Tomb, Womb, and Well: Parashat Chaye Sarah 5770/2009

Delivered at B’nai Or of Boston

I’m now in the middle of my first semester of my first official year for rabbinical school. Woo hoo! Before I get started, I want to take this opportunity to again thank this community for the positive and inspiring impact you have had on my life. As many of you know, B’nai Or played a crucial role in my choosing this path. In school I’m getting to explore our ancient texts in their original languages, crack my teeth on some fascinating and challenging Talmud, learn more about Hebrew grammar than you ever wanted to know existed, and most importantly, pray and learn in a community of individuals who are committed to being those inheritors and innovators of Jewish tradition. Thank you for preparing me for this work by being a nurturing loving Jewish community for me as a child. You did, if I may say, do an especially good job at preparing me to be an innovator of tradition!

 If I have had an intense few years of growth, our community has certainly had the same. I am awed to stand here before you today, seeing the journey that B’nai Or has traveled on this last year. Another organization I care about deeply is currently undergoing financial stress, and I am able to point to us as an example of a community that changed its culture to raise money, articulate our vision for our future, and  hire leadership to help make it happen. One of my friends who has started coming regularly to B’nai Or and is about to start a family, said to me last week “It just seems like a wonderful place to bring children into.”  

Yet at the same time, we have recently experienced  a staggering amount of personal loss. During the high holidays, we heard from people who have lost parents and family members in the past year. When Matia invited everyone who had lost a parent to come up and light a candle,  I was taken aback by how many people stood, and I know that ritual could not even represent all of the loss that we have felt this past year.  As individuals who have experienced loss ourselves, or as friends of those who have experienced loss, we have all been touched by the passing of so many.  Yet at the same time, we have turned our attention to strengthening a children’s program, and exercising new and developing leadership skills like those we saw from so many during the high holidays.  The tension between the two realities of death and new life has been on my mind.   How do we hold both of them in our hearts, minds, and deeds? How do we celebrate new life while at the same time honoring those who have gone?  How do we remember those who have died without staying stuck in our grief?   I have no  absolute answers. But I offer you today some reflections on this week’s Torah portion, which I believe speaks to these themes.

Today we read from the Torah that Sarah, our primal matriarch, dies at the ripe age of 127.    And even though that sounds like a very long life, and one that had come to the fullness of its days, Abraham mourns for Sarah and the bewails her. He takes the time to sit beside her before she is buried.  We learn that every loss can cause grief, no matter how old the person or how wonderful a life they led. I remember once a friend challenging me after my grandfather died, asking me why I was so sad since he got to live such a long life. I didn’t have the words for it then, but this parasha is toan ancient source about mourning for someone who is very old when they die.  If we look to the story of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah,  in which he buries Sarah, we immediately notice that it is full of mentions of death and burial. The root kaf vet resh, to entomb, comes up over and over again in just 20 verses.  Our minds fill with not the financial details of land transaction, but the emotionally wrenching reality of burial in a cave, of the ultimate letting go.  Like Abraham, our Jewish mourning practices and the community we gather around us help us to take the time to mourn and honor those we lose.

Sarah’s death  and burial are followed by a detailed story of how Rivka  came to be Yitzchak’s wife.  Why? Why are the story of Sarah’s burial in the cave and Abraham’s acquisition of it, and the story of Rivka at the well told in such detail, and so close together in the biblical narrative?

A quick refresher on the storyline: After Sarah’s death, Abraham asks his servant to go back to the land of Abraham’s birth to find a wife for Isaac.   The servant meets Rebecca at her well, where she draws water not only for him to drink but enough to water all 10 of the servant's camels. After handing Rebecca gifts of jewelry, Rebecca and the servant return to Rebecca’s family’s home, the story is recounted,  and Rebecca  agrees to marry Isaac.

