Here’s a literary trivia question: If a poem doesn’t have a title, how do we refer to it? Answer: The first line of the poem becomes its title. This is a logical convention; usually the first line of a poem gives us a general sense of its contents.
Torah portions are similarly named. Because each weekly portion is not given a formal title, the ancient rabbis used to refer to each one by using the first significant words found within it.
This usually makes sense. Bereshit, which means “In the beginning,” is the name of the first portion in the Torah-reading cycle, and, fittingly, it is about the creation of the universe. Noach, or “Noah” is about, well, Noah and his ark. Lech-Lecha, or “Go forth,” is about Abraham’s journey from the land of his birth to the Promised Land.
If we follow this convention, we might think that this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah, or “the life of Sarah” is about Sarah’s story. After all, she has been an obscure character for most of the Torah up until this point. She is silent as she leaves her homeland and accompanies Abraham on his grand adventure to the land of Israel. Abraham has signed up for this journey; she hasn’t. She acquiesces when Abraham tries to pass her off as his sister when they sojourn in the land of Egypt. She is nowhere to be seen when Abraham takes their son, Isaac, and nearly offers him as a sacrifice to God. The only thing we do know about her is that her behavior can be vicious when she is vulnerable. Maybe now, in Chayyei Sarah, we will be allowed to hear her thoughts, and learn about her life.
How ironic then that in this week’s Torah portion, we read about Sarah’s death, not her life. It begins: “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”
While Sarah might not have been able to share the details of her own life with us, this account of her death teaches us how to handle a fact of all of our lives: the death of our loved ones. Sarah is the first person in history to receive a Jewish burial. Abraham mourns for Sarah, but then gets to work. At this point in the story, Abraham is dwelling in the land ruled by a people called the Hittites. He could have carried Sarah’s body to an isolated area and buried her there, but instead he buries her in the land of the Hittites, in order that she be laid to rest quickly and close to where he lives. While the chief of the Hittites, Ephron, tells Abraham he can bury Sarah without paying for the burial plot, Abraham insists on purchasing it. This is to ensure that in future generations, there will never be disputes about the ownership of this plot. We can still visit the cave of the Machpelah, the place where Sarah, and later where Abraham and the other matriarchs and patriarchs, are said to be buried. Sadly, it is one of the most contested and contentious areas of land in the world, located in Hebron, which is in what some people call the West Bank and what some people call Judea and Samaria.
Abraham’s actions have served as guides for how Jews bury their dead. At the moment of a death, when we are bereft and unprepared, it is difficult to know what steps to take. From Abraham’s example, we learn much of what we need to do to give our loved ones a dignified burial. We bury the body quickly and efficiently. We mourn, but we don’t allow the mourning to get in the way of the task at hand. We make sure that we own the plot that we use. This is why, when Jews came to America from Europe, the first pieces of land they bought in their new nations were their burial plots. You can still see some of these plots when you walk downtown.
We never learn the details of Chayyei Sarah, the life of Sarah. She never tells us her story in her own words: what it was like to be married to Abraham, the first Jew, and to accompany him as he followed God’s every command. But in her death, she teaches us about a fact of all of our lives: what it means to be buried with love, care, and dignity—a lesson which serves us even to this day.