Parashat Hayyei Sarah

The Art of Grounding

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

Recently, I’ve begun the practice of making sure I put my bare feet on the ground at least once a day. I find time to go into the park and touch the grass, soil, stones, tree roots with feet that are accustomed to wear socks and shoes. I consider this a “grounding” practice — a practice of returning to my base. When I do it, I feel calm and stability, and a sense of being more in touch with myself and the world.

The spiritual practice of grounding usually means finding strength or serenity through attaching to one’s foundation in body, earth, or spiritual practice. Some dictionary definitions for the word “grounding:” soil or earth; a surrounding area or background; something that serves as a foundation or means of attachment for something else; a basis for belief. Parashat Hayyei Sarah, which begins with the purchase of a plot of land, offers examples of grounding which can teach us about this practice.

At the beginning of the parashah, Sarah has just died, and Avraham must find a burial place for her. Up until now, Abraham has lived as a nomad in the land of Canaan. Now, for the first time, he needs a place that is his. He asks the local tribes for the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his wife Sarah and for their descendants. Avraham describes this place as an “ahuzat-kever,” a legacy-grave. It is important to realize that in this period in the Bible, having a family grave is the same as having a place for one’s tribal afterlife, a place where one’s ancestors can rest. Abraham is finding a place not only for Sarah but for himself and his descendants.

Avraham’s negotiation to purchase the land is with a man named “Efron,” meaning soil, dust, or earth. In a sense, it is the land itself that Avraham asks for permission to bury Sarah. Efron offers Avraham the land as a gift–as indeed all land is a gift to the creatures on it–but Avraham insists on buying it. By buying the plot, Avraham intertwines his resources with the land’s. This intertwining strengthens Avraham’s claim on the land, and it also shows us Avraham’s commitment to it.

The field Avraham buys is called S’deih Efron: the field of earth. The name “field of earth” has mythic resonance: it is as if Avraham buys the soil, the afar out of which Adam was first made. One midrash says the soil that created Adam’s body was from the place of the Temple, while another midrash says that Adam’s body was created using earth from every corner of the world. Perhaps we can understand both of these midrashim as containing part of the truth. Avraham is buying a stake in the land on which he lives, the land on which the Temple will one day stand. And, there is a connection between Avraham and the whole earth. Avraham’s purchase of Sdeih Efron invites us to think of ourselves as having a stake in the land of Avraham and Sarah, and perhaps it also invites us to consider ourselves as having a stake in the soil everywhere. Avraham’s purchase teaches us about grounding: about finding a place in the world where we are intertwined with the land.

Later in the parashah, we have a different example of grounding. Rivka agrees to go to Canaan to become a wife to Avraham’s son. She travels a great distance, in the company of Avraham’s servant and her own maids and nursemaid, in order to marry Isaac. When she arrives, it appears that Isaac too has just arrived: he has traveled from his home in Beer-lahai-roi, and seems to be visiting his father in Hevron. Rivkah veils herself and dismounts from the camel to greet her intended. A midrashic reading, based on the word “nafal” (which can mean dismount or fall), is that she falls from the camel in surprise at encountering Isaac (either because of his beauty or his luminous spiritual presence). In some sense, Rivkah falls to earth. Her fantasy of marriage, which she has perhaps been nurturing on her long journey, suddenly becomes real, and rooted in a particular reality.

The marriage ritual that ensues is also an act of grounding. Yitzchak’s marriage act is to bring Rivkah into the tent of Sarah his mother. By entering Sarah’s tent, Rivkah claims her place not only as a spouse, but as the inheritor of Sarah’s traditions. The image of the tent deeply evokes Sarah’s legacy, because Sarah receives the prophecy of Yitzchak’s birth while in a tent (probably the very tent Rivkah enters). Entering Sarah’s tent marks Rivkah and Yitzchak as the heirs to Avraham and Sarah.

A midrash embellishes the Torah text by imagining Rivkah as the inheritor of the miracles that accompanied Sarah throughout her life.

While Sarah was alive, a cloud of glory hung over the entrance to her tent. When she died, the cloud vanished. When Rebekah came, the cloud returned…As long as Sarah lived, her lamp burned from one Sabbath to the next. When she died, the light went out. When Rebekah came, the light returned. (Genesis Rabbah 60:16)

In this midrash, the palpable divine presence that vanishes at Sarah’s death returns when Rivkah takes her place in Sarah’s tent. Rivkah’s claiming of her place as a link in the covenantal chain invites us to honor the background against which we live our lives, by honoring the legacy we have received from generations past. Rivkah’s entry into Sarah’s tent teaches us about grounding ourselves in time.

Avraham and Rivkah offer us two different models for noticing our “foundation” or “means of attachment”– to refer back to the definitions with which we began. When we ground ourselves in moments of distress or disconnection, we may use breath, gravity, prayer, silence, or the earth itself to restore ourselves to a sense of having a foundation, of being attached to something. In a larger sense, we can ground ourselves in what gives meaning and structure to our days: our families and/or traditions, the places where we live, the work we have chosen, the interconnections among us, our intimations of the divine presence.

When I put my bare feet on the earth, I’m hoping to find my place in a big world, even when I feel that I’ve lost it. We all need a place to stand. May we, like Abraham and like Rebekah, find ground on which we can build our lives.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion and the author of five books, including the forthcoming The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (