"Sarah lived to be 127 years old — such was the span of Sarah's life. Sarah died … " There is no record of her aging, her decline or her final illness. We simply read that "Sarah died."
Throughout the centuries, scholars have speculated that Sarah's demise was a response to the trauma of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of their son, Isaac. Although father and son return safely, the Torah does not include an account of their homecoming. We imagine Sarah's mixed feelings that may have included incredulity, relief, fury and gratitude.
We open the door on this portion and are welcomed into a house of mourning. Often, as mourners ourselves, we are faced with unanswered questions about the life and death of our loved ones. When we, like Abraham, make arrangements for burial, as we enter the places they lived and begin to sort through the material remnants of their lives. We share stories and memories. This process of recalling continues throughout our lives.
As this portion progresses, Abraham intentionally ensures the continuation of the covenant he made with the Holy One. Is Sarah's death the catalyst for his turning attention to his own legacy? The patriarch directs a servant to "get a wife for my son Isaac." The servant asks God's help in fulfilling this mission and encounters Rebecca, Abraham's kinswoman, at a well, a central gathering place that will be the location where later biblical leaders meet their life partners. (Jacob meets Rachel in Genesis 29, and Moses meets Tzipporah in Exodus 2.)
Rebecca is the first woman in the Torah whose consent is sought before she is betrothed: When pressed by the servant who is anxious to return to Abraham and Isaac with this bride, Rebecca's brother and mother insist on consulting her. "Let us call the girl and see what she has to say."
Rebecca, whose age is not recorded, agrees to leave her ancestral home. When she first encounters the man who will be her husband, she covers herself with a veil, signifying her readiness to be his bride. "And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah … Thus did Isaac take comfort after [the death of] his mother."
This portion, which begins with recording the length of Sarah's life, concludes with reclaiming Sarah's tent as the home for her son and his new wife. The text is, perhaps, intentionally elusive. Did Isaac "take comfort" in the physical space where his mother had lived and cooked and perhaps prayed, in her own way, to the Source of All. Did he "take comfort" in the memories of her love and care for him and for his father? Did he "take comfort" in the arms of Rebecca, with whom he will bring forth the next generation and carry on his mother's line?
This portion reminds us that legacies are complex, and that none of us really control the memories that survive when we're gone. Some put aside funds to ensure the financial well-being of those who follow us. Some of us intentionally share our passions with our beloveds in the hope that they, like us, will find joy and sustenance in study, in the arts, in service, in friendship, in sport.
Chayei Sarah begins with the death of the first matriarch, and concludes with the promise of the continuation of a rich legacy of hope, of comfort and of seeking holiness. We are the heirs of this legacy. May we pass it on.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as Union rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail: [email protected]