Chayei Sarah

I cannot read the story of Sarah, her life and death and subsequent burial arrangements, without sadness. I want to ask about her – who was this woman? She had been moved from her homeland without the experience of hearing God’s command to support her. She had been infertile in a time when fertility meant status and her husband was expecting myriad descendants.  Twice she had had to pretend that her husband was not her husband in order for him to survive (and consequently be taken into the harem of Abimelech king of G’rar, and also into that of the Pharaoh). She had taken matters into her own hands by offering her maidservant Hagar to her husband in order for him to bear a son, and was humiliated and embittered by the experience, causing her eventually to send Ishmael away from the family.  The longed for child she finally bore in old age, Isaac, was traumatised by his experiences with his father on a mountain top, and was not present either at her death or her funeral arrangements.  Poor Sarah. Living apart from her husband in Kiryat Arba Hebron while he was in Beer Sheva, a woman one might say who loved too much for her own good.

But it is her last days and her burial arrangements that have extended into our own times, and some of the bitterness and humiliation and tragedy still stalk us. Why was she living in Kiryat Arba, the City of the Four, rather than with her husband and son?  Who were the Four to which the name refers? And why is she to be buried in this cave in Hebron belonging to Ephron the Hittite? A cave whose name, Machpelah, means ‘doubled’?

It is almost as if the idea of plurality is embedded in this text – Kiryat Arba meaning “the city of the four”, Machpelah meaning ‘doubled’ or ‘a couple’, Hevron meaning ”joined/or the place of friendship/relationship”.

The loneliness of the woman living away from her family, somehow estranged from the events that had happened within it, is mirrored with the words to do with ‘two’ or ‘couple’ or even ‘twice coupled’. It is as if we are looking at parallel universes, at the individual and the communal, at being alone and isolated – and at having friends and connections.

Sarah dies alone, without her husband or son, in a place called ‘friendship’. It is a painful and horrible irony. Her husband buries her alone, in a cave called ‘couple’, and goes on to remarry a woman called Keturah (fragrant), though his two sons come and bury him with his first wife in Machpelah when his time comes. As if, after death, everything comes right and husband and wife are reunited. But we know, of course, that we should be putting things right before death comes to us, that behaving well in life is a far greater act than making atonement after the event.

Hevron today is a tragic place; a catastrophe doubled and doubled again, a place not of friendship but of tears and fearfulness. One can almost hear the cries of our mother Sarah who lies at the centre of a town filled with anxiety, where everyone feels alone and isolated, afraid of each other, afraid of what they themselves might do. There is no plurality there at all, just different communities each wishing the others didn’t exist.

I spent a day there a few years ago and was horrified at what I saw, tearful and shaken at how this town I had remembered in the 1980’s as bustling and thriving had become empty and watchful. The tension in the air was palpable, the tension in the people horribly clear. Shuhada Street, a main thoroughfare which led down to what had been the central market area is, in army parlance, ‘sterilised’, meaning it is closed to Palestinians – even those whose front doors open onto it.

The isolation of Sarah, and the tragic events in her life that led up to it, can be felt today in Hevron. All the missed connections, the lack of understanding of human feelings and needs that seem to underpin her life can be felt in modern Hevron.

The support that Sarah gave to Abraham was given at enormous personal expense to – and distortion of -herself, and ultimately they were driven apart by her giving more than she could, and him taking without apparently appreciating what it was that he received. While he mourned her death he did not celebrate her life, he did not seem to know her, or to understand what motivated her or to appreciate her. He was focussed on his religious belief – leave the land they knew to go to another place, offer his son to God on a mountain – to the exclusion of his wife.

“What if” is not usually a productive game to play, but given that it was to be the son of Abraham AND Sarah who was to inherit the promise and the covenant, what if Abraham had worked together with Sarah to share the burden? What if he had understood the price she paid for him to become the wealthy and powerful patriarch he did? What if he had supported her too, so that she did not suffer at the hands of Hagar and retaliate against Ishmael?

And what if Hevron could finally become a place of friendship rather than antagonism, where both parties could share the space and the place, where both could worship at the ancestral graves, where both could live lives of fulfilment and peace, thinking about the needs and feelings of the other and appreciating their difference?

Sarah’s final days and her burial could be a lesson to us in so many ways, the plurality of the names of Machpelah and Kiryat Arba, the relationship and sense of connection implicit in the name Hevron. And the stark reminder that all of us are mortal, that sometimes it is too late to make up again, that then we can only mourn.

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