Awhile back, I was talking on the phone to my mom in Virginia. Oh, she said, your dad is busy. He’s out at the cemetery. It turned out that he had taken one of my brothers with him. The two of them used their fix-it skills to mend a broken gravestone. The next time I visited the Jewish cemetery in Alexandria, Va., my dad pointed out the neatly mended marker. The person had died 100 years before. Despite good records, they couldn’t find any surviving family to maintain the gravestone. So, my dad and brother stepped up to the job.
Reading the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Life), Genesis 21:1-25:18, makes me think about this cemetery story. This week’s portion is full of family lifecycle events. Here’s a quick summary from the ReformJudaism.org website:
- Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife Sarah. (23:1-20)
- Abraham sends his servant to find a bride for Isaac. (24:1-9)
- Rebekah shows her kindness by offering to draw water for the servant’s camels at the well. (24:15-20)
- The servant meets Rebekah’s family and then takes Rebekah to Isaac, who marries her. (24:23-67)
- Abraham takes another wife, named Keturah. At the age of 175, Abraham dies, and Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the cave of Machpelah. (25:1-11)
There is so much in this portion that it’s lucky we reread it every year. The first thing I noticed is how the Hittites, who owned the land around Machpelah, honoured Abraham. They valued him so much that they tried to give him the burial land for free – but Abraham honoured them back, and made an effort to pay for it. This exchange reminded me of how careful we need to be in managing Jewish burial sites. My mom has often had the opportunity to help families who need a cemetery plot and don’t have one. “Real estate” in Jewish cemeteries can be expensive. Sometimes it’s hard to get a spot when there’s an unexpected family death. The bottom line? Nobody comes out of this alive, so let’s help each other when dealing with death.
Next issue: finding the right life partner. Abraham works hard to find Isaac the right wife. Although love matches are usual these days, your family’s opinion is often pretty useful in making such a big choice. Rebekah makes a good impression.
Abraham then remarries. Rashi indicates that Keturah is actually Hagar, although other commentators disagree. In any case, this brings up another issue. Some people vilify Hagar, but here it seems that some believe she and Abraham are actually a likely couple. They go on to have several more children. How does that work? When one marries again and has more children, does parenting differ? Do religious differences work themselves out? How is it that some people outlaw intermarriage, and refuse to incorporate kids from intermarried families, when it was clearly prevalent in the Bible?
When Abraham dies, Ishmael helps Isaac bury him. However, Isaac’s name is mentioned first. Why? Some rabbis indicate this is because Ishmael repented and acknowledged Isaac’s superiority, even though Ishmael is older. Others indicate that, since Sarah was Abraham’s wife, her son should go first, before Hagar’s. While this sort of discussion about whose name is first seems out of date, we need only look at the succession of the British (Commonwealth) monarchy to acknowledge that we still look at birth order with some importance. How has our view of this changed over time?
Also, if Ishmael is the father of Islam, was this an interfaith funeral? Or just two brothers who loved their father?
This week’s portion also relates to Remembrance Day. How do we dal with profound issues of life and death? How do we confront mortality, embrace issues of loyalty and honour, while embracing our family responsibilities to the living? What are our priorities? Why?
As my family walked through that old cemetery in Virginia, we passed familiar names on gravestones. My dad told stories about the different family friends he knew during their lives. My uncle, visiting from Boston, chimed in. The conversation continued. We also celebrated another important milestone in life with my uncle. He and his high school friend Don were celebrating 50 years of friendship this year, too.
Someone recently said that my newspaper columns are about relationships. I’d suggest that the primary relationship I explore here is with Judaism. Many of us associate our religion with other people, in a sort of club or tribe mentality. However, what if we saw it as a tool? Imagine Judaism as a tool that helps us navigate life’s events and how to behave with others.
If so, we can often use a Torah portion as a guide – just as we might do with other kinds of literature or non-fiction – on how to respectfully bury our dead, and maintain meaningful relationships with family members and also in the wider Jewish and non-Jewish communities. We can offer support, as the Hittites did, in a time of grief. We can build new or rekindle relationships, as Abraham did with Keturah.
Sometimes, doing the right thing might mean repairing a gravestone for someone who is long gone. Maintaining long relationships with friends or with communities takes a different kind of work – emotional as well as physical upkeep. Do we put the same amount of effort into our relationship with understanding Judaism as well?
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She is the author of the book From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.