TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
RITES OF PASSAGE
CHAYEY SARAH, Genesis 23:1-25:18
The living and the dead
As Sarah's life in this world comes to an end, the Torah makes an exact reckoning of her years: "And the life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty-seven years: these were the years of the life of Sarah" (Gen. 23:1).
As we live our lives from moment to moment, day by day and year by year, our thoughts tend to be more focused on the present and the future, while most of what is past and gone is usually forgotten. Yet in fact every thought, word and deed of every moment are registered and recorded in God's "book" - His eternal memory, which is surely perfect. The Torah's careful accounting of the years of Sarah's life comes to teach us that when the soul leaves the body after death, all the person's days and years ascend together to be judged in the heavenly court in accordance with God's perfect justice. This is in order to determine that person's fitting place in the life after life. For "the righteous of the peoples of the world have a share in the world to come" (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3:5). Each one must surely be judged in order to attain his or her rightful share.
While the soul of the departed goes on to face what it must face in the heavenly court, the living must pay their last respects, accompanying the dead person's earthly remains to their final resting place. The Torah sages call the accompaniment of the dead at their funeral " true kindness" because it is performed with complete altruism, since the living can expect nothing in return from the dead person.
Participation in a funeral is listed among the acts of kindness for which those who perform them gain their main reward in the World to Come while eating the "fruits" in this world (Pe'ah 1:1). Among these "fruits" are the deeper humility and wisdom we attain when face to face with the existential truth of human mortality at a funeral. The rites with which we mark a person's passage from this world to the next are as much for the benefit of the living as they are for the dead.
Thus Abraham marked the death of his beloved wife with eulogies and mourning. "And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron , in the land of Canaan , and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her" (Genesis 23:2). Recalling the fine points of the departed and mourning their loss increases our appreciation of the preciousness of life and the importance of using each moment for the greatest possible good.
Rites of passage
The stories in the book of Genesis include a number of references to various rites of passage. In the previous portion, VAYEIRA, we read of the feast made by Abraham to mark his son Isaac's transition from early childhood dependence upon motherly care and attention to the expanded horizons of flourishing boyhood. "And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day of the weaning of Isaac" (Genesis 21:8). The Torah commentators teach us that it was called a " great feast" not because of lavish catering and gushing wine but "because the great people of the generation were there: Shem, Eiver and Avimelech" (see Rashi ad loc.). In inviting wise sages and leaders, Abraham surely wanted to use this auspicious occasion in Isaac's life to impress upon him the serious responsibility that falls upon the mature individual to order all his or her affairs and dealings in this world with wisdom.
Our present portion deals not only with the rites of passage with which we attend the dead but also with the subject of pairing and marriage, which are the necessary foundation for breeding and raising new generations. Finding a suitable marriage partner is the main theme of Genesis chapter 24, one of the lengthier chapters in the Bible. Now that Isaac has attained full adulthood, his father Abraham sees that he is ripe for marriage. With Sarah no longer here to look for a suitable partner, Abraham sends his faithful servant Eliezer to search in the land from which he came, where his family still reside.
The actual rites of passage for bride and groom as they move from single to married life are mentioned later in Genesis. To celebrate Jacob's wedding with his daughter, Laban "gathered all the people of the place and made a feast" (Genesis 29:22). In that same passage we learn that the wedding festivities lasted seven days (ibid. verse 27).
A public marriage ceremony with a celebrant, witnesses and other participants is important under the Seven Noahide Laws, which strictly forbid adultery. The couple's change in status from being unattached to being man and wife is a serious matter that must be made evident to all in order to protect the sanctity of their marriage from destructive extra-marital affairs.
For the couple themselves, the wedding celebrations with dear ones and friends are and should be a glorious send-off on their new life together. But the future of the marriage will not be assured simply by holding a riotous party with lots of booze, noise and fun. The groundwork for marriage must be carefully laid in advance of the ceremony by choosing the right partner. That is why the Torah focuses less on the marital rite of passage - Jacob's wedding party is described in one verse (Genesis 29:22) - but much more on how Eliezer set about finding a suitable life-partner for Isaac, where the narrative consists of sixty-seven verses.
Isaac's marriage to Rebecca was not merely an "arranged-marriage" in the sense that they were forced upon one another by their respective families. Rebecca's right to choose her own husband was strictly respected by her family. "And they said, Let us call the girl and ask her directly. They called Rebecca and said to her, Will you go with this man? And she said, I will go" (Genesis 29:57-8).
Nevertheless, Rebecca's marriage with Isaac was "arranged" in the sense that Eliezer was cast in the role of the matchmaker charged with finding a suitable candidate to be the wife of his master's beloved son, who would in due course succeed Abraham in leading the world in the service of God.
Rebecca was indeed "of very good appearance" (verse 16), which is an excellent recommendation for any potential bride. But it was not primarily for her beauty that Eliezer chose her, because even before he had even seen her he had already devised a test by which to assess the character of potential candidates. The right one would be the girl who would not only give him to drink as he stood at the well late in the day after a grueling ride through the desert, but would also offer to water his ten camels (verse 14). This manifestation of exceptional kindness going well beyond the strict "letter of the law" would mark her out as a fitting wife for Isaac and a fitting daughter-in-law of Abraham, the outstanding exemplar of human kindness. When choosing a marriage partner one should go not merely by external appearance but by true character.
The Birthday Party
Another important point of transition in our lives is the yearly anniversary of our day of birth. In most years our birthdays mark less of a transition in our lives than major transitions such as from childhood or adolescence to maturity and adulthood or from single to married life. Even so, the day on which we start a new year in our allotted span of life is still a milestone that may properly be marked with an appropriate celebration.
Thus we find that in the time of Joseph, Pharaoh marked his birthday by reinstating his butler (who according to tradition had been imprisoned for letting a fly get into the king's wine), while executing his baker (who had nearly killed him by letting a stone get into his bread, see Genesis 40:20 and Rashi ad loc.). Pharaoh did not merely hold a loud birthday party. He evidently used the occasion of his birthday to review and settle affairs of state.
Each of us is king or queen in his or her own life and it is likewise proper for us to celebrate the anniversary of our birthday in a fitting manner with dear ones and friends. A feast with good food and drink is an appropriate time to bless, praise and thank God for the sum of years He has given us so far. We should also reflect on the preciousness of life and our true purpose in this world, and pray to God to use the time He gives us to attain it.
"So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalms 90:12). By remembering God and turning to Him at important moments of transition in our own lives and the lives of our dear ones and friends, we elevate our days and years, so that when our time comes to leave this world they will all rise before the heavenly court to testify in our favor.
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