Our matriarch Sarah dies in the beginning of the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, and Abraham dies at the end. In between, we read about the events leading to the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. The beginning and end of the portion provide the foundation for Jewish customs around death and mourning.
“Sarah lived to be 127 years old — such was the span of Sarah’s life. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, that is Hevron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”
From these few words we learn that mourning involves both ritual and emotional responses to death. Abraham “lispod l’Sarah” — he delivered a eulogy and “livkotah” — he wailed and cried.
From “and then Abraham rose up from upon his dead wife” we derive the custom of sitting low to the ground during shiva. And then Abraham immediately proceeds to find a proper burial place for his wife. At the end of the portion, once Isaac has found comfort in his new wife Rivkah, Abraham himself dies “at a ripe age, old and contented.” After years of estrangement, Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their father next to Sarah.
If it is easy for us to imagine our patriarch Abraham standing over the body of his dead wife, his beloved Sarah, wailing and crying, it is because we, too, have experienced grief. We note that in the Torah scroll the kaf in the word “livkotah” (to wail) is written in a smaller font than all the other letters in the word. The “diminished” letter is a symbol of Abraham, who was made smaller by tragedy and disappointment. If we have experienced grief we know that our grief diminishes us and narrows our focus; we know that the process toward healing is long, painful, often nonlinear and nearly always surprising.
One rabbi describes officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. The rabbi gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings: “I’m mad at my mom because she won’t let me ride my bike.” “I’m mad at my friend for dying.” “I’m scared that I’m going to get hit by a car.” The youngest one there said, “I’m still sad.”
Because we love, we will grieve. There is no timetable for our feelings, even if our rich Jewish traditions help us take one step at a time. I have committed exactly one Hebrew date to memory — my father’s yahrzeit, the 22 of Cheshvan, which falls during the week we read Chayei Sarah.
It is has been 29 years, and I am still sad.
Rabbi Sharyn Henry is rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.