Chayei Sarah: Death into Life

There’s a town called Atri in India.  It’s a remote village that, back in 1959, was about 40 miles from the closest hospital by road. The reason why Atri was so far from a hospital was that these 40 miles went around Gehlour mountains which blocked any direct access from one village to the next.  Two villagers of Atri, Falguni and Dashrath fell in love, but shortly after their marriage Falguni suffered a grave injury. Dashrath took her in his wagon and drove the long and winding path around the Gehlour. He drove as fast as he could, but it was not fast enough. Because of the path was long and medical treatment was far off, Falguni died before receiving timely medical treatment.

When we lose a loved one, our hearts are broken.  Sometimes that brokenness which sinks into the chambers of our chest paralyzes us.  Sometimes it feels like our broken heart is all there is; as if there was no world before this moment and no world after.  We feel wrong inside and when we see a world that keeps moving, indifferent to tragedy, all we see is the wrong outside.

The heart is broken. The world is broken. The firmament cracks. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, we find just such a moment.  By the time we start the reading we learn that Sarah has died. (Gen. 23:1)  Abraham’s partner for over a hundred years, the woman that came with him across the world, that helped build up the souls of others, that laughed at him and his God, that raised his son and secured his posterity — this mother to our people is gone. The Torah relates how he wept for her, the first time someone wails in the bible because of death. (Gen 23:2) He went numb and busied himself with the tasks of preparing for her burial by acquiring a cave for the family and bowing low. (Gen. 23:30) The rabbis add that in his numbness and disorientation, he was swindled into paying more than it was worth. (Baba Metzia 87a) Like Dashrath, Abraham retreated. 

In Jewish tradition there is a mourning period, called shiva. During that time, some Jews abstain from going to parties and concerts, we sit in low places, some don’t shave, some only eat simple foods. The idea is to retreat from the world. The person who died, spent their most precious resource, time, with us. We can repay that love with time as well, by not letting them go just yet.  When shiva ends, though — it ends.  We get up from our low places, we take a walk around the block. It’s a long road back, but it starts with one step. We cannot make it look the way before, but we can help the scars to heal, both in our hearts and in the world.

When Dashrath got up from his own mourning rituals he took an oath to prevent more suffering in his village. He vowed to carve a path through the mountains. Working day and night for 22 years from 1960 to 1982, Dashrath hammered away at the rock. Every day he broke a rock. Every day he weathered mockery and scorn from fellow villagers. Every day he worked, never giving up his task. He knew that if Falungi’s death were to hold meaning, it would be transformed his grief into a heroic act of loving kindness.   

In Hebrew we call this chesed. Chesed is love made public through actions. The rabbis know that chesed is the most important pillars of life itself. They teach us that the Torah begins and ends with chesed. It is how we come to know God and walk in God’s path. (Sota 14a). Love transformed into action is better than charity (Sukkah 49b).  Most importantly, chesed seizes the future by giving us a sense that there is more to the world than pain and tragedy.  I see this all the time in my community. When friends lose a loved one, they transform their mourning into acts of love by contributing to foundations or starting their own that help prevent other from feeling the sting.  That’s because when we return to life after mourning what we want is not the past — that is gone.  What we want is the future.  

After Abraham rose from his mourning, he asked his servant, Eliezer, to return to the family’s land-holding to find a suitable partner for his son, Isaac.  Once Eliezer arrived to the place, he made a declaration, asking for a sign of a woman who embodies the value of chesed, to show herself. (Gen. 24:14) Of the eleven times the word is used in Genesis, half are found in this moment.  What the Torah is hinting at is that Eliezer was seeking more than a wife. He was seeking a world beyond grief, a transformation and a future. Rising out of despair, Eliezer wanted love secured in deed he prayed for chesed. Within in one sentence, Rebecca appears without any of the knowledge of Eliezer’s prayer and offered water to him and his camels. With that one gracious act, she demonstrated that kindness, chesed, not death, is the theme of life.

With a jug of water she changed the world. 

After 22 years of chiseling away by hand, Dashrath broke through the last rocks. Before him stood the next village, brimming with life.  He shortened the distance from 40 miles around the mountain to just over 6 through it. Whether it takes a lifetime, or just one moment, transforming death into life is possible. 

Death breaks everything down, but it is love — chesed that moves mountains. 

Shabbat Shalom 

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