November 13, 2020
Last Shabbat, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, died. With his death, some have stated that a great voice, a brilliant mind and a transformative figure who touched not only the Jewish world but whose learning and teaching inspired many leaders and students throughout the world was stilled. His numerous books and lectures, his essays and his editing of and interpretations of liturgy will leave a long-lasting imprint on Jewish life. He combined Jewish learning and secular thought and allowed each to support the other without diluting the core of Jewish values and tradition. He was a remarkable figure and his loss is truly sad.
This Shabbat, our portion, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), we start with reading of the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Her obituary is short, telling us how old she was when she passed away, one hundred and twenty-seven, and the place where she died, Kiriath-arba, now known as Hebron. (23:1-2) The Torah then follows with Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot for his wife, a plot of land that will not only be a place of eternal rest for future patriarchs and matriarchs, except for Rachel, but which also establishes a legal foothold for Abraham’s descendants in the Land of Canaan.
Thus the notice of the death of Sarah followed by the intricate negotiations between Abraham and the Hittites who lived on the land and which led to the purchase of a burial plot becomes not just the laying to rest of a great person, Sarah, but the foundation for the future. Sarah’s death and obituary become the linchpin which starts a new story. For after Sarah is buried, Abraham turns to finding a proper wife for his son Isaac. We are shown an Abraham whose imagination is captured by both the needs of caring for the dead and a profound sense of responsibility to the future.
Examining closer the text that shares Sarah’s passing, the Biblical scholar and translator Robert Alter calls attention to what he calls an extravagant use of repetition. His translation of Genesis 23:1 reads: And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty-seven years, the year’s of Sarah’s life. The unnecessary repetition the years of Sarah’s life, is picked up by the Midrash interpreting the reiteration to teach you that the life of the righteous is precious to God both in this world and in the world to come, referring back to the opening declaration made by Rabbi Yohanan that their inheritance shall be forever.(Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 58:1) What Sarah left behind, her inheritance, her righteousness, is encapsulated in that reiteration, the year’s of Sarah’s life. Her life and her contribution live on, well beyond the years given to her.
In the Talmud (Ketubot 77b) we find an observation which reads: Happy is one who comes here, [to paradise], with their learning in their hand. A commentator points out that the person who arrives in the next world with their learning intact had been privileged to bring to light the sparks of the Torah in this world. Those sparks of Torah, which in the case of Rabbi Sacks, are more like spiritual and intellectual torches which will continue to enlighten us for generations to come.
Sarah’s death prompted Abraham to build a bridge between the past and the future, between the unavoidable ending of life, to the concerns of the future. Rabbi Sacks arrives at the gates of the world to come with a Torah he achieved in this life; he leaves behind extraordinary beacons of light, a legacy and an inheritance which shall continue to illuminate students of Torah, and scholars for generations to come.