Parshat Chayei Sarah
Torah Reading for Week of November 5-11, 2017
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
“Burying the Dead”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, ’11
In Chayei Sarah, we actually read about two deaths and burials: Sarah’s and Abraham’s. The parsha exemplifies what Jewish burial should be. Because Abraham and Sarah are our first patriarch and matriarch we would do well to emulate their behaviors. The parsha instructs us about burial plots and the emotional benefits of taking care of this difficult task.
About two years before my father died, I asked him if he had purchased a burial plot. He said no but he knew where he wanted to be buried. I proposed a fieldtrip to the cemetery. We looked at several places, and the last one at the top of a knoll, appealed to him. He delayed its purchased because he wanted to discuss it with his wife. When he died, the plot had still not been purchased, but I felt such relief that I knew where he wanted to be buried. The burden of negotiating the business of death was lifted: discussing options and negotiating a choice with a large family. We could mourn our father and later visit him.
When Sarah died, Abraham comes to mourn and cry for her. He arises; commentators add, from shiva, ויקם. He has business to conduct. He immediately goes to secure a burial plot for her, and he knows the place he wants even in the new land, where he is a stranger. After the purchase, the field, is described as “made sure.” The Hebrew verb ויקם is the action associated with the field–the same verb used to describe Abraham’s action in rising after mourning to buy a plot. There is the suggestion that the field itself rises up in importance, or is uplifted by Abraham’s act of purchasing it as a grave for Sarah.
This same odd phrasing, that the field was raised, “made sure,” is repeated as Abraham is reassured that this field remains in his possession for future burial. Rashi comments about the verb used to describe the field of Ephron a second time: “ויקם is literally ‘and it rose,’ there was for it a rise in importance for it went out of the hands of an ordinary person into the hands of a king.” So Rashi also senses an upward motion within the burial plot, which he attributes to its belonging to Abraham. I suggest that the upward motion associated with the field derives from its use as a sacred place to bury the dead, that it reflects Abraham’s emotions as he discharges his sacred duty.
As the parsha ends, we learn that Abraham distributes his wealth to his sons before he dies. Then the Torah records that Isaac and Ishmael buried him. The last time we heard of Ishmael was his banishment along with his mother Hagar by Abraham because Sarah feared for Isaac. This field of Ephron with its special quality may itself contribute to enabling Ishmael and Isaac to come together at their father’s death and honor him through his burial. I suggest that the existence of a family burial plot can bring harmony to a family where conflict may have existed earlier. As a hospice chaplain I have witnessed many adult children arguing about what to do at a parent’s death because no burial plot had been purchased and no arrangements articulated.
What deep relief is available if the burial place, the cemetery, is known. Beit Olam (the house everlasting or the house of the world) is one common phrase to describe a Jewish cemetery. Ibn Ezra called it “my parents’ lodging place.” The act of purchasing our “home everlasting” helps each of us to face our death so that we can better number our days for the good.