Death as door to life


This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18

At first glance it might seem odd that a parshah that begins with the death of Sarah is called the “lifetime of Sarah,” and yet, we see how Sarah’s death opened a door to continued life, love and reconciliation.

The Torah portion also teaches us a lot about grieving, honoring the dead, and finding comfort in the actions of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael.

It is also a parshah of many firsts. Abraham makes the first purchase of land in Canaan when he buys the cave, surrounding field and trees of Machpelah. It is interesting to ask why Abraham had never purchased land before this. We can see that Sarah’s death motivated him to take action. This is one way that death can be a door to life: It motivates us to take action.

This parsha includes the first time the Torah refers to someone as old. Midrashic sources tell us that “Abraham was the first person in history to grow wiser as he grew older.” What is the wisdom that Abraham has gained? Perhaps it is to think about the future of his son Isaac. This is another door that death often opens: It forces us to think of our own mortality and about the welfare of our children.

When the servant, often thought to be Eliezer, prays for the right maiden to appear, this is one of the first prayers in the Torah. Some commentators see the prayer as a realization that the qualities Isaac most needed in a wife were “kindness and generosity.” Certainly, everyone needs kindness and generosity after the death of a loved one. To the extent that people around a mourner respond to this need, death can be an opening to healing.

We also see in the process of Rebecca being asked if she will go with the servant, a first and rare precedent of a woman in the Torah being given her own agency over her life. And when she sees Isaac for the first time, she literally “falls off the camel,” perhaps the first example of falling in love in classic literature. When Isaac brings Rebecca into his mother’s tent to be his wife, we hear for the first time the phrase “he loved her” (Genesis 24:67). We learn that by opening his heart to love, Isaac is comforted. And love is perhaps the biggest door of all.

We see love in action again when Abraham remarries and presumably is also comforted, not only by his wife Ketura — who some commentators believe was actually Hagar — but by the birth of six more children. Abraham dies and his sons Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their less-than-perfect-father. Considering that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice both of these sons and that their mothers had a bitter rivalry, it is astonishing that they come together like this to honor him, grieve together and find comfort with each other. Sometimes death can open a door to reconciliation that had seemed shut. And the text itself does a kind of teshuvah, repentance, as it ends by listing Ishmael’s decedents and his death, a sign of respect and acknowledgement.

Questions for Discussion:

What have you done to prepare for your own death? Do you have a material will? An ethical will?

How has the death of a loved one affected you? Were the people around you supportive and helpful? What can you learn from this experience?

What are other ways we can encourage reconciliation?

If you have either young or grown children, how have you provided for their future?

Rain Zohav is rabbi and spiritual adviser of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, D.C., education director of Shirat HaNefesh Shabbat School and co-director of Educating for Spirituality, a program of

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