Drash on Parashat Chaye Sarah
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
When I entered secondary school, Tanakh was taught with the aid of a slim book of hand-annotated maps, which made the geography of Canaan and the lands around it come alive for me. I still have Moshe Davis and Isaac Levy’s “Journeys of the Children of Israel”, whose cover price was 13s. 6d., thirteen shillings and six pence in the old money. Pages 12-13 map the journeys of Abram according to the biblical quotations that provide the travel of itinerary of his household.
Whilst it is interesting to note that the start point of Ur Kasdim looks very close to the latitude of Be’er Sheva, where Avraham settled in late age, the detail map showing the relationship of Hevron to its southern neighbour poses a challenge for this week’s parsha. We know well the story of Sarah’s death and the negotiations with Efron the Hittite for the purchase of her resting place, the undisputed Kever ha’Machlepah. Gen 23:2 states that “Sarah died in Kiri’at-Arba – the same is Hebron.” Yet there is clearly a distance between the place where Avraham made his camp and the place where she lived out her final days.
As to the length of time between the conclusion of the trial on Mount Moriah and Sarah’s demise, we are left to speculate. But it would seem that some time elapsed, because in the four verses which follow the conclusion of the story of the ‘binding of Isaac’ there was time to survey the descendents of the extended household of Avraham’s brother Nahor, his wife Milcah and his concubine Reumah. Was that to formalize a line of succession, in the event that there be any further terrible prospect of God’s promise of a long line of blessing not coming to fruition through Yitzchak? Rashi asserts that the purpose was to create the lineage to the birth of Rivkah, in anticipation of the necessity to provide a suitable bride for Yitzchak.
But where was Sarah whilst all this succession planning was taking place? Why were husband and wife apart at the end of their lives? Sarah died alone – that is to say undoubtedly in a community of relatives and servants – but apart from Avraham (va’ya’vo Avraham Gen 23:2) who had to come north to eulogize her. Rashi is unambiguous that “her soul flew from her and she died” as a result of hearing the news from Yitzchak’s experience. But what was the time lag between hearing that news and her demise?
We bury our dead with dignified haste, but camel journeys and cave-buying negotiations take time. Only Avraham’s place in events is narrated. The women who attended to Sarah, who would have grieved with her when the news from Moriah was known and for her as she lost her spirit and died, prepared her for burial and provided the food for the mourners who arrived in her honour have no recorded place in the story.
The distance between the primary Jewish couple and the place of their support teams at the end of their lives invite us to pause and ask in today’s world how our elders manage the final challenges of their lives. The privilege of greatly extended lifespan for some places potentially crippling tests upon our elders and on all of us, their families. When health and wellbeing issues mean that partners choose or have to be separated from each other at the end of their lives, who does the caring? Who shuttles between the metropolitan equivalents of Be’er Sheva and Hebron? Who launders, cooks, cleans, provides transport to medical appointments and attends to the small details of life, which make the quality difference for our elders? Who is able to acknowledge the demands of emotional turmoil as we watch parents and grandparents respond to the final demands of life in the actualities of old age, rather than the fairy-tale world of retirement community advertisements where no-one ever gets sick?
David and Levy’s map of physical distance in the Holy Land depicts physical separation between our forebears at the start of the Jewish story. Many of us grapple with the distances which separate even life-long partners who are parted by emotional trauma, unresolved grief or conflict, the imposed silences of dementia, the exhaustion of degenerative disease and the separations required when one has to leave home and go “into a home” whose distance may not be far, but which might as well be as far as Hevron to Be’er Sheva.
May we all be blessed to make the journeys of the final stages of life with dignity and supported well. May life not send us so many tests as to cause our souls to “fly” as was the case for our foremother Sarah, Princess of the Jewish people.