Chayei Sarah

Double Chamber Double Heart

By Rabbi Rochelle Robins


This d’var Torah is written with the kavanah, the intention, of shleimut, wholeness and peace. What is intention? And what good is it during this time of distress and world crisis? Our usual answers, prayers, poems, music choices, and philosophical directions pale in contrast to the devastation of massacre and war. We struggle, together and alone, to find the right words, responses, and resources. Which words, thoughts, conversations, artistic expressions, and songs, if any, carry us through each day? Can we find balm in the words of Torah that does not feel trite in this moment? Does such balm exist?

Many of us enjoy creative and clever discoveries in interpretation. We dive into the Parshiot, jump to the rabbinical commentaries, and land in contemporary literature to make the text come to life in our own days. Now, still, as couples, families, and individuals are being forensically identified after brutal carnage, textual repartee feels ineffective at best and inappropriate at worst. How long did it take our rabbinical ancestors to turn tragedy into wordplay and textual analysis? How long does it take for generational and intergenerational trauma to transform? During a recent AJRCA lunch and learn, investigative journalist Rebecca Clarren, who writes about the lands of the American West, asked, “How do we become good ancestors to our descendants?” Is there anything in Parshat Chayei Sarah that can illuminate our lives right now to help us accomplish this?

Our Parsha is in part about a sacred burial estate that Abraham acquires for himself and his descendants. This burial ground is located in a cave, the Maarat HaMachpelah, where spousal couples Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried (as described in Genesis). Mystical tradition also teaches that the primordial couple, Adam and Eve, are also interred in Abraham’s burial estate. Maarat HaMachpelah means “the double cave.” Rashi’s Torah commentary speculates that the cave was named as such either due to its double caverns with an upper and lower level, or as the result of double burials of couples there.

When Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan, Abraham says to the people in the land of Chet, “Ger v’toshav anochi imachem” (“I am a stranger and resident among you”) and requests that the people of Canaan allow him to purchase the burial ground to inter his dead in the location of his residing. For posterity and love for Sarah, Abraham purchases and secures an uncontestably documented place for the dead that the living could claim.

Today, the location is a fraught, controversial holy site cherished by Jews, Muslims, and Christians on the West Bank of Israel. Yearly, during Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah, observant Jewish tourists overflow the Maarat HaMachpelah to pray in the environment of the ancestors. Yet being uncontestable in Torah does not make it less disputable among family, friends, and enemies.

What if somewhere in the text Abraham purchased the Maarat HaMachepelah for all to hold sacred – a double-hearted action? Perhaps the double nature of the Maarah, the cave, is not in the chambers of the place itself but in the vastness of the heart, with its own double upper and lower chambers. Perchance the four couples buried within the double cave represent the four chambers of the heart, welcoming all to enter, pray, and share, with ample room for all.

The rabbis extrapolated and configured biblical information, facts, and numbers through gematria/numerology and metaphor. In that tradition, while the idea presented here creates a few questions, quandaries, and areas of mathematical confusion, I invite you to expand this unfinished commentary with me. Again, nothing works these days without our togetherness.

There is vulnerability in being a stranger and a resident at the same time. What does it mean to be a stranger and a resident among others? What does it mean to be a perfect stranger at all times?

The devastation of this moment in our lives understandably arouses anger and pain. The circumstance necessitates increased mourning, fear, terror, and grief. We have no easy nechemta, message of comfort, as burials continue to occur from immeasurable, unimaginable brutality. There is no reconciliation or easy answer in this moment. The cliché of hoping against hope, faith in seeing possibility and working for it, and somehow demonstrating our ability to be good ancestors is a message worth grasping, even as vitriol and violence are directed at us.  If Sarah were here to interpret the text alongside us, how might she want us to interpret her burial, its location, and its meaning? What commentary would stem forth from her mouth into our lives? Or is there silence because she herself is stunned and cannot find the words, poetry, or sources to communicate with us?