In the book of Genesis, a book whose first words are “In the beginning,” almost every experience is new: the first human beings (Adam and Eve), the first murder (Cain murders his brother, Abel), and the first blessing (God blesses our patriarch, Abraham). But as the Torah continues on, we also observe events that lead to the first expressions of human emotions: God mentions Abraham’s love for his son, Isaac, in the akedah, the binding of Isaac, and in this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, Abraham mourns the death of his beloved Sarah, the first association of death and grief.
Although the Torah introduces abstract concepts of love and grief for the first time, the narrative voice does not dwell on Abraham’s inner feelings or thoughts surrounding his emotions. Abraham does not express his paternal love through a hug or a kiss, or any physical acts of tenderness. Nor does Abraham tell his son that he loves him. Indeed, it is God who tells Abraham to sacrifice the son he loves. And when Sarah dies, the Torah does not describe Abraham’s tears, or the loneliness or sorrow he might be experiencing. There is also no mention of Abraham sitting shivah or observing the sheloshim, which would only be introduced later as rituals of mourning.
Rather than explore our patriarch’s interior life, the Torah teaches us about what one does in response to a loved one’s death. In this case, Abraham goes to his neighbors, the Hittites, and negotiates to buy the cave of Machpelah, which will become the family’s formal burial site. The first response to death is a practical one: now that a loved one has died, how shall we handle the body?
Abraham’s pragmatic example has been a model for thousands of years. During those first few hours after a loved one has died, we must engage in the tachlis – the details – of arranging for a funeral. Perhaps we’ll speak with the funeral home, or with the rabbi. We’ll set a date, a time and a place, based on our family’s needs and desires. In this day and age, when family and friends often live far away, funeral services are scheduled not based on the Jewish legal requirement of timeliness but on the availability of airline flights from distant places. And, like Abraham, we’ll meet with people – usually the funeral home representatives – to discuss all of the costs of the services they provide. It’s almost paradoxical that at a time when we are experiencing our most profound loss, when we are riding an emotional rollercoaster, we must also negotiate costs, sign contracts and conduct a complicated legal and financial transaction.
These circumstances are, in part, dictated by our ever more complicated world. In generations past, virtually everyone we knew lived nearby, or at least within a reasonable distance. And caring for loved ones – the mitzvah of mourning – was a communal obligation. In our great-grandparents’ world (and beyond), everyone in the shtetl was a neighbor.
But regardless of life’s complexities, the Torah’s practical approach to death offers both wisdom and compassion. At a time of such emotional upheaval, when we might be tempted to turn away and isolate ourselves, our tradition requires that we engage in the world. In those first hours, when the intensity of the grief threatens to overwhelm us, we must instead put those emotions aside and deal with the ongoing, quotidian business of life. Surely, the rabbis knew that the period of shivah would create a time and a place for grief and remembrance. But such a time would only begin after the funeral, when a community of support was fully in place, ready to offer comfort and solace.
As we mourn, or as we support family and friends who mourn, let us recall our patriarch, who intuitively understood that death – and all of its ramifications – is never disconnected from life. Indeed, Abraham’s relationship with his neighbors shows us that in times of sadness, it is our surrounding community, both the intimate and the distant, that will give us the strength to move forward and find our lives again.
RABBI HOWARD VOSS-ALTMAN is senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Providence