Chaye Sarah ח” שרה
By Zwi Reznik, November 26, 2016
A month ago I received an e-mail inviting me to present a דרש for the first time. Today’s Parsha was one of the choices offered. My first thought was to reply “No, I don’t know enough”. Then I read the rest of the e-mail, which began by noting “Don’t say you don’t know enough”. Accepting the invitation was then the only possible reply.
There are Parshot that can be intensely personal. That is for me the case with חיי שרה. I must speak of the deaths of my Step Daughter Kerry Jo and my wife Judith.
The parsha begins with (23:1-2) “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life came to one hundred and twenty seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and that is all that is said about Sarah.
Almost 31 years ago, February 1st, 1986 my wife received a phone call from the Littleton, CO police department informing her that Kerry Jo’s body had been found with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. At the time we were living in Denver and were members of a Reconstructionist Chavurah. Several of the Chavurah members and our Rabbi, Steve Kaye, came over immediately after we contacted them. My wife was a convert. We had been fortunate in being able to participate in the unique joint conversion program which Denver had several years before. Participating in it were the three Modern Orthodox Rabbis, the three Reform Rabbis and the one Conservative Rabbi of the Denver area. A basic requirement was that each potential convert have an individual converting Rabbi who would accept them into the program. Judith’s was Rabbi Daniel Goldberger,זכרון לברכה, one of the orthodox Rabbis. Rabbi Goldberger called Judith as soon as he learned of Kerry’s death. By then we had learned from the autopsy report that Kerry had a 0.305 blood alcohol level. When apprised of that Rabbi Goldberger excused himself and said he needed to check something. He called back promptly and informed Judith that under Jewish law Kerry’s death would be considered an accident given that a blood alcohol level of that magnitude would have made her incapable of making a conscious choice. Kerry Jo was not Jewish and there was no issue of burial in a Jewish cemetery. I have always felt that Rabbi Goldberger’s call was a pure kindness to a bereaved parent.
We know nothing of why and how Sarah died from the Parsha so we turn to the commentaries. The placement of her death immediately following the binding of Isaac is readily noted in the Midrash as having occurred just when Abraham has returned from Mount Moriah. Rashii has written that “The narrative of the death of Sarah follows immediately on that of the binding of Isaac, because through the announcement of the binding—that her son had been prepared for sacrifice and had almost been sacrificed—she received a great shock (lit. her soul flew from her) and died”. I can’t help but note that Rashii lived in the 11th century and survived the massacres of the first crusade. The death of children would have been a far greater occurrence for him than it is for us.
There is a Midrash that takes a somewhat different direction, part of which is—“…So השטן, (the adversary), told Sarah that Abraham had killed Isaac and offered him as a burnt offering upon the altar. Sarah began to weep and to cry aloud three times, corresponding to the three sustained notes (of the shofar) and she gave forth three howlings corresponding to the three disconnected short notes (of the shofar), and her soul fled and she died”.
When the phone call came from the police my wife was on the second floor of our home and I was in the yard. The first thing I heard was my wife screaming for me to pick up the phone. I did so, spoke briefly to the police officer and then ran upstairs. It is difficult for me to describe the anguish in my wife’s voice. However, the sound of the howlings of the repeated notes of the shofar is far better than anything I have ever come up with.
After the first verse and a half we are done with Sarah and turn to what Abraham does in response to her death: 23:2-…-23:19 and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (3)Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites saying, (4) I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”…I’ll bypass for the moment the negotiations…” then Abraham buried his wife…”
This past Erev Yom Kippur was the 5th anniversary of Judith’s stroke. This was not a case of a sudden death but, was rather a sudden and overwhelming change in our lives. I had retired a year and a half before from my teaching position at Fresno City College and we were supposed to leave the following morning for one of our regular visits to Los Angeles and Disneyland. I called 911 and waited for the ambulance. When the ambulance arrived our friends and neighbors, Mary and Beth, came over from their house and took over my house for the next couple of days as I accompanied my wife to the hospital. We were not members of a synagogue at that time in Fresno. So the first calls I made were to close friends, two of whom were able to come to the Hospital almost immediately. By mid-November I had consulted with an attorney who specialized in Estate work and Judith was able to converse with me and others. Our attorney met with us at Judith’s rehabilitation facility and we began preparing all those documents that you’re supposed to deal with before there’s a crisis. One of the questions asked was what final arrangements we wanted. I had not given it much thought but, Judith clearly had. She wanted to be buried in Leadville, Colorado at the Evergreen Cemetery. If any of you have ever heard of Leadville it is likely because you’ve seen the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. Leadville was, and is, a mining town founded in 1877 at an elevation of 10,200 feet. There were Jewish residents there at the beginning. In 1880 the Hebrew Benevolent Association purchased a portion of the Evergreen Cemetery for a Jewish burial ground. The Hebrew Cemetery, as it is called, fell into disuse in 1893 as the Jewish Community largely left Leadville for Denver. A synagogue, Temple Israel, was not built until 1884 when about 1% of the Leadville population of 30,000 was Jewish. It ceased to be used as a Synagogue in the 1890s as well. Title was transferred to private ownership in 1937. In the early 1990s the Temple Israel Foundation was formed and re-acquired Title to the building in 1992. In 1993 the Foundation acquired Title to the Hebrew Cemetery which was reconsecrated and Jewish burials began again in 2001. In November of 2011 I purchased two plots. Far sooner than I expected my wife entered Hospice care, following the necessary decision to end treatment, and in January 2012 one of those burials was of my wife Judith.
The reason that I found a gravesite for my wife in the town she wished to be buried in was that 132 years before a small group of Jews, many of whom may well have had the status of Resident Aliens, knew that the first thing the Jewish community of Leadville had to do was acquire a burial ground. The synagogue could wait another four years. The precedent of starting a Jewish Cemetery as the first communal act can be traced back to this Parsha. So let’s go back to the Parsha and some commentaries.
The bulk of chapter 23 deals specifically with the negotiations for the acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah. The details can be viewed as interesting even just as a record of ancient business practices. In particular it specifies when negotiations are deemed complete. In 23:15 Ephron states the land in question is “…A piece of land worth 400 shekels..”. In 23:16 we learn that “Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites…”. So it is done! As the Jewish Publication Societies Torah Commentary notes “…payment is manifestly accepted by the seller of his own volition…”
All the detailed minutiae leave no doubt about Abraham’s acquisition of Title.
All that is left to do is noted in 23:19 where it is simply stated “And then Abraham buried his wife…”. It is also noted in the commentaries that verse 19 is particularly terse. “There are no descriptive details…there is simplicity and lack of ostentation”. So our present day burial customs can also be traced back to this Parsha.
There is more that can be discussed at length, but not now. Some say that the redemption of the land which began with land purchases with the wealth of Jews such as Moshe Montefiore and Baron Rothschild had its roots in this Parsha. And this is Hebron we are dealing with in this Parsha. Those are discussions that are necessary, but not now.
I have spoken of the death of Sarah and Abraham’s purchase of a grave site and the burial of Sarah. To do so I needed to speak of the death of Kerry Jo and what that did to Judith and later the death of Judith and her burial. The balance of the Parsha speaks of how Abraham continued with his life. After my wife’s death I spent a year being numb. I then had to continue with my life and that has brought me to Los Angeles and the Library minyan. Our Torah, MY Torah, is indeed very personal.