despair. But with Abraham, we are told he “stood up from before his dead”- he stood fully, remaining unbowed.
Rabbi Zalman ben Meir understood that in the aftermath of a grave loss we are presented with two choices. We can follow the natural and understandable tendency to allow the weight of our losses to impact every aspect of our being or we can be like Abraham who grieved deeply but refused to allow it to paralyze him. Instead, even as he grieved, Abraham, stood up, considered the future and then set out to bury his beloved wife.
I thought of this teaching yesterday as we marked the third anniversary of the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue that left eleven members of our community dead. The shock of the attack, and the realization that antisemitism is becoming increasingly normalized in America, impacted the entirety of the American Jewish community regardless of where we may live. It would have been understandable for us to “circle the wagons” and turn inward. But that’s not what we did. Instead, we followed Abraham’s example. We made room to feel the shock, the grief and the pain while also standing together as a community and recommitting ourselves to fighting anger and bias wherever it may appear.
In the three years since, however, the situation has only gotten worse. Antisemitic attacks continue to increase and a shockingly high number of American Jews report feeling unsafe and compelled to hide their identity. That is, of course, unacceptable and cannot be ignored. But only by “standing up” can we hope to turn back this rising tide of hate.
One way for us to do so is by attending ADL’s Never Is Now from November 7-9. The free event will be virtual and will be an important opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges we face, as well as some tools so we can do our part to right this ship. You can learn more here.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen