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Torah Commentary
Chayei Sarah (November 26, 2016)
 

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)


Chaplain
Rita Sherman

It’s called “The Life of Sarah,” but what this portion tells us about Sarah’s life is simply its span. What we know about her, about her life, comes from earlier portions, and from our imaginings, including imagining how she might have felt when, at God’s command, her husband, Abraham, took their child, Isaac, to be sacrificed — this, the child she had yearned for well beyond the years of fertility, whose prophesied birth had seemed so unlikely, she had laughed bitterly.

That act of faith on Abraham’s part, the binding of Isaac, immediately precedes this portion, when we learn that Sarah died. Is there a relationship between the two? We don’t know. We know Abraham immediately applied himself to the task of burying his wife and of honoring her memory.

The Torah tells us what he did, not how he felt. But it gives us a clue, a clue also of great insight into our own sorrows.

If you look at the Hebrew text, at the end of the second verse is something curious: One letter in the last word is written smaller than the others — the kaf. It is in the word that means, “and to weep for her.”

Why is the kaf smaller than the other letters? It could, of course, simply be a mistake that a long-ago scribe made that was then faithfully copied by succeeding scribes. But even mistakes have meaning.

The sage Rashi relates it to the dividing of Sarah’s life in the preceding verse into three parts, when Torah tells us her lifetime was “one hundred and twenty and seven years.” At 100, Rashi says, she was as sinless as at 20; and at 20, she had the beauty of an innocent child of 7.

Hebrew letters have numerical equivalences, and the letter kaf is equivalent to 20. So, Rashi says, the kaf is made smaller than the other letters because, while Sarah was undisputedly beautiful (at 20, kaf), that beauty was secondary to her qualities of character.

That makes sense. But Rabbi Hirsch suggests something else that makes even more sense: The letter is small because Abraham kept the depth of his grief private. Yes, he “wept for her” but only so much in public.

In many ways, the early verses of this portion establish the Jewish way of mourning, with its insistence on quick and respectful burial; deep immersion into grieving, with the support of family, friends and community; and an ending of that grieving, a return to a focus on the living.

We receive visitors for seven days. We say the Kaddish prayer for a year, and then again every year on the anniversary of the death. We remember our beloved dead on Yom Kippur and at Yizkor services during the three pilgrimage festivals.

We are supported by those who love us.

But there comes a time when, in the quiet dark, we put our head on the pillow, exhausted, only to find ourselves unable to sleep, weeping instead. Perhaps our dearest is right beside us; no matter: We are alone.

There comes a time when we hear the strains of a song, taste something delicious, or God-awful, smell something, a familiar perfume, perhaps — and, suddenly, all we have lost overwhelms us again. There comes a time when we reach for the phone, only to realize there is no one at the other end; a time when we hear a joke and want to pass it on; a time when we see a sunset, a rainbow, a child, a rose.

These are times, small times, times that hit us, that blindside us, that leave us raw. Yes, there are big times that hit us with a strong awareness of absence, especially times when we celebrate — a child becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding. But it is the small times, times we cannot anticipate and for which we cannot prepare, that take our breath away.

These are the times the kaf is smaller than the letters around it...precious, terrible times.

***

And Sarah’s life was one hundred and twenty and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died; and her husband wept for her, both in public and in the deepest recesses of his heart, teaching us, all these generations later, about love and loss.



Temple member Rita Sherman is a member of our Reader’s Panel and
a chaplain in the department of Pastoral Care at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn.




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