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Chayei Sara: Loss and Legacy

In the last week, the Jewish community suffered two gargantuan losses with the passing of HaRav Dovid Feinstein z”l and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l. Words are insufficient to adequately portray the profound sense of sadness permeating the Jewish world, bereft of these two giants in Torah scholarship and leadership. Personally, I regard Rabbi Sacks as a mentor and role model, in demonstrating what it means to be a Jewish leader, teacher, and lover of people. I have always held a deep admiration for his incredible ability to seamlessly weave together deep Torah wisdom, history, literature, and psychology into a vivid tapestry of inspiration and illumination. Rabbi Sacks’s weekly Covenant and Conversation articles are a staple of my own Parsha learning experience, in awe of his carefully crafted words and infusion of thoughtful intellectualism in the teaching and internalizing of Torah ideas. His loss leaves an immense void in our hearts, and enormous spiritual and interpersonal shoes to fill in the realm of Jewish leadership, education, and outreach.

As such, in considering what ideas to highlight in this week’s Thought for Thought, it was obvious that we would set out to explore the complexities of loss as they relate to this week’s Torah portion. Despite having little clarity about the enigma of God’s actions and intentions for us in this world, a glance at Parshas Chayei Sarah makes it acutely evident that there are no coincidences in His plans. At the very beginning of the Parsha, we read about the death of Sarah Imeinu. The Pasuk (23:2) tells us that Sarah died in Chevron, and that Avraham went to mourn for her. But Avraham was not the only one affected by Sarah’s death. Yitzchak, too, suffered a tremendous loss with his mother’s passing and it seems he was unable to be comforted completely for some time.

It was only when Rivka, brought from Besuel’s household by Eliezer, entered Sarah’s tent that the Pasuk (24:67) notes, “Vayiviehah Yitzchak HaOhelah Sarah Imo…. VaYinachem Yitzchak Acharei Imo,” and Yitzchak brought [Rivka] to his mother Sarah’s tent… and Yitzchak was comforted regarding the loss of his mother. It is reasonable to assume that Yitzchak’s joy in marrying Rivka could eclipse his grief to some extent – and yet the Pasuk seems to emphasize the significance of Rivka’s entrance into Sarah’s tent as the true demarcation of the end of Yitzchak’s mourning. What was it about Rivka entering the tent that comforted Yitzchak?

Furthermore, Sarah’s death is not the only loss discussed in this Parsha. Later in the Parsha, the pasuk (25:8) says, “Vayigvah Vayamas Avraham BiSeivah Tova Zakein ViSeivah,” and Avraham breathed his last and died contented, an old man and full of good years. This description of Avraham’s death, marked by the peace and contentment of a good and full life, is curious in itself. It is even more striking when juxtaposed with the verse describing Sarah’s death, “VaYihiyu Chayei Sarah Meah Shana V’Esrim Shana V’Sheva Shanim, Shnei Chayei Sarah,” and Sarah lived 127 years, and these were the years of her life. Rashi explains that the latter words, “Shnei Chayei Sarah,” which seem redundant, are to indicate that all of the years of her life were equally good.

It seems as though the descriptions of the deaths of Avraham and Sarah highlight the goodness of their lives, rather than the tragedy of their deaths. This is further underscored by the very name of the Parsha, Chayei Sarah, taken from the above verse, illustrating the Torah’s emphasis on the years Sarah lived, rather than the incidence of her death. What is puzzling, however, is that the years of Sarah’s life were objectively NOT all good! Avraham and Sarah traveled far and wide, underwent trials and tribulations, were childless for most of their lives, and experienced a decent amount of heartache. How is it that in death they are contented, with all of the days of their lives seen as good?

In struggling to understand loss, psychologists[1] have posited many theories about the process of grief and mourning, and ways we as human beings grapple with death and bereavement. Many ideas have been suggested and tested, and one seems to stand out across theoretical divides. When human beings experience loss, we will likely also experience a veritable storm of emotions. We may feel sad, empty, numb, angry, distraught, or abandoned – we may engage in denial, negotiating, or acceptance. But regardless of these emotional reactions, it seems that when we are able to carry on some bond with the deceased, when we can embody their legacy, promote their ideals, carry on the flame of their wisdom, passion, and life’s work, we feel a sense of meaning and connection that fortifies us in our grief.

