The great 20th century author Franz Kafka once said, "The meaning of life is that it stops." At first, this sentiment seems cold and devoid of spiritual meaning. But if we stop for a moment to listen to the message, it is one of the most profound statements anyone has dared to utter. Our youth and image oriented American culture, death is feared and shunned. But death can be our greatest teacher, our most inspired catalyst, and the thing that keeps us honest.
In Chayei Sarah, the deaths of Sarah and Abraham bookend the portion. We open with the obituary of our matriarch Sarah: "And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah, and to bewail her." And we end with the funeral of Abraham, who dies at 175 years old. The loss of two remarkable (and complicated) Jewish ancestors cast a veil of grief and sadness over the portion. But what happens within those funeral bookends, that is the resounding message and meaning of Chayei Sarah.
When Sarah dies, Abraham takes it upon himself to purchase of a burial plot from Ephron the Hittite. The death of Sarah is an earth-shaking moment in his life and though tempted to take the plot for free, Abraham listens to his better judgment and behaves with integrity. He insists on paying a fair price, thereby creating a family burial plot that would honor the dead and future generations with the highest ethical intentions. Death brings us face to face with our mortality, and often it brings the pursuit of our highest purpose.
During Abraham's period of mourning for Sarah, Abraham takes an accounting of what is most important in life and turns to the happiness and well-being of his son Isaac. This motivates him to seek a wife for his son, so that he will not be alone. The delightful story of Rebecca comes next in the Torah narrative. Abraham's servant Eliezer is charged with finding a suitable wife, one who is exceptionally generous and kind, not only to people but to animals as well. A real love story takes place, when Eliezer brings Rebecca back to meet her awaiting groom. The Torah teaches us that Isaac loved Rebecca and found comfort after the death of his mother.
The story which is perhaps the most moving is one hidden between the lines. At Abraham's funeral, both Isaac and Ishmael are present at the burial. We are given no other details, only that they were present. It is a remarkable moment if we recall how many years before, Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham's house, out of fear or jealousy. The two men went their separate ways forming separate nations. One can imagine the hurt, anger, and resentment that the two brothers accumulated toward one another over the years. We will never know what the two brothers said to one another. And yet, when their father Abraham died, at least for a moment or two, they put their differences aside and reached for the higher impulse: to honor their father and send him to a dignified rest.
Kafka spoke a truth in his brief statement about life's meaning. It is finite. The clock keeps ticking and sometimes the death of those we love is the teacher that rouses us out of our complacency and guides us on our path in unforeseen ways.
Cantor Amy E. Levy