On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Two Jews, Three Opinions, One Heart -Parashat Chayei Sarah

Sometimes, what isn't said is more provoking than what is said. This week, Rabbi Jacobs brings a curiosity about what the Torah doesn't tell us about Sarah's death, namely the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, and how their moment of unity in grief can remind us to push our differences aside and come together as one.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Chayei Sarah teaching about what families look like today and in biblical times. Where they are the same and where they are different may surprise you.

[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Chayei Sarah, literally, "the life of Sarah." But the Torah portion actually goes on to describe Sarah's death and then the painful mourning for Abraham. And then Abraham translates his sadness into, wait, I have to arrange for a proper burial. And he negotiates a purchase of land, the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place for the patriarchs and matriarchs. And then the Torah goes on to, basically, take care of a big giant glaring question for the life of Jewish people is that Sarah dies and Isaac, their child, is not married . So will the tradition continue? So then begins this very, very dramatic sequence of Abraham sending Eliezer's trusted servant to find a proper wife for Isaac. That's accomplished. And then we have, in chapter 25 of Genesis, a remarkable moment where all of the sudden it says, in very simple terms at the beginning of chapter 25 of Genesis, Abraham took another wife whose name was Keturah.

It just raises, for, me the whole question of cultural norms around families. If you think about it, first, many of us were raised in sort of the idea that there was some typical family. It had a mother and a father and maybe 1.8 children, a station wagon, a dog, a suburban house. And that's what family was supposed to be. And then for the 99% of us whose family resembles quite a different configuration, we'd feel sometimes inadequate or slightly sheepish about our own particular families. But I think this week's parashah comes along to teach us something very profound, which is even in the very first family of Judaism, it is a non-traditional or non-stereotypical family construction.

You have, in the opening of this chapter 25, the experience of the patriarch remarrying. And if you're listening to the podcast, maybe this is a situation you have faced where a beloved member of your family dies and leaves, basically, a widow or widower and the feeling of, it's such a lonely place to be. So imagine Abraham and Sarah, they had a whole life together. They journeyed from Ur Kasdim. And they had a very dramatic and long marriage and long leadership of the Jewish people. But here we have Abraham finding another partner.

Now one of the most amazing little details in the midrash is that this remarriage wasn't actually under the impetus of Abraham. It says in Tanchuma Chayei Sarah that when Isaac married Rebecca, he said to himself, I have taken a wife while my father is without a spouse. What did he do? He went and brought him Keturah. So often-times in a family situation, it could be the child who is most objecting to the parent remarrying. But here Isaac sees the loneliness of his father after the death of his mother. And he is the one who brings Keturah.

Now in the rabbinic literature in the tenaim, going back 2,000 years, they're raising the question whether this is Abraham's second wife or third wife. If you do the math with me, remember Abraham and Sarah, of course, are a couple. And remember the story of Hagar, the handmaiden of Sarah with whom Abraham and Hagar have Ishmael. So the question is whether Keturah is just another name for Hagar. Or if actually, there are three relationships that Abraham had. And then, really just a few moments later, after we learn of his remarriage, it says in chapter 7 of Genesis, this was the total span of Abraham's life, 175 years. And Abraham breathed his last dying at a good ripe age, old and contented. And he was gathered unto his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron, son of Zohar the Hittite facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites.

Now here is a kind of funeral tucked into the end of the parashat. The parashat is named because of Sarah, the drama around her death, the loss, and then the acquiring of this Cave of Machpelah. And it just raised so many questions to me about what, kind of, I would say, challenging funeral this must have been, if you think about the blended families. Because not only did Keturah and Abraham marry, but we're told that they actually have a good number of children. They had six children together-- Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.

So you have Isaac and Ishmael, you have the children of Keturah, and you have maybe their extended families. And I'm thinking to myself, I was a pulpit rabbi for many, many years. And I think of all of the complex family situations. And I would have to say this one would probably rank there.

