This week’s Torah portion is bracketed by death. The parsha begins with the death of Sarah and Abraham’s acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for her. The parsha ends with the death of Abraham and his burial by his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Death is a complicated and painful subject, but one that is very important and potentially transformative. We don’t want to die; most people do whatever possible to live as long as possible, but death is inevitable. The question is how will we respond to death?
When Sarah dies, Abraham no doubt mourns, but his brush with mortality focuses him on the needs of life. He first negotiates the purchase of a plot of land in which to bury Sarah, the first plot of land owned by the Jewish people in the land of Israel; and then turns his attention to finding a wife for his son, Isaac. Some people find death overwhelming and debilitating. They don’t want to do anything except to hide in the house and not face the world.
Our tradition requires us to confront the loss we have suffered, but to do it surrounded by family and friends, feeling the support of community. When people make a shiva visit, they give us strength and remind us that there are people out there who care about us. When other mourners join us for services and say kaddish with us, we realize that we are not alone in losing someone we loved, that everyone suffers loss; and then find a way to go on with life.
Abraham’s life has been filled with purpose. He has lived in partnership with God, he has gone where directed, he has done what was asked of him, and now at the end of his life, he seeks to pass this relationship with the Divine on to his son. It is the task of every parent to try and inculcate the values, traditions, and the lifestyle of the Jewish people on to our children. A parent is the greatest teacher that a child has and children learn not so much by what we say as by what we do. Abraham’s life has served as an example to his son of all that he holds precious. The challenge for each of us as parents is to live exemplary lives and to hope and pray that our children will learn from what we devote ourselves to doing.
At the end of the parsha Abraham dies and the text tells us that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury him. These two estranged brothers are at odds with one another and live separate lives, yet when their father dies a transformative moment is born. All too often I have been called upon to officiate at a funeral where family members are estranged from one another, but the moment of confronting death brings them together in a way that nothing else could. For individuals with the strength and the openness, this tragic moment of loss can also transform their relationship with the living. Death is what makes life so precious. When we mourn, we must also be open to the possibility of change. Life is what we make of it – make the most of yours.