Parshat Chayei Sarah

By Cantor Seth Ettinger, ’14

Chayei Sarah: A Lesson In Planning Ahead

When is the right time to establish a family trust? My wife, Sarah, and I recently finalized ours, which felt weird to do, in our thirties. We had to discuss, and make decisions on, who from our social network would care for our children should we both pass before they turned 18. We decided and provided stipulations for inheritance, splitting our estate between our small children. The most eerie part for me was establishing advance directives and what our final wishes will be for our post-life care and interment. Each step involved difficult conversations but once the trust was completed, we felt great relief in that our children would not have to worry about making difficult decisions on what to do should we, God-forbid, become incapacitated. Most importantly, our figuring out each decision brought Sarah and I closer together as marital partners.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Sarah the matriarch, who at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, meaning, “the life of Sarah,” dies at 127 years of age. In the opening verses, Abraham returns to Hebron to “eulogize his wife Sarah and bewail her” following her death in Kiriath arba (Gen. 2:2). Though Sarah’s life is long, the abrupt transition to her death following the Akedah at the conclusion of Parshat Vayeira without citation of time, cause, nor a listing of her lineage, suggests that Sarah’s death was both sudden and unintended by God. Rashi provides a midrash that it was Satan who told her the events of the Akedah but before Satan could divulge that Isaac survived, Sarah let out six cries and her soul left her body (Ber. Rab. 58:5). According to the midrash, Sarah’s death would have occurred before Abraham and Isaac returned. Whether they learned of her death before, or upon, their return, Sarah’s death comes as a shock to Abraham and Isaac who, I’m imagine, like so many survivors of sudden loss, never thought they would be burying Sarah when they returned home.

Adding to his stress, Abraham is then burdened with planning Sarah’s burial with no leads on burial sites; as the text states, “And Abraham arose from before his dead, and he spoke to the sons of Heth saying, ‘I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you. Give me burial property with you, so that I may bury my dead from before me” (Gen. 23:3-4). In knowing what he would attempt to do to Isaac, one would think that Abraham could have taken the time to discuss, with Sarah, her final wishes, should something happen to her while he and Isaac were away. Up to that moment, Abraham was keen on choosing the “good” path, and “one who chooses the good path,” according to Rabbi Shimon, “plans for the future” (Avot 2:9).

In this case, Chayei Sarah serves as a reminder that it is never too early to think about end-of-life affairs. We may think we have ample time, but we never know what could happen tomorrow. It is scary to know that we are all “terminal” but like I’ve observed with those whom I’ve accompanied in their final hours of life, nobody wants to have to make the decision to either not call the ambulance should they go into cardiac arrest, or take their spouse, parent, child, or friend off life-support because in most instances, those are the decisions that drive surviving family members apart. Let us instead learn from the life of Sarah and use the time we fortunately have left to lessen the burden on those who will survive us and instruct them on how we want to be interred and remembered so they don’t have to. Though we may not be around to see it, it will be the kindest act we can do for them when that moment comes.