I vividly remember my father’s reaction upon receiving the news that his mother died: His hands curled into fists as he ripped the shirt he was wearing in two. I was only five years old, but my father’s symbolic expression of pain taught me an essential lesson about loss: Only when the tragedy of death is outwardly and emotionally expressed, does the value of life become clear.
Part of the power of living with the Torah is that the text invites us to reflect on questions and values that we otherwise wouldn’t think of. While outwardly this week’s Torah portion of Chayey Sarah invests most of its attention in the optimistic endeavor of finding a bride for Isaac, it is bracketed by two losses – the tragic loss of Sara and the peaceful passing in old age of Avraham. These two life-cycle events: marriage and death, the joyous and the tragic, reflect two different doorways through which we often find ourselves engaging with community and identity. While I believe in a more joyous Judaism, I want to revisit the doorway of mortality as a jumping-off point for engaging with our identity.
Sara's death marks a sea-change. Avraham, the eternal nomad, must now take root: He buys land in order to bury his wife. Amid this change, readers often discuss the buying of the plot in Hevron, but miss the very human moment of the widower crying for his wife:
And Sara died at Kiriath-arba,
that is now Hevron, in the land of Canaan;
And Avraham came to eulogize Sara and to weep over her.
Then Avraham arose from the presence of his dead,
and spoke to the Sons of Het, saying: ‘I am a sojourner settled among you; give me title to a burial holding among you,
so that I may bury my dead from my presence… (Genesis 23:2-4)
וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע
הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.
וַיָּקָם, אַבְרָהָם, מֵעַל, פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ;
I wonder what kind of eulogy Avraham gave for Sara. Did he apologize for the Akedah, which according to the midrash caused Sara’s death? Did he discuss their other highs and lows in the epic life they led? The biblical verse here is very exact: “to eulogize Sara, and to weep over her.” In the ancient tradition of Mediterranean eulogies, the function of the eulogy is very exact: to cause people to cry. The eulogy serves to manifest the loss, forcing us to surface our emotions, removing the mask of fake calm in the face of death.
Gustav Dore’s illustration marks this loss beautifully. Avraham is being dragged out of his wife’s catacomb, his gaze and body language yearning to be with her, as the big block of stone creates a seal between the living and the dead.
Looking at Dore’s painting, I hear a eulogy from a very different time, but of a similar human response. WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues”:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
(Of course, I know this poem not because I am an avid Auden fan, but thanks to the memorable scene in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”
It is the sense of total disorientation that grabs me. Spatial disorientation (“my North, my South, my East and West”) and temporal (“My working week, my Sunday rest / My noon, my midnight”) – which leads to alienation from self and from the world (“my talk, my song” and “dismantle the sun”).
These themes of grief are the very same issues that the Jewish mourning rituals seek to relieve: time is rebuilt from scratch, one unit at a time (the “shiva”=week, the “shloshim”=month, the year of saying kaddish). So is space, through the restrictions on the mourner’s movement outside the shiva house (one “sit’s shiva”). Finally, the house of mourning is a silent house of “muffled drums.” Upon visiting a traditional shiva, the consoler is never to speak first, rather one must wait for the mourner to speak, allowing the mourners to slowly regain their “talk,” and eventually - their “song.” These rituals serve to counter the despair that Auden feels (“nothing now can ever come to any good”), instead incorporating us back into community, meaning and the world.
This week’s parasha places a spotlight on the pain of loss, and on the generative power of loss. There is a growing troupe in American Judaism that as a privileged community, we need to found a religiosity grounded in “the positive”. I see why this makes a lot of sense. We are a highly successful group, and people don’t seem to be looking for God, Judaism or community out of need – maybe they’ll search for it to give meaning to their abundance?
A week before Thanksgiving, I don’t mean to put a damper on the religiosity of thankfulness. But I for one find that the deeper urges for meaning and community stem from a realization of the fragility of life. The realities of loss and mortality can serve to remind us that within the pitiful trajectory of our lives, we might be able to actually do some good while we’re here. For me, that is the moment when I reach for something larger than I am, which in my case often involves something Jewish, and something ethical. I wonder what it opens up in you.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Two Funerals and a Wedding: A Pre-Thanksgiving Thought
p.s. Following some requests and responses (thanks!), I’ve also begun posting these divrei torah on a blog: textandcity.blogspot.com. Keeping it low key at the moment, but for those of you who mentioned forwarding the emails, I thought this’d be helpful.