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Mourning Sarah; Mourning Pittsburgh

November 8, 2018

Dedicated in memory of the victims of last Shabbat’s attack on  the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

The parsha opens with death and mourning.

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃ (ב) וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃

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 Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:1-2)

The Torah’s description of Avraham’s mourning invites a number of questions.

We read that Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron and that Avraham came to mourn for her cry for her.  The Rabbis want to know why Avraham CAME to mourn for Sarah.  This implies that he was elsewhere when she died.  Perhaps most familiar to us is the comment of Rashi that Avraham did not tell Sarah of Hashem’s commandment to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice.  The Satan showed her an image of Isaac on the altar.  The shock  led to Sarah’s death.

The Midrash upon which Rashi’s comment is based offers another explanation from whence Avraham came:

בראשית רבה נח:ה
וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה מֵהֵיכָן בָּא, רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר מִקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל תֶּרַח לְשָׂרָה בָּא

And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah-From where did he come? Rabbi Levi said: He came to Sarah from the burial of Terach. (Breishit Rabbah 58:5)

And so from the very beginning of the parsha we are confronted with shocking, distressing imagery, which for Sarah – who is the Matriarch and the representative of the Jewish people —  was too much to bear.  We are shown how one man – Avraham – who is the representative of the entire Jewish people is forced to deal with the death of two loved ones – and the near death of Yitzchak – within days of each other.  The parallels to Pittsburgh are stark.

The Torah records two verbs describing Avraham’s mourning.  לספוד לשרה )to eulogize Sarah)  ולבכותה (and to cry for her).  Many point out that these represent  two stages of mourning.  One stage is the raw, emotional state of someone who experiences a loss.  We might describe this as a universal, human stage of mourning.  The second stage, though is more controlled and regimented – the formal steps of אבילות (mourning) required by halacha.

The Netziv writes that the formal, halachically mandated stage of mourning is indicated by the verb לספוד (to eulogize) while the raw, emotional stage of mourning is indicated by the very לבכות (to cry).  But if this is so, then the Torah’s description seems off.  Usually the most emotionally intense stage of mourning comes as soon as the loss occurs, or as soon as one learns of the loss.  The normal course of action would have been for Avraham to cry – לבכות first, and then to go through the formal acts of mourning.  Why then do we read וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃ – first the formal more regimented stage of לספוד and only afterwards the more intense emotional stage of לבכות?

דרך העולם תחלה לבכות בינו לב״ע ואח״כ להספיד ברבים וכמש״כ ויקרא ה׳ לבכי ולמספד. אלא משום שהיה אברהם בא ממקום רחוק לשם ובין כה וכה נתקבצו המון העם סביב הבית כדאיתא בסנהדרין דף מ״ו דמשהי לה לשרה לפני קבורה יותר מן המורגל עד בוא אברהם. מש״ה נזדרז להספידה תחלה ברבים.

Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and cry for her — The way of the world is first to cry to oneself and afterwards to eulogize in public, as it says” My Lord GOD of Hosts summoned on that day To weeping and lamenting…” (Isaiah 22:12).  But since Abraham had come from a far off place to there, in the meanwhile the masses had assembled by the house, as we see in Sanhedrin 46b that they waited to bury Sarah longer than usual, until Abraham came.  For this reason he rushed to eulogize her in public first.

As we have gone through a week of memorial services, prayer vigils, reading countless articles memorializing the victims, decrying antisemitism, etc. it is clear that there is no normal way to process and mourn what happened.  There is no script for such public, communal mourning and there is no way that is usual.  We recognize that the families, friends and local community of those who were killed are entitled to mourn their loss privately.  Yet, their loss is our loss, and the public outcry – and the media’s need to cover the events – are certainly warranted.  And so like Avraham Avinu we recognize that we are thrust into the public, regimented displays of mourning without the “luxury” of our own private time.

The parsha offers another point of view when it comes to mourning and reaction to traumatic events.  While most of the parsha details the quest of Avraham’s servant to find a wife for Yitzchak, it is only toward the very end of the Parsha that we actually see Yitzchak.

