Parashat Chayei Sarah
Cheshvan 25, 5780 – November 23, 2019
Torah Reading: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
Haftarah: Kings I 1:1-31
Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Chayei Sarah, which means ‘The Life of Sarah.’ The beginning of the parashah actually opens up with the death of Sarah, and so the title of the parashah may seem a bit strange, but to announce her death is also to pay tribute to her life and to honor her position as a beloved matriarch. A significant theme that appears within the story of Sarah’s life, although it is a theme that echoes throughout the Torah and with each matriarchal generation, is the transformation of barrenness. The miracle of the birth of Isaac is, perhaps, the most striking feature of her life because it is a defining moment that provides for the emergence of the Jewish people. It is also quite an essential theme to consider when bringing an ecological lens to the study of Torah, because we have been driving the earth in the opposite direction towards an increasingly dire state of infertility. When seen in this way, the life of Sarah and the destiny of the earth are parallel narratives (although reversed in their orientation to fertility) yet are still intertwined by the transformative qualities of patience, faith, and beauty. Parashot Lech Lecha, Vayeira, and Chayei Sarah illustrate that G-d can produce in us changes that can enact a miraculous influence on our personal life, which ripples throughout time for future generations. The rarity of such a phenomenon is an outstanding wonder in the life of Sarah, and is a vital reality that we must also internalize as we learn to heal with the earth.
If you remember from last week, Parashat Vayeira concludes with the birth of Rebecca. The Torah records this moment before the death of Sarah because concern for the future is an essential concept in Judaism, and – as Rashi states: “a righteous person is not taken from the world until his or her successor has been born.” (1) Sarah’s death most unfortunately follows the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac – both narratives are pinned next to one another which has led some Sages to teach that the news regarding the binding of Isaac was the cause of her death and typifies a weakness on Sarah’s part. Chaim Miller, who runs an educational video series on Chabad’s website called Torah in Ten, brought in a fascinating insight regarding this moment of shock and grief experienced by Sarah. (2) Chaim references Rabbi Kalonymus Shapiro, who was the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto during the Shoah (the Holocaust), to express the idea that Sarah died on behalf of the Jewish people to teach us – and to show G-d – that suffering has its limits. We all recognize that a certain amount of suffering is needed for growth – a seed cannot sprout without a form of environmental stress, raising children is even a kind of suffering that is necessary for the evolution of our souls. But human beings have their limits, asserted Rabbi Shapiro, and Chayei Sarah exemplifies this point as there is only so much suffering that a human being can endure before we simply die of shock. What I ask (of us) is to think of the earth in such a way as well, and to recognize that we can only push her to a point until she cracks. Stressors to the processes and feedback loops in ecosystems and climate systems work in much the same way, and our sensitivity to these turning points is a critical message we can take away from the beginning of Chayei Sarah and its proximity to the Akeidah.
Because Parashat Chayei Sarah is also about the legacy of Sarah and the sanctification of her life, most of the parashah revolves around two key narratives: 1) the finding of a marriage partner for her son Isaac, and 2) a suitable and hallowed resting place for her body. After her passing, we read of how Abraham sought to buy a burial site for Sarah from Ephron son of Zohar, and this is the Cave of Machpelah. A point is made to emphasize that Abraham paid full price for this piece of land that would become (eventually) the resting place for the matriarchs and patriarchs. This is after Abraham made a point to mention that “I am an alien and a resident among you [you being the Canaanites and the Hittites amongst whom he dwelled and had to negotiate with]” (23:4) So why is this? Why is it important to emphasize that Abraham paid full price for this piece of land after claiming to be both a resident and an alien? I’d like to reference Chaim Miller here again, because he has an important insight to share about the Kabbalistic perspective on this passage, which is the idea that when something comes for free, when it comes free of charge, it is rooted in the demonic forces (in the domain of evil known as Sitra Achra, the side of impurity, literally the “the other side.”). (3) Chaim also uses the example of marketing schemes like ‘20% off’, or ‘free bonus with this purchase’, as ploys to draw us in and entice us to buy stuff.
