Tuesday, November 10, 2020

D'var Chayei Sara

This coming week, we’ll read parsha Chayei Sara, the life of Sarah. Of course, most parshot (as well as books) in the Torah are named for some of their first words. This is no exception. The second and third words are “chayei sara”. Then again, so are the eleventh and twelfth words, still within the first verse. In full, it reads:

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.

So, although it’s called “the life of Sara”, it’s actually about her death. In a moment, I’d like to get to what comes after her passing, but for now, let’s focus on this first verse.

Why is “chayei sara” repeated? I don’t speak Hebrew, but here’s something that jumps out at me here. The first time, it says “the life of Sarah was so and so many years”. That tells us, “Sarah got to live for this long.”

The second time, though, the wording is flipped. It’s “the years of the life of Sarah.” In other words, the years that the world got to have Sarah in it. The focus here becomes the impact she had on those around her and on her time. From this, we learn that the acts and deeds of her life actually extend beyond her passing. She had a lasting impact that was felt and that made a difference even when she was no longer present.

Think of some of the words we say to a fellow Jew as they mourn the passing of a loved one:

“Zichrono/a Livrocho” זיכרונו לברכה 

You’ll commonly see its abbreviation zayin lamed (ז״ל)‎ in bulletins and emails. Translated literally, this means, “memory-of-them to-blessing”: “their memory is a blessing” or sometimes “may their memory be a blessing”.

When someone dies, their works don’t suddenly disappear from the world. In particular, their efforts are remembered and carried on by others. The impact of the departed can still be felt and seen long after they themselves are gone.

One potential example of her influence is in how Abraham prepares to bury Sarah. He doesn’t have a burial plot for her, so goes to the Hittites to ask to buy land from them. Now, just a few chapters ago in Genesis 20, Sarah and Abraham arrived in Gerar and said they were brother and sister, thinking this might protect them. King Abimelech had Sarah brought to him thinking to marry her, but G-d intervenes and threatens him since she’s married.

In the aftermath of that, Abimelech gives Abraham land and sheep and oxen and slaves, setting him up nicely. Abraham is seen to simply accept this at the time, but a chapter later has to fight for his claim. Some of Abimelech’s servants have been using a well Abraham dug, and Abraham then ends up giving a bunch of sheep back to Abimelech, in effect buying back what he built.

Sarah, in the meantime, had asked Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, expressing concern that there might be future disputes over inheritance. She saw that it is important not to leave such matters to chance or future whim, but to settle them well in advance.

So, when Abraham is again acquiring land, this time for the burial plot, he does it the right way. I like to think this is something he learned from Sarah’s example. He says, “Sell me a burial site.”

Now, if any of you have ever heard of Arab hospitality, or perhaps even experienced it, what happens next won’t surprise you. They reply:

שְׁמָעֵ֣נוּ ׀ אֲדֹנִ֗י נְשִׂ֨יא אֱלֹהִ֤ים אַתָּה֙ בְּתוֹכֵ֔נוּ בְּמִבְחַ֣ר קְבָרֵ֔ינוּ קְבֹ֖ר אֶת־מֵתֶ֑ךָ אִ֣ישׁ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ אֶת־קִבְר֛וֹ לֹֽא־יִכְלֶ֥ה מִמְּךָ֖ מִקְּבֹ֥ר מֵתֶֽךָ׃

“Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.”

In other words, “your money’s no good here.” But this is a dance to play- and Abraham responds appropriately. He bows, and gently makes known specifically that he has his eye on a particular cave on the edge of the property of Ephron. He insists that he will pay full price for it.

Now, Ephron happened to be present and says that he’ll give the cave to Abraham along with the field! Here, he’s letting it be known that he doesn’t want to get rid of one without the other, but still with the “you should have it” attitude.

Abraham insists again that he’ll pay for it, and Ephron’s response is my favorite part. He says:

אֲדֹנִ֣י שְׁמָעֵ֔נִי אֶרֶץ֩ אַרְבַּ֨ע מֵאֹ֧ת שֶֽׁקֶל־כֶּ֛סֶף בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵֽינְךָ֖ מַה־הִ֑וא וְאֶת־מֵתְךָ֖ קְבֹֽר׃

“My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.” 

Through this dance, he has finally told Abraham the conditions: if you want the cave, you need to take the field too. And, by the way, they’re worth 400 silver shekels. So what does Abraham do? Of course, having learned from his missteps with Abimelech, he pays for it right then and there in the presence of the Hittites, having also learned from Sarah that he should not leave the future of this land to chance.

So what do we, in the modern day, learn from this? A few things. One - the passing of a great person does not end their ability to influence those who knew them and therefore have a positive impact on the world. Second - learn from your mistakes and try not to make the same one twice if you can help it. Third - (and this comes from my research for this d’var) never arrive at the house of an Arab with a full stomach because you will be fed. More seriously, though, learn the customs of the land you are in, and act appropriately to secure a place for yourself while still acting in accordance with your own traditions.

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