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Hayei Sarah

November 8, 2006

By Kathy Novick

This week we read Parashat Hayei Sarah ‘ The Life of Sarah. Many think of the irony of this title since the parashah begins with the death of Sarah and its impact upon Avraham. We read of Avraham mourning then rising and ACTING. We learned from social workers, chaplains and clergy who worked after 9-11 at Ground Zero that giving people tasks, no matter how insignificant, helped them to move from a state of numbness to reconnecting with life, however painful that might have been. Avraham’s action was very significant to him and to us. Avraham was very careful in choosing the field and the cave at Machpelah. He was also very insistent about his choice. It was to be a place to remember his Sarah. Permanency was key in their long relationship. Throughout the difficulties of their lives from moving away from all they knew, to dealing with jealousy, infertility and a frightening commandments from God, they continued their lives together. The purchase of the field and cave was the first place of permanency for our people also. It was the beginning of God’s promise to Avraham to provide land for us.

When I speak to grieving families I tell them that I have two tasks for them regarding their loved one. Just like Avraham we need to remember and to act. Remember by telling stories, sharing letters and photographs with your children and grandchildren. Let your loved one continue to be a part of your life. Act to honor her memory. If she was a giving and helpful person, consider how you might carry on her memory by acts of kindness.

Not only will we honor her memory by acts of kindness but we are OBLIGATED as Jews to help one another. Torah tells us in Lev. 19:16, that we are not ‘to stand by when our neighbor bleeds’. We learn of this obligation also from Sanhedrin 73b.

For the School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: [the betrothed girl] cried and there was none to save her, but, if there was a rescuer, he must save her by all possible means. Whence do we know that if a man sees his neighbor drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him? From the verse, ‘Thou shalt not stand by the blood of your neighbor’. But, is it derived from this verse or is it rather from elsewhere? Viz. whence do we know [that one must save his neighbor from] the loss of himself? From the verse, ‘Thou shalt restore Him to himself.’

We also learn in Berachot 5b that the rabbis understood the need of people to help cure one another.

When Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba was sick, Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him. He asked him, ‘Are you sufferings welcome to you?’ He replied, ‘Neither they nor their reward’. He said to him, ‘Give me your hand’. He gave him his hand and he raised him. When Rabbi Yochanan was sick, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him. He asked him, ‘Are your sufferings welcome to you?’ He replied, ‘Neither they nor their reward.’ He said to him, ‘Give me your hand’ and he raised him. Why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan raise himself? As they say, ‘The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.’

I am suggesting that we help one another by being advocates for those who either do not recognize the narrowness of their jail cells or who cannot escape without our help. We can begin our own healing process by helping to heal others. The opportunities to volunteer are endless. The gift of our time and energy are the action that honors our loved ones’ memories.

Getting old isn’t any fun. Making connections to life outside the prison of home and pain and fatigue, even for a little while, is a healing process. Taking an elderly neighbor shopping in the grocery store might mean significantly more time for you in the store than you planned, but think of the gift you have given.

Acting to reconnect older folks with life may mean offering an inter-generational program. In my synagogue we recently shared the PBS documentary on a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, A Life Apart, with teenagers and older adults. The room was filled with the electricity of life. Subjects ranged from how to make the best honey cake to today’s teen fashions. Some adults remembered parents who lived in Brooklyn and shared their memories. That day we helped the children to connect with the older generation in temple. We also gave them stories to tell their children in the future.

Acting and remembering were ways that Avraham preserved the life of Sarah. We can learn from this parashah that we, too, have the capacity to remember and to act to help others. May we all to do so in memory of our loved ones.