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Torah Commentary
Chayei Sarah (November 11, 2017)

Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the presence of the Hittites — four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre — the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of the field — passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gates of the town. And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre — now Hebron — in the land of Canaan.

— Genesis 23:16-19

Bettijane Eisenpreis

While the title of this parashah translates as “Sarah’s Life,” it is really about Sarah’s death. In the previous section, Vayeira, it appears that Abraham never mentioned to his wife that he was taking their only son off to a mountain to sacrifice him to the Lord. As a mother, I am sure that Sarah would have objected loudly to the idea, had she known.

After God provided the ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac, the Bible tells us that Abraham went to Beersheba and stayed there. There is no mention of where Isaac went, nor does it seem that either Abraham or Isaac reported back to Sarah that everything was okay. Some commentaries say that Sarah died as a result of her grief, wrongly supposing that Isaac had been killed.

Whether out of a sense of guilt or of genuine sorrow, or some combination of the two, Abraham swung into action after Sarah’s death. He insisted on buying the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite for her final resting place. The two men went through a sort of dance: Ephron pretended he would give the cave to Abraham and didn’t want his money, but Abraham, realizing that what is given for nothing can easily be taken back, insisted on buying the cave for the full price — 400 shekels of silver. Ironically, this cave became for generations the only actual property the Israelites owned in Canaan. All the Patriarchs and their wives, except for Rachel, were buried there. To this day, the cave has great significance for Jews everywhere. Despite what may have gone before between him and Sarah, in the end Abraham did the right thing.

There is something satisfying about the rituals of burial and mourning, more for the living than for the dead. Recently, an old friend passed away. I had not seen him for many years, but after his retirement, he had started a blog on the Internet, which I read regularly. It was full of humor and interesting comments. I had not seen the blog for a few months when I got an email from the blogger’s son saying that his father was not well. Shortly thereafter, the son wrote that his father had passed away and invited me and other friends to a gathering to talk about his father.

It was a lovely, bittersweet afternoon. The son read a note from his father saying that he was not a religious person, but he would like his friends to get together after his death and talk about him. “I hope you will say good things,” the note said, “but that’s up to you.” We went around the room remembering our friend fondly and with humor. At the end, a rabbi who was a relative led us in the Kaddish.

I can’t tell you how satisfying that afternoon was. More and more, I read an obituary of someone I know and respect, but there is no notice of a funeral. I write a condolence note, which is answered in due course, but I miss being able to say goodbye.

Of course, burying one’s relatives is a matter of personal choice. Starting with the Cave of Machpelah, it is never easy to find a proper place of burial. In our heavily populated country, cemeteries usually are located many miles from center city. And, purchasing a gravesite isn’t cheap or easy. But, like Abraham, I believe in saying goodbye. Death is an inevitable part of life’s journey. Only if we acknowledge that our friend or relative has left us can we then move on with our own lives.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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