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Torah Commentary
Chayei Sarah (November 10, 2012)

Sherry Nehmer,

THIS WEEK’S PORTION, Chayei Sarah, is literally the “Life of Sarah,” but in my family, it turns out to be a little bit about the life of my father, Stanley Nehmer.

A few months ago I was helping my mother go through some books in her library. I pulled out a large tome, a detailed commentary on the book of Genesis — a book she didn’t remember owning — and to our surprise out fell a Torah commentary written by my dad in 1976. He’d never shown any interest in doing this sort of thing; neither one of us can remember him taking a Torah study class or discussing the Torah in any way (although he was a staunch supporter of Classical Reform Judaism and was very fond of the Union Prayer Book, which he could quote at length in a dramatic basso).

And yet….here were his observations on Chayei Sarah. It included topical and timely references to Israel, which interested him greatly, and discussions of land purchases, which would have suited his nature as a negotiator with foreign regimes on behalf of the U.S. Government. But why had he written it? What were the circumstances? We still don’t know, but my guess is that our rabbi had asked him, as a founder of our temple, to write on the subject, and perhaps speak in temple on Shabbat, which he would have done out of devotion to Rabbi Bruce Kahn and to Judaism.


Stanley Nehmer

And so, here follows the one and only known Torah commentary by my father, Stanley Nehmer, found written on foolscap paper in his own unique handwriting:

Chayei Sarah

Tonight’s Sidra is fascinating, more perhaps for what it means than for what it says. The significance of many aspects of this week’s portion of the law has its roots deep in the traditions of Judaism, and at the same time has modern day implications.

Let us begin with the title — Chayei Sarah — the life of Sarah. But the portion is about the death of Sarah at the age of 127. Why is it referred to as the “life of Sarah?” The interpretation placed on this seeming anomaly by Talmudic scholars is that in Judaism life is far more important than death. In contrast to other religions, life, not death, is glorified by Judaism.

Sarah, which means “princess,” the matriarch of us all, the wife of Abraham, was a true pioneer. Together with Abraham she left her family and her home to wander and to be a stranger in a strange land. Her years were truly filled with life [see the portion Lech L’cha] and that is why the literal Hebrew expresses her life span in an unusually extended fashion, as “100 years and 20 years and 7 years.” So with the Jewish tradition of glorifying life and, in the case of Sarah, a very full life, the Sidra is titled the “Life of Sarah” as it describes her death and burial.


Click on the image
to see Stanely’s handwritten commentary.

One of the most interesting aspects of this week’s portion is not only how Abraham bargained with Ephron for the burial site and paid a high price in the process, but why Abraham insisted on paying for the cave of Machpeleh when it or any other burial place was offered to him without payment by the people of Heth (or Hittities) in what is now the city of Hebron.

The answer is probably complex. Abraham owned no land. He was a wanderer. He sought desperately for something physical, some place, even a grave site, to call his own. Did the Hittites mean what they offered? If he accepted a grave site free of charge, could he later be accused of taking something that was not his? Abraham’s need to own some land, even a burial place as a token, together with his doubts about the Hittites, undoubtedly led him to insist on paying. The actual bargaining with Ephron was not untypical for that part of the world, then and even today.

The interesting part of this process was that it was the same approach used thousands of years later when Theodore Herzl’s followers in the 19th and early 20th centuries bought land from the Turks in Palestine to establish a homeland. Israel as we know it today began with those land purchases. The tradition extends back to Abraham’s bargaining with Ephron to purchase the cave of Machpeleh as a burial place for Sarah.

Machpeleh is more than the place where Sarah was buried. According to Genesis, all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs except for Rachel were buried there. Machpeleh, however, is sacred ground not only to Jews but also to Christians and Muslims. The cave is located within a huge wall where the Byzantines built a Christian church, which the Muslims later converted to a mosque. Until Israel captured the city of Hebron in the Six Day War of 1967, Christians and Jews were prohibited from praying within the compound. And as we have read in recent weeks, this was the area which was the scene of riots when Arabs living in Hebron claimed the Qur’an had been desecrated at the Cave of Machpelah in this compound. And so, this is indeed a fascinating Sidra. This land is part of our understanding of the full cycle of the life of Sarah, and of Israel today.


Thanks, dad, for giving me a little more insight into the Torah…and into you.

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