Chayei Sarah: confronting the reality of death, make preparations, do the work

death pic

Confronting the reality of death is always hard, and for Abraham this is no exception. The text that begins with the phrase “the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty and seven years, these were the years of the life of Sarah, and Sarah died…” is the introduction to a protracted negotiation for her burial place.

In the twenty verses of the narrative, only three touch on Abraham’s emotional state “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ In the story as first presented we see that he seems to quickly move from mourning and weeping to making the practical arrangements so that the body of his wife can be buried and removed from before him.

Sarah’s is the first documented burial in bible – up until now the narrative has dispassionately informed us of the death of individuals without much more detail. Yet clearly this burial he is arranging is not an unknown rite. The children of Heth recognise his need and open the negotiations with the offer that he may take his choice from their sepulchres, telling him that no one would withhold their own plot from him should he want to use it. So clearly there was already a well- established proactive structure in place of prepared graves by the time Sarah died, not surprising given the need to quickly dispose of the bodies of the dead. Yet our foundational family did not seem to have made this provision. Was it because as an immigrant family they had not got a sense of ‘owning’ the land they had come to? Or because they had not quite struck roots in the land of Canaan and were still travelling? It is odd that Sarah died in Hebron when Abraham was clearly in Be’er sheva. Were they living separately? The midrash tells of Sarah’s death being caused by her horror that her husband would be prepared to sacrifice their son so had she left Abraham in order to strike out alone? Was any previous plan to have a grave left behind in the tangle of confusion that this relationship trauma had caused, and Sarah’s new place of abode forced Abraham into making new arrangements?

It does seem odd that they had not made plans for their deaths. They were a long way from the graves of their ancestors, (and indeed Terach the father of Abraham had also died in Haran away from his homeland of Ur Chasdim) so they would have had to innovate in their new lives in the new country. Were they hoping for some guidance in the moment? Were they wondering if they would be staying in the land or moving onwards again? What was behind the need for Abraham to have to negotiate for a family plot while in the grief of immediate bereavement? If as a Jewish community we have learned one thing, we have learned of the importance of community support in times of death and bereavement. The chevra kadisha (holy fellowship) which is appointed by every Jewish community to care for the dead, goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Hamnuna (3rd Century CE). The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 27b) tells us This also said Rav Judah as reporting Rav: When a person dies in town, all the townspeople are forbidden from doing work. R. Hamnuna once came to Daru-matha, he heard the sound of the funerary-bugle [and] seeing some people carrying on their work, he said: Let the people be under the shammetha [ban]! Is there not a person dead in town? They told him that there was an Association (chevra kadisha) in the town. If so, said he to them, it is allowed you [to work].”

It provides a fascinating insight into the way the whole community was responsible for taking these practical arrangements from the mourners, and for arranging the dignified care and disposal of the body of the dead. This mitzvah took over from the need to work for everyone in town. There was a notifying sound when someone had died so that everyone would know of the death, and clearly in some places that R.Hamnuna knew, this sound was the prompt to everyone to down tools and go to help. Yet in Daru-matha they were even more organised, having deputed the responsibility to a group of skilled volunteers, much as we do to this day.

This leaves time for the mourner to use more than the 15 percent of time that Abraham was able to give in the narrative, to their grief. They can focus entirely on their loss, on the person they loved, on evaluating and processing and making sense of what has happened. And here Abraham has something very powerful to teach us.

We are told וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ:

Abraham came ‘lispod´ for Sarah and livkotah’

Lispod is the word we use for giving the hesped – for speaking of the dead and telling the story of their life, from where they had come and how the journey had been, assessing and evaluating the real life that was lived, rather than eulogising or praising the person- at least not paying fulsome tribute unrealistically or without the fuller context of the way they lived their life. ‘Hesped’ means to cause to cry – in other words to really understand who we have lost and so to really feel the cost and pain of the death. Only after Abraham has done this, comprehended the full meaning of the life of Sarah, and thus the full extent of his loss, does he cry/mourn.

Sometimes when people die we like only to say good things about them – even unrealistic and unbelievable good things, instead of focussing on who they were, on why they had the damage or the pain or the anger they carried, on how they did or did not deal with the hurts and disappointments every life brings. There is a tendency to quote another midrashic gloss taken from the names of three sidrot in the book of Leviticus – “Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor – After death speak holiness”. And this is a good maxim, but it is not the way of true mourning if we think the holiness /kedoshim means to tell ‘white lies’ or gloss over the reality of the complexity of every lived life.