The reason that Abraham had to pay full price for this piece of land, which is the opposite of getting the land for free, is pointing to an energetic principle regarding an exchange. Blessing, and abundance in one’s life, is the result of an exchange. This is, again, the crux of the mitzvot which marry right intention with right action, and are meant to tether our worldly pursuits to G-d’s blessing. One on side, blessing is a consequence of right action – not inaction – hence the old expression ‘You get out what you put in.’ But something that comes free is considered demonic because it is the receipt of energy without a reciprocal exchange – it is the absence of action – and so you have taken something without contributing energetically to the transaction. It’s important to think about this principle as it relates to land, and especially for Americans during this time of year as we are approaching Thanksgiving, because we have built our history on the back of taking land through lack of a reciprocal exchange. It is quite ironic that the foundation of American patriotism is the idiom “Land of the Free” because that is exactly what it is – free land that was misappropriated by people seeking to build a world based upon the doctrine of freedom. Although some of us live in a country, and most of us live in a world, supposedly founded on these principles we have undermined our own, genuine ‘freedom’ by abusing the fundamental precepts governing energy exchange. When we take land – or anything for that matter – without giving anything in return, we devalue what is inherently valuable and that comes at a cost. Take, for example, our exploitation of natural resources which we have stolen from the earth, without giving something positive in return. When we then live off these very valuable things essentially under the guise of ‘freedom’ we have broken the balance of energy exchange, which leaves a void – devoid of blessing. This is why what is ‘free’ is rooted in demonic forces, and this is why profiteering disturbs the harmony of the natural world. Regarding the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, which is a physical manifestation of this principle of exchange, Abraham is demonstrating a crucial spiritual precept that the Torah is trying to impress upon us by purchasing this site for full price.
A majority of this parashah is dedicated to describing how Rebecca (Isaac’s wife to be) was found through the medium of Abraham’s servant, Eliezer. It is a story that is relayed with much detail, and is even repeated, which is a curious aspect of this parashah as there are no extraneous features within Torah. A fascinating part of this narrative comes after Rebecca meets Eliezer at the well and offers him water and his camels water before she leads them back to her family home. Laban, Rebecca’s brother, greets them before offering a space to house and feed the camels. Then comes the line, chapter 24 verse 32, “So the man [that being Eliezer] entered the house, and unmuzzled the camels.” Rashi states that “Abraham’s livestock were muzzled whenever they were away from home, so that they could not graze in other people’s fields.” (4) Personally, although seemingly quite trivial, I found this to be a monumental moment associated with ultimate respect for the land and for people’s property. The line here is a continuation of Abraham’s labeling of himself as simultaneously an alien and a resident, and refusing to take anything – even the herbage for his camels, even whilst his servant acts as his emissary – from land that is not his own. In principal, the idea is that we are all residents here on this earth, yet we are also aliens in that we only live briefly in this world before we die. Like Abraham, we all have a unique responsibility to remember that we must work and care deeply for the prosperity of this earth – as we are all residents of this land – yet we must have humility and an intense recognition of our transience as we are also fated to forever be aliens. But this isn’t, or shouldn’t, be regarded as a punishment of any kind. It is to remind us that our allegiance is to a variety of living that can balance the tension between being a resident and being an alien, which is about choosing to sanctify this world while understanding (just as well) that we will eventually depart from it. In this way blessings, and experience of things that have been touched by G-d’s holiness (of kedushah), is something that must be earned, and in this same vain, this is why freedom can never come for free. Perhaps this can shed a little light on why Abraham was called an Ivri, from the word ever (עבר), meaning the other side – that is, the sitra d’kedushah, the side of holiness. (5)
Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now. Catch you next week.
Topics Include: Transformation of barrenness, the limits of suffering, the demonic roots of things that are ‘free’, orientation to the land, respect for other peoples’ property, being a resident alien
Supplementary Articles for Reading:
(1) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.106-107
(2) Can be accessed at: https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/1336321/jewish/Torah-in-Ten-Chayei-Sarah.htm
(3) Can be accessed at:
(4) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.115
(5) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.55
Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).
The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.