In searching for inspiration this week amidst my own sorrow, I immediately looked up Rabbi Sacks’s dvar Torah on Parshas Chayei Sarah. Tackling the above questions regarding the pesukim describing the deaths of Avraham and Sarah, Rabbi Sacks [2]writes,

“Abraham… had taken the first step. He had begun the task, and he knew that his descendants would continue it. He was able to die serenely because he had faith in God and faith that others would complete what he had begun. The same was surely true of Sarah.”

The deaths of Avraham and Sarah are juxtaposed with the story of Yitzchak and Rivka because through them, and through their countless students, their legacy continued. R’ Yossi Cohen Shlit”a explains in the name of R’ Moshe Shapiro z”l, that this is why Rashi connects the words (24:1) “VaHashem Beirach es Avraham Bakol” to Avraham’s decision to find a wife for Yitzchak. Rashi notes that “Bakol” is equal to the word “ben,” son, in gematria, and that after burying Sarah, Avraham realizes he has been blessed with a son, and that he must find him a wife. R’ Moshe Shapiro explains that it is not just about the gematria; rather, Avraham’s character was that of “bakol,” while Yitzchak’s was “Mikol,” and Yaakov’s “Kol,” as in, “Yesh Li Kol” (Breishis 33:11). Yitzchak, as Avraham’s son, needed to carry on his legacy; as such, Rivka needed not only to be Yitzchak’s Bashert, but worthy of being Avraham’s progeny as well. Perhaps in Sarah’s death, the need to carry on his and Sarah’s legacy was felt most acutely. This is why Rivka’s chesed toward Eliezer and his camels were the deciding factor in her worthiness of becoming Yitzchak’s wife; her Chesed proved her worthy of becoming Avraham’s daughter in law.

This is also why Yitzchak was only comforted regarding Sarah’s death when Rivka entered Sarah’s tent, because, as Rashi notes, the miracles characteristic of the tent returned. Rivka’s entry into Sarah’s tent was not only about her partnership with Yitzchak, but also about the continuity of the legacy of Avraham and Sarah. In the return of the miracles of the Challah, Neiros, and Anan, Rivka evidenced her worthiness of being Sarah’s daughter-in-law, as well.

Sarah and Avraham died contented and fulfilled, and their years were truly good, because they knew that all they had endured and lived for was not for naught. In entrusting their legacy to Yitzchak and Rivka, they knew that all they stood and worked for would be carried on through them.

But that’s not all.

Rabbi Sacks notoriously wrote his Divrei Torah weeks in advance, and this week was no exception. In reading this week’s Covenant and Conversation, I was overcome with shock and awe, for Rabbi Sacks had written us all what can only be seen as a farewell message:

“To place your life in God's hands, to have faith that whatever happens to you happens for a reason, to know that you are part of a larger narrative, and to believe that others will continue what you began, is to achieve a satisfaction in life that cannot be destroyed by circumstance. Abraham and Sarah had that faith, and they were able to die with a sense of fulfillment.

To be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised. It means, simply, to have done what you were called on to do, to have made a beginning, and then to have passed on the baton to the next generation. "The righteous, even in death, are regarded as though they were still alive" (Berakhot 18a) because the righteous leave a living trace in those who come after them. That was enough for Abraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.”

In searching this week for a way to cope with the loss of two Jewish giants, I found myself struggling with a sense of disquiet and anguish, wondering, “Who will fill these shoes? To whom will we look, to whom will I look, for courage, for inspiration, for wisdom, for guidance in these tumultuous and confusing times?” Yet, it is as Rabbi Sacks wrote. Legacy and continuity are the balm of heartbreak and bereavement.

I ask you all to join me in taking a deeper look inward, to assess your strengths, capabilities, and values, and to make a commitment to one thing you can do to continue the legacy of these Torah giant. Together, we, the direct and indirect recipients of their unique influence and timely wisdom, can take the baton they have passed us and run with it. Yehi Zichronum Baruch.



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