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GenesisSarah Rabah: Or, An Abundance of Sarahs

Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

When I was first assigned to write about this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23), I couldn’t help but be impressed by the coincidence. Putting aside the obvious overlap in name, I have always found Sarah, our originating matriarch, a fascinating figure who escapes easy categorization. Indeed, one of my favorite moments that displays Sarah’s vibrant spirit comes a few chapters earlier in Genesis 18, when it’s announced that Sarah will have a son as a 90 year-old woman, and what does she do? She laughs. Such a reasonable, real, and unexpected response from a biblical character that to me exemplifies her essential relatability. So, of course, I was excited to learn more about her.

To my surprise, however, upon a closer inspection of the parsha, I found that although the portion is named for Sarah’s life, it doesn’t really spend much time on Sarah herself. It is only the first two lines, explaining that “Sarah’s lifetime —the span of Sarah’s life — came to one hundred and twenty-seven years” and that after her death “Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (Genesis 23:1-2), that offer any hint at Sarah as a person.

On one hand, this rapid shift in focus from Sarah to Abraham in itself offers some interesting material for reflection. This passage could read as a fairly accurate depiction of the almost-clerical logistical work that inevitably occurs after the passing of a loved one. Indeed, Abraham’s process of going, grief-stricken, to buy the cave at Machpelah from Ephron, where he plans to bury Sarah, is more than a little reminiscent of our modern negotiation of the costs of such end- of-life planning as nursing home residency, palliative care, or even the mere act of gathering relations and friends for a memorial service. Strikingly, when Abraham asks the Hittites to assist him in finding a place to bury Sarah, he calls himself a “resident alien” — which is not only a statement of his position relative to the Hittites, but also holds a deep emotional valence, specifically of the feeling of estrangement that grief can bring. In that way, my primary reading of Chayei Sarah highlighted the ways in which the parsha communicates some very real experiences and feelings that come up in times of loss and grief.

At the same time, though this is a story of the passing of one Sarah, it immediately brought to mind another Sarah: my great grandma Sarah. Though my Hebrew and English names are conveniently the same, I wasn’t named for the Jewish community’s matriarch, but rather that of my own family. The grandmother of my mother, my grandma Sarah, came to the United States in the 1920s from a small town in Romania and resettled on the Lower East Side of New York.

Like the enigmatic matriarch Sarah, my great grandma Sarah was ever-present in my upbringing, in spite of her physical absence from my life. In my family, much like the Matriarch Sarah does in Chayei Sarah, my great-grandma Sarah served as an essential, if metaphysical, presence. Evoked through stories, Yiddish phrases — humorously enough, my mother legitimately thought the word “aggravated” was a Yiddish word until high school because of Grandma Sarah’s thick Eastern European accent — and, most importantly, food, Grandma Sarah always seemed incredibly, well, alive to me.

It is because of Grandma Sarah that my family prepares a Romanian eggplant caviar, called chelata, and also due to her commitment to preparing elaborate jello molds frequently, believing that jello was one of the most American foods one could eat, that my mother never served jello in our house. I now have her wooden bowl she would use to chop eggplant and onions displayed prominently in my apartment kitchen. Much like Matriarch Sarah in this week’s portion, my Grandma Sarah was not and could not be an active part of my life, but in her appearances through stories, I could sense the wholeness or, to use the language of Genesis, the span of her lifetime, in how it coincides with mine.

And so, despite my (minor) disappointment at not being able to learn more about the life of Sarah, this week’s portion has taught me some truths about how we invoke and remember those in our lives we have lost, whether that is finding and buying a cave — as in Abraham’s case — or preparing eggplant dip — as in my family’s. Even more than a fresh perspective on one of the central matriarchal figures of the Tanakh, I experienced a more grounded view of one of my own — as well as the idea that the span of our lifetimes can linger far beyond the number of years on this earth or lines in the Torah, whether that’s 127 or just one.

Sara Gardner was a Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership Boston Bridges Fellow. She was the Associate Director of Hebrew College’s Community Learning Eser series, and is currently the Collaboration Manager at the Jewish Arts Collaborative.

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