“From Ritual to Romance”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, ’07
We are informed that after the Akadah, the binding of Isaac, Sarah has died and Abraham has to bury her. Honoring the dead, Kavod HaMet, with the dignity of burial, thus became a sacred Jewish value. Abraham buys the cave of Machpeilah, even though its Canaanite owner agrees to give it to him. Why? We assume that it was to perpetuate the oversight of the burial ground as a family plot dedicated to those who followed the Hebrew God. It is our model for how we create Jewish cemeteries so that we can honor our dead according to our tradition. Frequently, in the Torah, we are told where people were buried, so it must be a meaningful act, to bury our dead and to know where they lie. The narrative follows Jacob’s bones back to Canaan to the family plot, the field and cave of Machpeilah. Later, when Joseph is dying, he makes his children swear to bring his bones back to Canaan for burial as well. When Moses dies, we are not told where, so that he cannot be mourned at his grave, but rather that he be mourned by everyone, everywhere, throughout our tradition.
As a Rabbi and Chaplain, I am often confronted with issues of burial. I live in Miami, FL and the water table here is very low, so frequently people are buried in Mausoleum crypts rather than in the ground. Questions arise whether this is a “kosher” Jewish burial. People are now challenged with financial and spiritual issues that lead to cremation, not a Jewish custom and for many, against Jewish law, particularly in the wake of the Shoah, in which so many Jews died in the Nazi crematoriums. Even more troubling, we have to face situations perpetuated by the funeral industry of separations by religious belief, where a Jewish husband cannot be buried with a non-Jewish wife of a lifetime. In all of this, we have to follow Abraham’s lead as a role model to create a way to bury our families together, so that they rest in peace with each other and so that we get to visit them, as is our custom, in one place. So in life, we have to review the halakhah, the laws of death.
Recently, as part of my training as a hospice chaplain, I learned that the penniless are often placed in a universal mass grave, one on top of the other, without markers or burial services and am comforted that the Jewish community here as in most communities in the US bury the poverty stricken among us with dignity. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation provides for indigent burials for those who die without means. We are devastated when we hear that a Jewish cemetery has been violated, headstones used for building purposes, graves trampled. Our agencies provide financial resources for cemeteries that have become financially destitute and find donors to repair those that have been broken, here and abroad.
Why do we do this? Because our memory and memorializing of life is as important as life itself. Through memory we re-construct meaning. When Abraham is buried at the end of the parshah, he too is brought to the cave of Machpeilah and laid to rest next to Sarah. More important, Isaac and Ishmael come to bury him together and it is said that they are reconciled at his death. So too we know that we are often reconciled with family members at death. We are brought together through memories held in common and grief grounded in those memories. We mourn together in ways that we cannot mourn among those who did not know our beloved. We come together to speak of Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah and to bury both Abraham and Sarah in the ancestral book of memory, our Torah of life itself.
Moreover, we have to find ways to mourn and to sustain us in our grief. Thus, in the middle of the narrative of Sarah and Abraham’s burial, we learn that Isaac has found a wife who he brings into his mother’s tent to comfort him at the death of Sarah. We learn that Abraham marries Keturah, either a new person or another name for Hagar. Either way, in his old age, he finds comfort. He continues to build the lineage of life fulfilling God’s blessing to be as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand at the edge of the sea. The way that we ultimately honor the dead is by continuing to live, to perpetuate our legacy as well. Kavod HaMet and Kavod HaChayim. To honor those who die and those who live beyond death.