 וְיִצְחָק֙ בָּ֣א מִבּ֔וֹא בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י וְה֥וּא יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב׃  וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃ וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃  וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־הָעֶ֗בֶד מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַלָּזֶה֙ הַהֹלֵ֤ךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה֙ לִקְרָאתֵ֔נוּ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָעֶ֖בֶד ה֣וּא אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתִּקַּ֥ח הַצָּעִ֖יף וַתִּתְכָּֽס׃  וַיְסַפֵּ֥ר הָעֶ֖בֶד לְיִצְחָ֑ק אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃  וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃ (פ)

  • Yitzchak came from Be’er La-Chai Ro’i.
  • He goes out to the field toward evening time – our sages tell us that he was davening Mincha – and he sees the caravan of camels bringing Rivka approaching.
  • The couple meets for the first time and Yitzchak brings her into Sarah’s tent.
  • Yitzchak was comforted over his mother  ((Breishit 24:62-67))

Many point out that this is the first time we see Yitzchak since the Akeidah.  According to the chronology developed by our Rabbis based on the Torah’s intimations, it has been three years. Without developing the idea in the text, it is clear to me that he presents a classic case of Post Traumatic Stress.

The Zohar(II:34:2) wants to know why Yitzchak davens in the field –

וְכִי לָא הֲוָה לֵיהּ בֵּיתָא, אוֹ מָקוֹם אַחֵר לְהִתְפַּלֵּל.

Did he not have a house or somewhere else to pray?

Rather, the Zohar suggests that he was praying in the same field that Avraham had purchased in order to bury Sarah.

 אֶלָּא אוֹתָהּ הַשָּׂדֶה הָיָה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה אַבְרָהָם סָמוּךְ לַמְּעָרָה,

Yitzchak was visiting his mother’s grave!

The contemporary Israeli commentary Da’at Mikra elaborates:

יצחק יצא אל שדה עפרון — סמוך למערת המכפלה — לשפוך לפני ה’ את שיחו = צריו על מות אמו, עליה לא פסק מלהתאבל שלוש (!) שנים,

The prayer that Yitzchak offered was his pain and distress over the loss of his mother for whom he had not stopped davening for three years!

While the commentary itself expresses shock that Yitzchak was so distressed, this critique is unwarranted especially when one considers the traumatic events of Yitzchak’s life.

I’d like to make one more observation about this.  Clearly, Yitzchak is bothered by his mother’s death.  And clearly he has a complicated relationship with Avraham after the Akeidah. One way in which this is expressed is in the way that the Parsha describes each of their mourning processes.  At the beginning of the Parsha, the entire focus is on Avraham – ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולכבכותה .  It’s as if to say that Avraham mourned for Sarah alone.  Shouldn’t it have said ויבאו אברהם ויצחק לספוד לשרה ולבכותה  — that father and son came together to mourn for Sarah – their mother and wife; just as we see at the end of the parsha when Yitzchak and Yishmael come together to bury Avraham (Genesis 25:9).

On the one hand, this offers the important insight that each person mourns in his or her own way.  There is no right or wrong way, and that differentiation is recognized and respected by the Torah.

At the same time, the fact that Avraham and Yitzchak do not come together in grief only highlights the tension in their own relationship and the deep impact of the trauma on each of them.

Thank God this has not been the case for Am Yisrael after last week’s tragedy. We have come together as a unified community,  able to mourn this tragedy together. The mantra of the week, repeated at every gathering and prayer vigil has been אחינו כל בית ישראל (Acheinu kol Beit Yisrael; our brothers, the entire House of Israel).

Allow me one more thought.  During the introduction to the parsha I mentioned the seemingly contradictory identity used by Avraham at the beginning of the parsha.  We he approaches B’nei Chet to purchase a burial plot he says to them (Genesis 4:4)

 גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם תְּנ֨וּ לִ֤י אֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֙בֶר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה מֵתִ֖י מִלְּפָנָֽי׃

“I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

If he is a Toshav – a resident – then how is he also a ger – a stranger?  There are many who feel like the attack in Pittsburgh highlights this tension for the American Jewish community.  We are full citizens of America.  Yet, in light of this attack there are many who question whether we will ever be fully accepted; or will we always be seen as a stranger or the other?

It is certainly scary to witness this attack and read about the rising antisemitism in the US and across the world.  Yet we cannot give up on our status as Toshav – residents.  In this light, I’d like to share the thoughts of Rabbi Barry Kornblau:

“At this time of our need and grief, our American Jewish community is currently experiencing an outpouring of love and support from others outside our community. In addition to thanking those who offer such assistance now, we Jews must also recommit, now, to our principled tradition of extending hands and hearts of love to other communities who, in their present and future times of grief and need, will appreciate our support.” 

We offer our prayers that those who were physically injured in the attack should have a Refuah Shleimah and as well as those who have been emotionally and psychologically scarred.  We pray that the families of the victims, the Tree of Life Congregation, the community of Pittsburgh and the entire Jewish people have a Nechama – are comforted.  Good Shabbos.

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From → Parsha

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