Parashat Chayyei Sarah 5780

Rabbi Adam Frankenberg – 22 November 2019

More years ago than I care to think about, well go as you ask 26, Chayyei Sarah was my bar mitzvah portion. I still remember the terror which that coming of age ritual inspired in me.

Despite being called Chayyei Sarah (the life of Sarah) the parasha is concerned with events after and as a consequence of her death. What you, or at least I notice reading the sedra as a middle aged man is markedly different from what I noticed a quarter of a century ago reading it as a teenager.

As a kid focused on Rebecca’s near superhuman strength in watering all those camels, ask me about it some time, or maybe not. (Unless you want to be trapped for a very long time!) I was also interested in the dynamic of the relationship between Rebecca and Issac, I guess some things at least remain constant.

One aspect which interested me then, and still does, is the generational lists with which it concludes, one of many such lists in the Book of Genesis, maybe because of growing up surrounded by anthropologists where such things are considered of great significance.

Again, 25 years ago I barely noticed the details some of banalities of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, or other examples or administration. Probably because 25 years ago admin meant little to me whereas now it is all to familiar.

But perhaps the verse that now speaks to me most is the final part of verse Gen 24:67. ‘And Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother’, this was where my bar mitzvah reading ended. Later in the sedar the death of Abraham is recounted, as well as more geological lists (this time of the descendants of Ismale), plenty of food of anthropologists indeed. Chayyei Sarah really does mark the changing of guard to the next generation the story moves on.

Many of the people who attended my bar mitzvah have since died, but this Sedra like others still speaks to me. This change of perspective reminds me of the poem I encountered in Liberal Judaism’s High Holy Day prayer book.

    It is less distant now
    A Yahrzeit candle lit at home.

    The yahrzeit candle is different
    Announcing neither Shabbat nor Festival.
    No benediction is recited
    No song sung
    No psalm mandated.
    Before the unlite candle
    Without a quorum, I stand
    Unstuck match in my hand.

    It is less distant now
    The remembrance ritual of parents deceased
    I am older now
    Closer to their age than before.
    I am older now
    Their aches in my body
    Their white hairs beneath my shaved skin
    Their wrinkles creased into my face.

    It is less distance now
    This ritual
    Once it made me think of them
    Now it makes me think of me.

    (Harold M. Schulweis)

As we change and develop, our understandings of Torah change with us. As Ben Bag Bag tells us in Avot (5:22):

    ‘Turn it, and then turn it again for everything is in it.’

I wonder what I will find when, God willing, I come to study Chayyei Sarah in another 25 years.

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