Our Name, Our Legacy

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me, --
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

-Emily Dickinson

It's late afternoon. There are about 15 people around the table. A man in his 70s is bereft, his eyes red, rimmed with tears. So much grief. He is with his children and their spouses and their children. L'dor vador, the generations settle in to tell a story. Her story.

This moment when people gather to prepare a eulogy is always powerful. At first, they don't know where to begin, what to include, what to leave out. Sometimes there are long pauses scattered with brief sentences: "I loved her brisket." "She was always at my school plays, my baseball games." "She cared deeply about her children, the grandchildren were the center of her life." Sometimes there is a cacophony of voices, all talking over one another, revealing story after story. They speak of friends and travel, of volunteer work, of the wisdom and support she so freely shared. Sometimes there is anger, so many unresolved issues, stone silence, a reluctance to share the truth because they are worried of what I might say.

And sometimes the grief is so overwhelming there is quiet and the soft sound of crying. I imagine this was the way it was with Abraham: Sarah's lifetime-the span of Sarah's life-came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her (Genesis 23:1-2).

Memory, forgiveness, soft and tender love are all the gifts we bring to this moment. What is the nature of our legacy and who owns it? A distinguished judge was dying of lung cancer and he had me come to his home weekly to teach him about dying and death. I always met him in his wheel chair, hooked up with oxygen, and a very heavy volume of Plato on his lap. As time went on and the end was near, he handed me a 20-page document that was to be his eulogy.

Do we write our own legacy? Not in words but by our character, by our deeds, by our gifts, by our way of walking through the world.

There is a stunning 13th century Yemenite midrash (quoted in The TorahA Women's Commentary, CCAR Press) that defines legacy as a matter of character. Commenting on Proverbs 31, known as "A Woman of Valor," this midrash raises up t23 character traits and connects them to 23 women in the Torah. Our matriarch Sarah is the second one mentioned.

"The heart of her husband trusts in her' (Proverbs 31:11) -- this is Sarah, in whom Abraham's heart trusted. 'And lacks no good thing' (same verse) - for she used to bring guests [converts] under the wings of the Shechinah (Midrash HaGadol).

Through the Midrashic imagination we understand why Abraham is so overcome by enormous grief. Sarah is remembered as loving, kind, and trustworthy. Her beauty radiates as a regal tribal queen, loved and beloved. Her charisma and hospitality inspire all people of all nations to join the tribe. In fact, because of the character of Abraham and Sarah, hospitably becomes an ethical and religious value throughout the centuries. In the time of the patriarchs who were desert wanderers, hospitality extended to the stranger was lifesaving. Food, water, shelter from the elements and safety within the tents was the desert tribal way of life. In modern times, community is the center of Jewish behavior and hospitality and is the dynamic that defines our community. In our own movement, audacious hospitality is a foundation of synagogue life.

It really matters how we welcome people into our synagogues. A person should never feel invisible in a synagogue. Hospitality is the way we say, " I see you and I know that you want to be known. I too have joys I yearn to share, come sit with me in the sanctuary. I will say Kaddish for my father, you will throw candy for your daughter, the bride. Here you are under the wings of the Shechinah, and I am with you."

This is the life and gift of Sarah. Her life as we understand it had complexity. She was not above reproach for her treatment of Hagar. But her legacy is solid. To paraphrase the Israeli poet Zelda: Each of has a name given to us by the stars and the mountains, our sins and our love, our longing and our limitations all conspire to create our good name. The path that opens before us and the path denied, the failures and disappointments as well as the successes create and form our lives. The way we walk through this world, interact with the nature of things, the ordinary and the eternal, the small and the grand. All of that creates a legacy. Sarah's legacy teaches us in her death to open our hearts and welcome all into our tents. After all, each one of us has a name, and our legacy is unfolding with every act of kindness.

EACH OF US HAS A NAME

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

© 1985, Zelda
From: Shirey Zelda
Publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1985

© Translation: 2004, Marcia Lee Falk
From: The Spectacular Difference
Publisher: Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 2004, 0-87820-222-6