Parashat Chayei Sarah 5777

Rabbi Sandra Kviat, 25 November 2016


[Modified version of a sermon given at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, November 2008]

It’s surprising what you hear when you listen

Abraham is sitting on a mat at the entrance of the tent. His face is worn, and I can see tears in his eyes. “You asked me about Sarah” he says as he turns to look at the oak trees around his tent in Mamre. “You asked me what she was like? People always say about her, that she was unusual. Well that is true. I mean, she agreed to leave everything she knew after I, had heard a voice declaring that I should ‘get up and leave’. You have no idea of the discussions we had in our tent. And then she accepted to be passed off as my sister twice , once she became part of Pharaoh’s harem and once when Abimelech took her – that is until they realised their mistake and threw us out and everyone with us. You know, she always had cakes ready for visitors, just in case. I take the whole business of hospitality very seriously and she used to tease me about it… how nervous I would get if things were not just right. She always had cushions ready”… his voice trails off as he looks into the distance.

“When she could not conceive, you know what she did? She asked me to take Hagar as a concubine. Hagar, her maid! Just so that my line should not die out…of course Hagar was a beautiful woman, and strong willed, but I did not want Sarah to hurt… and look what happened? Hagar wouldn’t give up Ishmael, they kept fighting and so in the end I had to send Hagar away. Many people say that Sarah was heartless to send a woman with a child into the desert all by herself… I don’t know….You might think that Sarah had a meek character, or a mean streak, or even that she only lived through others. But I tell you… she was so colourful. Oh did she laugh a lot when we were young… hmm…but maybe not so much later on. Though I do remember that time when she laughed at the thought of having a child, at the age of ninety. You know, God reprimanded her for that. But even I’d laughed at the thought too you know! When she was arguing with God about it she tried to say that it was not a sarcastic laugh. It was bittersweet[1]. She knew how to use words my Sarah did”.

‘Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was borne to him’. Sarah said, ’God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me’. She then added: ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children… yet I have borne a son in his old age’. (Gen 21.4-7).
“I guess that was a pun back at me… despite being even older than her, I too had laughed”.

I find Isaac sitting on a boulder looking at the sunset. He too looks worn; his clothes still torn. You know, the first time I saw him I nearly fell off my camel. I’d heard so much about him from his servant but this man I saw coming towards me looked grim and haggered. I drew my shawl around me to try and protect myself from his stare.

Sarah had not been dead long by the time I was brought to Isaac and he looked frightening. Was I really to marry this man, a man so sad and angry?
“Isaac, tell me more about your mother” I coax him. “What was she really like?” He turns to me with dreamy eyes, an ability he inherited from her no doubt. “She laughed a lot” he says as if that’s sufficient to describe her, but then adds. “You know, they say when she woke on that morning, the one when I went away early in the morning with dad, and she couldn’t find us she grew silent. She never uttered a sound until someone told her what had happened and she died of shock at the mere thought of it; they said she just screamed and then collapsed…“I still can’t believe she is gone”.

… I look down at my hands. I was hoping to make him think of a happy memory; something to take the edge off this sadness. But then he continues: “She baked the best biscuits you know; none of the other women’s were a patch on it. All the children in the camp would clamber to get at them. That always made me really proud.

She used to tell me about her life. About being a dreamer, and how those dreams would make everyone laugh, including herself. I heard she almost gave up her dream of having a child. You know, when she heard from those three messengers that she was going to have me she laughed, I’m told, with a bittersweet laugh. Not one of disbelief.

She said it was bitter because so many years of wanting it had totally exhausted her. Having her dream fulfilled after so many years was perplexing; she had become a different person, with a different laugh. I’d overheard her whispering about how she’d needed to find other ways of being fulfilled and happy. She was healing by choosing a different kind of life and then I came along! Of course she didn’t want to be ungrateful to God, but having me must’ve meant something different after all those years.

I hear some say that I am her fulfilment, her merit; I was her joy. That is true I think, she was certainly very protective of me – but I wasn’t the only thing in her life. A wise woman she was and I’ve heard say a prophet in her own right. She spoke to God… you know what Rebecca”, he lowers his voice and leans over, “some say she was a greater prophet than dad!”

I sit back on my heels while he stares at the horizon. I wish I had met her and not just heard stories. Perhaps then I wouldn’t be in her shadow so much. I mean I am very grateful for being here, but I can feel them comparing me to her sometimes. One of the women tells me I’ve brought Isaac strength and comfort after this loss. But I am not sure if he loves me for my sake or maybe because I remind him of her?

Sarah had her dream fulfilled, ‘a son was born to Sarah’, and she calls him Yitzchak, laughter. Perhaps bittersweet laughter is all that’s possible when worn dreams come true.

This parasha is paradoxically called Chayei Sarah – the life of Sarah, and whilst we might expect a recounting of her life here, rather it focuses on her death, the burial and then Abraham and Isaac’s mourning. And though the title and the theme might seem at odds with each other, it reveals a profound understanding of mourning in our tradition – when we sit with a bereaved person it is customary not just to ask about the end of the life of a person, but also to ask about how that loved one lived. What were their dreams and hopes? How did he or she live life?

The sad thing which any mourner realises is that there are so many stories and questions we never thought to ask, while that person was alive. I have so many questions I would have liked to ask my mother, but that it is too late now to ask. And I think that is why I find the the BBC’s Listening Project so fascinating – for it encourages friends, partners, or family members to talk to each other, to reflect on their lives together in the present. Not always because something has happened, but because you have the opportunity. The story of Sarah and her life and death is a reminder to us to talk to each other, to those we love. All it takes is to ask, to listen and to hear.

As their strapline encourages ‘It’s surprising what you hear when you listen’.

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