So, if we zoom in a little bit to the scene at the well, Rebecca is a pinnacle of physical strength,  generosity, and abundance.  The midrash in Genesis Raba goes even further to say, “All the women went down and drew water from the well, whereas for Rivka the water ascended as soon as it saw her” (60:5).  When I was reading through this parasha, I was immediately struck by the two images connected to these two matriarchs:  the cave of Sarah, and the well of Rebecca.  

 When I think about these images, they seem like inverses of each other; both are spaces in the earth, but one receives a body in death, and the other brings forth water to sustain new life. One represents human physical and emotional surrender, for Sarah has no choice but to enter the cave, and Abraham has no choice but to let her go. The other demonstrates the power of human physical strength and will, for young Rivka retrieves enough water for many camels.  While the cave receives and hides the dead, the well turns the earth’s insides outward, reveals the hidden to nourish life. It is worth noting that in the Ancient Near East, caves were used to store water. I might even go so far as to say that both cave and well are symbols of the feminine, the internal space, the womb of the earth.

In addition to the well and the cave, which we will return to, another pair of symbols of connect the two women. When Abraham’s servant sees Rivka, at the well, he gives her a “nose ring weighing a half shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekels in weight” (Gen 24:22). The gift harkens us back to the last time we heard about shekels: Abraham’s purchase of the cave.  Indeed, if you’ll permit the extended metaphor, the two women represent two sides of the human emotional “coin”  or experience – the one that buys the burial plot, and the one that buys the bride, the one that honors what has passed, and the one that looks forward to what is to come.

 If we  read this story focusing on the metaphor of the well  and the cave,  we notice that this parsha’s choreography is like a water pump –  everyone is going up and coming down over and over.  Abraham mourns for Sarah, gets up after his period of mourning, bows down before the Hittites who sell him the cave of Machpelah.   Abraham servant gets up, with the camels, to go find a wife for Isaac, and bows down multiple times in thanks to God when he finds her.  Rivka gets up onto her camel, and down again when she sees Yitzchak. When Rivka and Yitzchak first see each other the text says of them each, separately, that they lifted up their eyes and saw the other. Sarah herself is buried down in the ground, and Rivka pumps water up from the well. And in a less well-known and less often retold part of this parasha, Abraham himself re-marries after Sarah’s death and has other children who go on to found other nations.  He is buried in the same cave where he buried Sarah. The movements of bowing and getting up, of buying a cave and drawing water mirror for us the rising and falling and rising of the generations.  Sarah’s death, preceded by the subtle introduction of Rivka, her heir in the previous parasha, is not the final word. It is but one stop on a continuous cycle of getting up and coming down; death and life and death life again.

So we start to hear a response to the question of why the narratives of Sarah’s death and Rivka by the well are placed so close together: the woman whose womb will continue Sarah’s line draws sustaining waters from the earth into which Sarah was just buried.   The line is continued, the cycle keeps going.  

Perhaps the simplest, and most profound lesson I hear right now from this text, has to do with the name of the parasha: Chaye Sarah, the Life of Sarah. But the story focuses on her burial, not her life. What is going on?   This is the portion of text in which Sarah’s beloved son, Isaac, finds love and the woman who will give him children. Their love and the beginning of their life together happens literally in her name. And I think this is a clue as to how we can both embrace life and honor those we have lost – we can love in their name, we can go about our lives holding their memories as blessings and guides, remembering what was buried in a cave even as we are drawing from the well of our current moment.

But the ever fluid and  multilayered language of Tanakh goes even further with some the subtle word play: the same 3 letters – kuf, vet, and resh – that form kever, grave, also form kirbah, the word used in the next parasha for Rivka’s womb, and indeed, they are the same letters that form her name Rivka, the woman who draws from the well. Tomb, womb, and well --  birth, death, and renewal. The Hebrew hints that they are indeed all intimately related.

I bless this community that we may attended to our grief at the same time that we care for our new life; and that the caring for new life may be done in the name of those who have passed on. Shabbat shalom!