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Parashat Hayyei Sarah

November 15, 2011

By Cantor Jaclyn Chernett


Traditionally, in Kol Nefesh, our little shul in London, this sedra marks the annual celebration for our Hevra Kadisha, when we study and have a meal together. The Hevra Kadisha it is, literally, a Sacred Society that, among other things, ritually prepares bodies of those who have died, for their final rest. Ironically, this year it coincides with Brian’s and my Golden Wedding anniversary and although my heart sank at the sobering thought of finding an analogy between our simha and burial, it is actually apposite! The stories in our sedra show the family of Abraham move from death (first that of Sarah) to marriage (of Isaac and Rebecca) to death (of Abraham and Ishmael). While on the surface these links seem rather shocking, they heighten awareness of how Jewish tradition helps us to try to understand the world and to live in alignment with our deepest values.

When Sarah died, Abraham purchased the Cave of Makhpelah as a dedicated burial site for her and his family. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried him there. There is no mention of the burial of Ishmael, only that he was “gathered unto his people.” But further generations of Abraham’s family were also buried there, Isaac and Rebecca themselves, Leah, Jacob, Joseph…

Following the death of Sarah we read of the match, betrothal and marriage of Isaac to Rebecca, a traditional marriage of arrangement to “keep it in the family.” Eliezer, Abraham’s servant and agent, made the choice of bride for his master’s son Isaac. Rebecca, beyond acceding to Eliezer’s request at the well, gave all his train of camels to drink, a divine and tangible sign of her innate sense of kindness and caring for others, even animals. This is known as gemilut hesed, loving kindness. Once she agreed to the betrothal, the young girl travelled on the long journey by camel. When she caught sight of her betrothed husband, they consummated their marriage and, we are told, Isaac was comforted for his mother. Young love is hungry and sees only itself.

Death and mourning, and the ritual of marriage, are not much different today. Jewish disposal is traditionally by burial in ground purchased and consecrated by the Jewish community. The thread that links Abraham’s care for his departed Sarah and the choice of Rebecca as suitable bride for Isaac is hesed. Hesed is the bedrock of a good relationship. Abraham mourned for his wife very deeply and could not resume daily life himself until he had laid her to her eternal rest. The mitzvot of tahara and levayat hamet which means purification of and accompanying a dead person to his or her grave is a truly unconditional act of hesed shel emet for which there is no thought or even chance of reciprocity. It is the ultimate mitzvah that a Jew can perform for another Jew that he or she may or may not even know. In our little shul we have reclaimed the performance of the mitzvah of taharah back for ourselves after probably three generations of institutionalisation. The ritual is one of the most profound and loving imaginable.

Death is the only certainty of life (apart from uncertainty itself). Traditionally, a bridegroom stands under the huppa wearing a kittel, symbolising purity. But that garment, worn on Yom Kippur, also symbolizes shrouds, the takhrihim well known to the Hevra Kadisha, the clothing of death. Young love is urgent with complete, glowing focus from one partner to the other. It is a time of building and rejoicing. Old love is a time of slowing down and reflection where love has grown mellow and outward, a love of gemilut hesed, unconditional kindness.

I reflect back fifty years to that scary but joyous day. Under the huppa, Brian shattered the glass, a reminder that as we have the greatest joy, we remember the shattering moment of our people’s history. Amazing isn’t it! Fifty years of a solid marriage between two loving partners, having withstood the trials and tribulations of life (and there have been many) is a remarkable gift and we celebrate it with joy. One of the many remarkable and selfless things that Brian did only a few years ago was to enable me to fulfil my vocation of becoming a hazzan. This came to fruition when I was 65 and he was 70, a time when both of us should have been retired or at least working towards it! This was a huge sacrifice in so many ways as I did the long and very expensive commute each month from London to AJR in New York. For me, Brian’s gift was an extraordinary act of hesed, viewed by many people with incredulity.

Hayyei Sarah depicts the stuff that life throws at us – the joyous and the sad. Without the experience of sadness, it would be difficult to truly appreciate joy. The deepest ideals of hesed, epitomised in our sedra today, hold fast as a divine blueprint for future generations.



Cantor Jaclyn Chernett, an alumna of AJR, is Founder and Director of Studies of the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy and one of the Founders of the Masorti Movement in the U.K.