When my grandfather died in the spring of 2003, I was nearly 10,000 miles away, literally on the other side of the world. Privileged with an opportunity to travel in Southeast Asia, I had spent 10 days in a small village in southern Cambodia without internet access. These were the days before smartphones, and I did not find out about the shiva, the funeral, his death, the fact that my brothers sat by his side holding his hand and singing to him, and his admission to the hospital, until I finally read my emails–in reverse chronological order–when I got to a town with an internet cafe.
I cried freely and loudly as grief mixed with guilt for not being with my grandfather in his final days, or with my mother in the immediacy of loss; with longing to be with my family; with anger at myself for having been away from email for so long.
In this week’s parashah, it appears that Abraham might have been far away when his wife Sarah died:
וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה: וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ
And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her.
– Genesis 23:1-2
Picking up on the words “And Abraham came…,” several biblical commentators wonder where Abraham was coming from. Was he not with Sarah? The most common answer is that he had been living apart from her, in Beersheva, since the episode of the binding of Isaac.
But I imagine we can read this verse figuratively to suggest that there was an emotional distance between them, that even if Abraham had been in the same location as Sarah, he was not there, emotionally–not prepared to lose her. Indeed, the last recorded words that Sarah spoke to her husband were the demand to banish his son Ishmael, which “distressed Abraham greatly” (Genesis 21:11).
Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that Abraham had to make an inner journey to bridge the distance that had stood between him and Sarah when she died. Or perhaps it is teaching us that no matter what, it takes time for the heart to arrive at a place where we can begin to grieve.
My relationship with my grandfather had been a close one, warm and sweet. There was no unfinished business, no old wounds unhealed, as it seems there might have been between Abraham and Sarah. I also knew he was reaching the end of his life; he had been frail and ailing for a while. And yet, even if I had been in America when he died, I would not have been there, I would not have been prepared for that loss. I suspect the news would have shocked me just as much. And I know that I was not ready to say goodbye: There were still questions I wanted to ask him, experiences I wanted to share with him, important future moments that I wanted him to be part of, stories I hadn’t yet heard.
In many ways, we can never be prepared for death. We are always “somewhere else” when it happens, and we must always come to a place, like Abraham, where we can begin our mourning process. By emphasizing that Abraham was far away, perhaps the Torah is reminding us to prepare ourselves–as best we can–for the reality of human mortality and the inevitability of loss. Reminding us that if there is an emotional distance between us and someone we love, we should not wait to try and bridge the gap. Reminding us to take these steps so that when a loved one dies, no matter how far away we may physically be, our hearts have less of a distance to travel.
Parashat Hayei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham, and it is here that for the first time the Torah tells us about burial and mourning practices.
We invite you on this Shabbat to acquaint yourself with BJ’s practice around death, burial, and mourning as well as with the support offered by our spiritual leaders, staff, and volunteers. We also invite you to learn about What Matters, an initiative of the Jewish community of New York that engages individuals in compassionate, values-driven conversations about end-of-life planning.