I think of the funerals where I'm introduced to the extended family. And people say, Rabbi, this is Dad's wife. She insists that I call her "Mom," but I just can't and I won't. And she's never forgiven me. But I wanted you to meet her. Well, that sometimes is the day before the funeral. Or Rabbi, my brother would like to say a few words at the funeral. But I don't think you should let him, because he's carrying a lot of grievances. And he's likely to unload them in front of all of our family and friends. Or you also have the very positive stories when you meet stepchildren who are the only surviving children of the deceased caring for their mother's husband in the most loving and inspiring way. There is no normal family. The Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, those are not families I know. They don't resemble, probably, any of our families. And here we have the biblical first family basically touching every challenge to what a stereotypical family would look like. So I'm trying to imagine the funeral. I'm imagining before Abraham's funeral, there's no rabbi, of course. There was no formal proceedings. But I imagine if I were the rabbi or if maybe your family's rabbi was that individual, imagine trying to prepare.

So let me just kind of name what is really obvious. Should the rabbi mention Abraham's long marriage and life with Sarah? Or is that going to hurt Keturah's family? Maybe he shouldn't really dwell on the earlier part of Abraham's life. But how could they not? Should the rabbi mention something about the aqedat, this incredibly painful drama that thankfully at the last moment was kept from disaster? Are eulogies only supposed to include happy and positive times in a person's life?

And then perhaps the most complicated piece of that funeral had to do with Isaac and Ishmael. Remember, Abraham is the father of both. But they actually are the children of different mothers. And what we're told is the falling out was so intense that the two only meet again at their father's funeral. You've got to imagine that they're carrying enormous pain and loss. And the Torah says in just one sentence, his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah. Did they bury him with animosity? Did they bury him with shared love? What was that like? So I just have to feel that the unwritten is the part that is most interesting and, frankly, provocative as we imagine this family system gathering for the funeral. But imagining Isaac and Ishmael is also imagining the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, thinking of all of the Jewish descendants from Isaac. And Ishmael is the father of so much of the Arab nations. And to think about how many funerals that both have witnessed. But the idea that they would have a shared moment is one that offers us a lot of food for thought.

I think of a gathering I was at a year ago, Women Wage Peace. We had a gathering right on the border with Gaza in Israel. And I had met with so many of our communities along the Gaza border on the Israeli side, of course. And then there was this gathering of women who wage peace. And I was so taken by this gathering. Turns out they have 43,000 members and it's a very diverse group of women, from the right, from the center, from the left, religious women, secular women, Jewish women, Arab women, Druze women, Bedouin women, young women, older women, women from the center of the country, women from the periphery. And they didn't have one particular solution. What they had was the pain of going to too many funerals, too many funerals for the descendants of Isaac, too many funerals for the descendants of Ishmael. And they were brought together. I felt very self-conscious. I was one of just a handful of men. There were hundreds of women. And it was an inspiring and challenging gathering.

I can't help but think of, also, some of the most painful funerals in the Middle East. And I think of the funeral for the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped and were found weeks later killed. And I remember Rabbi Gilad Kariv and I felt very strongly that we wanted to represent the reform movement, so we went to the funeral. And there are probably 50,000 people there. It was a brutally hot day. We walked for several miles to get to the cemetery which is in Modi'in, Israel. And to be honest, the crowd was a very, very religious crowd, mostly modern orthodox. And yet there was something very binding together of all of us in our grief and our sense of the tragedy of tragedies unfolding. And I'll remember forever the eulogy that one particular rabbi gave, Rabbi Dov Zinger, who is the dean of Yeshiva Makor Chaim in Kfar Etzion, who actually was a teacher to two of the three boys. And in his personal remembrances, he offered an adaptation of a simple yet familiar line. He said, instead of two Jews, three opinions, he said, two Jews, three opinions, one heart.

And as we're remembering the death of Abraham and the moment where Isaac and Ishmael are gathered to remember their father, it feels so urgent for us to remember that Muslims and Jew's were all children of Abraham. And in Arabic, we say Ibrahim. But it is the same father, the same patriarch. And if we could-- again, I know it's a big reach given all the animosity and all the history and all the tensions. But if we could remember that we are the children of Abraham and we are related, that would potentially bring us together not just in reading a biblical story but bringing a very, very painful chapter of division and animosity and even violence to be a moment of family healing.

Let's pray for that in the coming weeks, months, years. It's embedded in the biblical story. It's embedded in our very lives.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

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And until next week, L'hitroat!