To truly speak holiness of the dead is to recognise them in their full humanity. To see the flaws as well as the wonders, the spectrum of attributes they held and the way they allowed themselves to be. We need to see the fights they fought, the pain they felt, the love they gave, the achievements they realised, the relationships they worked on, the memories they embodied, the losses and the gains. Whatever the story behind the separation of Sarah and Abraham at her death and the lack of dignified burial space planned for earlier, Abraham teaches us something very powerful. See the person who died, give them their full rights as full human beings who lived fully human lives, and only then cry for yourself and for the loss of them. Confront the reality of them and their deaths, and go on to live your life in the light of that understanding.hevra kadisha(images from Czech republic: Hevra Kadisha building in Prague)

After Death, Speak Holiness

“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” the sequence of these three sidrot in the book of Leviticus are used as a moral teaching in their own right – “After death, holiness speak”

I don’t know where this ethical teaching originates in the Rabbinic sources- it seems to have a folkloric life of its own. But I do know that while it sounds like a Hebrew version of Chilon of Sparta’s 6th Century BCE epigram “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” “Of the dead, nothing unless good” it is in reality quite a different formulation and comes from a very different understanding of the world.

“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” does not mean, as some would like to have us believe, that we cannot ever speak ill of the dead and only say good things about them. Nor does it mean that we should rework the historical truth, so that after a death one has to suddenly say that the deceased was holy. The aphorism does not instruct us to speak only about sacred things rather than about the ordinary realities of life, once a death has occurred. Nor does it imagine that holiness is a state to be achieved only after a life has been lived, something that is not possible in the mundane ordinary world of our life.

In fact, the three central sidrot in Leviticus whose names make up this epithet, all deal with the laws of Kedushah, of holiness, which are precisely not about a heavenly ethereal righteousness – they are about practical ordinary detailed and everyday goodness. So when we say that after death one should speak holiness (kedushah) we are talking not the sacral and not the saintly, but the real meaning of kedushah – the dynamic, practical, societally cohesive and caring activities that imitate God’s being and that we try to emulate.

Kedushah/Holiness in Leviticus is far from the saintly spirituality it has sometimes come to mean to us. Look at the commandments in these three sidrot and you will see all of our lives come into their purview.  There are commandments about giving a fair and living wage on time for the worker to be able to support themselves. There are commandments about respect for others, about the fairness of weights in trade, about not trying to gain advantage through another’s weakness or vulnerability. There are commandments about sexual behaviour and about limitations of power. About what we choose to eat and about how we kill the animals we consume. Commandments about caring for the poor and ensuring there is food, shelter, clothing, respect for all in society. There are commandments about using time and about mandated rest for us, for those who work on our behalf, for the land and the animals we have in our control.  Holiness becomes an organising principle of Judaism, and if one had to boil it down to one sentence it would be something like “do not hurt others with your behaviour” or “love your neighbour as yourself” – itself of course, a phrase found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, later quoted by Mark in the New Testament, and which for me is summed up in the idea that I have never put a limit on how much I care for myself, never decided that I have received all I deserve, never seen myself as ‘other’, and this self awareness should critically inform my thinking about the ‘other’ and what they deserve or need.

We are about to start reading this trio of sidrot, and all week we have been reading about and listening to the reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher, and this has set me thinking. I have been caught by the level of vitriolic personal attack on a woman not yet in her grave;  the venomous rhetoric, the anger stirred up and directed towards a woman who is a quarter of a century out of being in political power, and who has died. I hold no candle for Margaret Thatcher nor for many of her policies, but I wonder a little if, instead of feeling it taboo to speak ill of the dead, or else feeling the need to break that taboo and speak very ill indeed, we followed the Hebrew dictum we might find ourselves in a different place. For if after death we spoke Kedushah – not kind or unkind or hurtful but truthful and healing, this might be a better response. The laws of Kedushah are designed for everyone in society to have an obligation to behave well towards each other and towards those over whom they have power – be it land, workers, livestock, vulnerable people, students…. There is in Leviticus what has been called a democratisation of holiness, in that it is something all of us must participate in, all of us are obliged to do, not something we pass up the hierarchy to rabbis or priests, politicians or other leaders. If both before and after death we use the organising principle of kedushah – of each individual and each family and each company doing their best not to inflict hurt upon others for their own gain then maybe the biblical ideal of a world where everyone tries to care for their neighbour would be reached. Before death there is always the imperative of the code in Leviticus which teaches us and requires from us ordinary active unhurtful behaviour in everything we do – that is a given and one we either choose to live by or not. But after death there is both a greater vulnerability of the powerless, and a greater power of the living to damage and hurt the deceased and those who are close to them. And so it is the greater imperative to do this, as it is so easy to ignore. Acharei Mot, Kedoshim Emor – After a death, when there is nothing the dead can do or say to help themselves, it is all the more important that we promote a healing in the breaches made or left by that person, rather than rent the fabric of our society even further.

ואהבת לרעךך כמוך אני יי