It always amazes me when modern Jewish practice Biblical behavioral norms are in sync. After all, our world is so different from the world of the Torah. However, in this week’s Torah Portion, we see behavior from Abraham and and his family that still makes sense today as we face the same challenges. Here are three examples:
Abraham acquired the Cave of Machpelah. According to some interpretations, Abraham and Sarah were estranged after the binding of Isaac, which we read about in last week’s portion). It is understandable that Sarah perceived the incident as a disregard for the value of Isaac’s life. The text tells us that Abraham lived in Be’er Sheva while Sarah lived in Kiryat Arba (or Hevron), and there is no recorded dialogue between them after the binding of Isaac. Nevertheless, upon hearing of his wife’s death, Abraham acted quickly to honor Sarah properly after her death.
After complex negotiations, Avraham insisted on paying a fair amount to purchase the land around the Cave of Machpelah as a burial site for Sarah. He refused to take it as a gift. We today also insist on burial in a Jewish cemetery – owned by the Jewish community with the individual plot owned by the family. There is something reassuring about knowing that our community will take care of our loved ones in perpetuity.
Abraham’s actions also hint at the later Jewish custom of on’nut – the pre-mourning period of time in funeral arrangements are made. It is a limbo period, during which we cannot allow our natural urge to mourn to kick in. Rather it is required that we take care of the details which will ensure our loved one’s proper burial. We show our respect for life by the way in which we tend to the details of death.
Abraham immediately sought out a wife for Isaac to ensure the continuation of his and Sarah’s line. Granted, we handle marriages a little differently in our community today. However, like most parents of adult children, Abraham wanted one thing and one thing only from Isaac – grandchildren! So, he sent his servant Eliezer to go find a wife for Isaac, and he returned with Rebecca.
It will not be until next week’s portion when we will read about the birth of her children, but Abraham laid the groundwork through his actions immediately after Sarah’s death. We too link birth to death, and in so doing give life to the deceased. In the Ashkenazi tradition, we typically name our children after loved ones who have passed away.
For example, I am named after my mother’s father who died a few years before I was born – Avraham. In a strange coincidence, my wife Jodi’s Hebrew name happens to be the same as my grandmother’s – Yehudit. Before she passed away, my grandmother loved the fact that there was a couple – her grandson and his wife – with the same Hebrew names as her husband and herself. We give life to them even though they are no longer a part of this world.
When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael stood shoulder to shoulder in burying their father – despite their differences and rivalries.
Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father despite their differences over the years. When Isaac was young, the Torah tells us that Ishmael mocked him in some way. In response, Sarah asked Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishamel from their home, which he initially did. Despite all that history, Isaac and Ishmael stood shoulder to shoulder to bury their father.
One of my first funerals as a rabbi was a case where a woman passed away without the means to pay for her funeral. Everyone involved provided their services for free. As I tried to find out more about this woman so that I might eulogize her appropriately, I found out that she had a son who refused to pay for her funeral and would not even attend.
At this point all of the arrangements had been made, and no one was looking for any money from him. So, I called him and begged him to come to the funeral. I explained that we never get a second chance to go to a funeral. We must put aside whatever injuries – whether perceived or real – and come together at such a moment. I cannot imagine what a mother could do to a child to cause him so much hurt and anger as to want to avoid even her funeral. But in the end he came, and he thanked me afterwards.
Our world is a different world than the world of the Book of Genesis. However, laying our loved ones to rest in a traditional manner in consecrated ground still brings closure. Passing down the traditions we’ve inherited from previous generations to the next generation still gives our lives meaning. Setting aside familial differences in order to honor the dead still makes a painful loss slightly less terrible.