On death and land: thoughts on Chayei Sarah
October 23, 2013
In the first line of this week's Torah portion (Chayei Sarah) the matriarch Sarah dies, and Avraham negotiates to buy a burial place for her: the cave of Machpelah in what is now Hebron. Our first record of ownership of any of the land of Canaan is thus the purchase of a cemetery plot. Land ownership, death, and permanence seem to be linked: while alive, Sarah wandered the land, but now that she is dead, she is fixed in place. When we die, our lives become fixed as though in amber. Whatever stories were told about us while we lived -- those stories calcify like the fossils in the seabed of our ancient seas.
By the end of the portion, Avraham too dies, and his two sons -- Isaac born to Sarah, and Ishmael born to Hagar -- bury him in the same cave where he had buried Sarah. This parsha begins and ends with death. All roads in this portion lead to the cave, the tomb, the entrance into the earth. Maybe in their father's death the two half-brothers are able, however temporarily, to reconcile... or maybe Avraham's absence just heightens their alienation from each other, the ways in which they remember the same stories from childhood through different lenses, trauma in one brother's memory transmuted in the other brother's mind into rosy-hued comfort.
Reading this Torah portion now, I can't help thinking about the modern-day city of Hebron, which I visited several years ago and hope to visit again next year. I think about the continuing tensions between the spiritual descendents of Isaac and the spiritual descendants of Ishmael, and how those tensions have played out at the very site (more or less) which our two traditions hold to be Abraham's burial-place -- from the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre to recent tensions in the South Hebron Hills. And then I think about initiatives like Project Hayei Sarah ("A group of rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educators & lay-leaders who have spent time in Hebron and are grappling with the difficult realities we encountered there") and this week's Christian Science Monitor story Why rabbis are helping Palestinians with olive harvests, and I wonder whether projects like those offer threads of hope to which we can cling.
The dead don't fight over who promised what to whom, but we, the living -- we contend bitterly over who has the right version of the truth. This is true on the microcosmic level of an individual family's narratives, and it's true on the macrocosmic level of the descendants of Abraham / Ibrahim -- the vast family narrative of which our traditions tell us we are a part. Every year as we return to parashat Chayei Sarah, I reread the story of my teacher Reb Zalman among the Sufis of Hebron, and I wish that more of us could meet others -- and Others, those whom our stories and our perspectives cast as being different from us -- the way that my teachers have taught me to try to do. What would it take to bring life to our relationships with our cousins from the line of Ishmael -- to say that our interactions don't have to be calcified like the ossified remains of our ancestors, but can instead be alive to growth and change, filled with connection and possibility?
Previous years' divrei Torah on this portion:
- 2005: Chayyei Sarah: the meaning of ownership
- 2008: In the same key [Torah poem]
- 2009: Departure [Torah poem]
- 2010: The years of my life
Photo source (Tomb of Abraham mosaic): my flickr stream.