Thursday, December 01, 2005


Chayei Sarah and the Solstice

In this part of the world, the closing days of autumn, the month of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, are perhaps the dreariest time of year. The leaves are gone from the trees. It is so dastardly frigid out, but there is no snow to make the cold worth the while (except for this year -- we got snow soon after it was cold enough for it to do so! hurray for the lack of an un-necessary wait!). And yet, there is, in this time of weather-wise senescence, a sense of hope in the air. The Shabbos before the one that has just passed witnessed the announcing of the month of Kislev -- the melody of the announcement changed throughout or at least at the very end from the usual very "Jewish" sounding chant, reminiscent of the nusach used for the fall holidays to the happy melody of Maoz Tzur -- Rock of Ages. Our Christian brethren have begun the season of Advent, a time of great hope for them. In the Christmas carols, one feels a distinct sense of joy even as one feels in the melody the cold of the season as well. And though it was early this year, the festival of Dewali often also falls at this time.

Much has been written about the celebration of life, emotional warmth and light at a time of darkness, cold and senescence, but what is interesting from the Jewish point of view is that this is the time in which we read the Parashat, Chayei Sarah -- the life of Sarah. The oft-noted irony of this portion is that the words beginning it, which give it its name, actually are describing the death of Sarah. And the portion ends with the death of Abraham. It is interesting then that we come to this part of the Torah as autumn enters its final stretch: as all around us the world is asleep and dead to itself, yet all around us are Christmas carols, Chanukah songs and other songs of hope and winter cheer. The dramatic irony of the Torah portion perfectly reflects our feelings at this time of year -- our need to remember that, even as the days get shorter, light will come to us again. In general, our calendar reflects the comforting rhythms of the seasons (I say as I will likely move out of New Jersey back to the relatively season free sunbelt at the bottom of this country -- I will miss the seasons) as well as an agricultural world in which many of us no longer live as well as the coming of the Messiah which many pray will happen soon even if s/he may be tarrying until humanity has proven itself worthy of Messianic rule: the fretting of the Omer period when one is not sure how one's first grain harvest will turn out, the joy of the fall harvest and the good judgment upon us we would like to think it represents, etc.

One of the themes of Jewish meta-humor is that we Jews, having experienced so many catastrophes in our existence, are good at suffering, good at dealing with mass death. No awkward moments of silence for us, no forced wailing. Just the plaintive chants of the Psalms: Psalm 1, Psalm 22, Psalm 23, Psalm 39, Psalm 49, Psalm 130 ... and the prayer most associated with mourning, the Kaddish.

There are actually many varieties of the Kaddish prayer -- all of which serve as "punctuation" in Jewish worship. And what does the Kaddish say? It is a paean to God, but within it lies a very strong demand: that we wish for God to establish the Divine Kingdom on Earth -- "now! and swiftly! soon!" Why do we say this prayer in memory of death? As a very touching midrash has it, "if we are to say a Kaddish when a chapter of Torah is finished, how much more so should we say Kaddish when a person's life ends." Life, like the seasons, is marked with a beginning and an end. It is all part of the great cycle described so poetically by Koheleth. At the end of the cycle -- at a time when all seems so bleak, we remember (in the active sense of the word so often used in Torah), in Kislev, with Chayei Sarah, with the festival of the re-dedication of the Temple, Chanukah, that spring will come again, life will be renewed. Thus, the Kaddish, said in memory of the dead, contains a plea for the Messiah to come and renew life.

As the Rabbis of yore taught: "why should we feel sad at the passing of someone who has died after a long and full life? should we not feel happy that they have led a long and full life? should we not rather worry at the time of the birth of child about how that child will turn out?"

While death is a time of sadness and the close of autumn is a time of cold and darkness, sometimes without even snow to add brightness from reflecting what little light there is, we must remember life and hope for its return. That is what the title of the portion, the Life of Sarah, implores us to do: as much as we may be sad, that which we sow in tears shall be harvested in joy. In this season of cold and dark, but at this season of the rededication of the Temple, let us all remember how it began: with not the death of Sarah, mother of Isaac without whom there would be no Jewish people (remember Abraham was happy to have Ishmael as his heir), but with her life.

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