Chayei Sarah 2020: Connecting With Our Ancestors Through Life and Death

One of the core aspects of Jewish community and practice is usually referred to as “lifecycles.” This morning we all participated in one - Ryan’s bar mitzvah. And we all know the other ones - brit milah or a baby naming, weddings, funerals. Some Jewish communities have begun to create new lifecycle events for other transitions as well - for newly empty nesters, or for people retiring from their careers, or transitioning genders. 

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sara, is full of what we’d call lifecycle moments. It begins with the death of Sara, moves on to the uniting of Isaac and Rebecca, then ends with the death of Abraham. Grief and new beginnings are linked - as the portion tells us, Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. 

Just as Ryan mentioned, some of our ancient commentators find the similarity between Rebekah and Sara via their righteousness; their kindness. It’s not so much that Rebekah was replacing Sarah. Instead their resemblance with regard to kindness and righteousness led to Rebekah bringing a similar quality to the family to the one that was lost with Sarah. But there is another explanation from midrash: while Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, there was always a blessing in the dough (a miraculous increase) and a cloud was always hanging over the tent (as a divine protection), but since her death all these had stopped. However, when Rebecca came, they reappeared”

In this mythical midrash, we see that sustenance and divine protection are associated with Sarah’s presence, and that Rebekah, after her marriage to Isaac, was able to bring this presence back to Isaac’s life. The connection of these two lifecycle moments of familial transformation act as a continuation rather than a start-and-stop. It is an important difference in understanding our own relationship to each other and our ancestors. Our lives flow into the lives of others, just as our ancestors’ lives flow into our lives. Rebekah was gifted a flow of blessings from her ancestor, Sarah.

Dr. Daniel Foor, who has studied ancestral ritual worldwide, tells us that “We are bonded with the ancestors as life to death, light to shadow. The choice is not whether or not to be in relationship with them, but whether or not these relationships will be conscious and reciprocal...One reason for engaging the ancestors is to more fully receive their support in our everyday lives. Another reason is to extend support to the troubled dead.”

The Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham buys as the family tomb to bury Sarah in this week’s Torah portion, functions as a connection point between generations, as well as realms of reality. The Zohar, the core mystical text of Kabbalah, tells us that when Abraham entered the cave and brought Sarah’s body there, he found Adam and Eve, who rose from the dead and did not want Sarah to be buried there. Adam and Eve said, “Is it not enough for us that we are in disgrace in the world before the Holy One, blessed be God, because of the sin that we committed, but now we will further be put to shame because of your good deeds.” Abraham replied: “I am destined to appear before the blessed Holy One on your behalf, so that you will nevermore be ashamed in God’s presence.’

Abraham experienced a similar inheritance to that of the flow that occurred between Rebekah and Sarah, but from a different angle. Rebekah’s presence in Isaac’s camp allowed her to inherit Sarah’s blessings. Abraham, here, is inheriting the ancestral flow of Adam and Eve, and, in himself, taking on the mistakes, trauma and history of Adam and Eve, and therefore the human race. 

Adam and Eve’s response, of initial dejection, teaches us something about our relationship to our ancestors. It is not often that we truly have completely positive relationships with those who came before us. Most of us have stories, memories, and histories in our families that trouble us, and that we carry with us as an inheritance. It is our responsibility to work to heal the wounds of our ancestors, just as Abraham did for Adam and Eve. But how do we do this?

The Zohar also tells us that: “[When] Abraham gazed upon the image of Adam in the cave of Machpelah, an opening to the Garden of Eden appeared…”

The Garden of Eden, in our tradition, is both the birthplace of humanity, and also the place we return to when we die. The cave of Machpelah, the burial place of Adam, Eve, Sarah, Abraham, and many more, is then something like the subway station between the two worlds. I would argue that, in this instance, the cave of Machpelah is a metaphorical stand-in for our lifecycle rituals. Just when Abraham needed it, when his beloved wife had died, the cave gave him a sense of collective connection to the entire lineage of humanity, back to Adam and Eve. 

Our lifecycle events today help us to reconnect with these ancestors. We evoke those living among us, as we did when Ryan’s parents blessed him, and his grandparents came forward for an aliyah. We must also remember to evoke those ancestors who are not with us- as far back as Adam and Eve, as Abraham and Sarah. Lifecycle events open up the doorway, just like the cave of Machpelah, between worlds, giving us the opportunity to once again reach out to our ancestral lineage for blessings, and for healing.

Judaism loves the phrase “L’dor va’dor” - from generation to generation. We know that something is transmitted, and we know that transmission is an essential key of life. But just because one generation is out of physical sight, doesn’t mean it has truly passed on. With mindfulness and care, we can invite those beloved ancestors to join us on these special occasions - we can invoke their names, we can remember them, we can receive blessings, we can tell stories, and we can offer them blessings ourselves in order to heal the moral wounds they left this world with. May each of us be the link in the chain of our families, and indeed of our entire species, to continue the work of healing - both for those who have passed, and those who are here with us today. May we be the ones strong enough to do that work, wise enough to transmit it well, and blessed enough to be the channel for the flow of our ancestral meaning. Shabbat shalom.