Journey to Forever

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5782/2021
written in memory of those killed at Tree of Life Synagogue
Sermon by Rabbi Sarah Reines

Friday, October 29, 2021

The unthinkable had almost happened.

Isaac survived, but Abraham could not stop reliving the horror of that moment. As he descended Mt Moriah, images kept flashing before him: the knife… the angel… the ram… Isaac’s tears. 

What kept Abraham moving was the knowledge that soon he would arrive home – home to Sarah’s comforting arms, to the welcome of her tent.The thought of her lightened his step, hastening his trek to Hebron. 

As he journeyed, Abraham thought back, reflecting on the many journeys of his life. 

Surely, this was to be his last. God knew that his aging body no longer held  the strength to travel great distances. God knew it was time for Abraham to rest, for Abraham and Sarah to leave their pioneering days in the past and live out the rest of their lives in the comfort of home and each other. 

Abraham trudged on until his legs turned lead. He stopped at the next town to get some sleep. It was here, in Beer Sheva, that he was told the news: your wife, Sarah, is dead.

Abraham was wrong. This was not the last journey God intended for him. There was to be one more. Not a physical journey through desert lands, but a spiritual journey through death and mourning. 

Somehow, Abraham found himself in Hebron. He stared numbly at Sarah’s tent. Nothing had changed, and everything had changed. It’s sharp edges pierced the gray sky, it’s sides hung limp. Her lamp sat dull at its entrance, and a hardened ball of dough lay crusting in her kneading bowl.

Abraham wondered – was this death? This chilling vacancy invading his body? He stood, empty, when suddenly, he sensed his Sarah: the charismatic spirit, converting her people; the agonized woman, bitter in her barrenness. He felt the heat of her envy and the weight of her sorrow. He heard the echo of her sharp laughter, her footsteps scurrying to prepare a feast for surprise guests, to celebrate the weaning of her long-awaited son. Memories of Sarah filled Abraham’s soul, and tumbled from his mouth – her dreams, her miseries, her longings and virtues. 

Translating the days of Sarah’s life into words lifted Abraham, and awakened her presence in those grieving her. Abraham spoke till he had no more words. In the sudden silence, Sarah’s absence broke inside him and poured forth: Vayavo Avraham, leespod l’Sarah v’leevkotah – Abraham eulogized Sarah, then wept for her. (Genesis 23:2)

Abraham buried Sarah in the Cave of Machpela, the site that would be their last home, a final resting place for them and their descendents. He picked up a shovel and pushed a clod of earth into his wife’s grave. It landed with a thud, in the grave and in his heart. Reeling from a wave of finality, he pushed in another clump of earth, and another … By the time the grave was filled Abraham felt like he had crossed some kind of line. He and Sarah had both confronted death, and he, alone, was to journey forward.

Time passed. Abraham, now a widower stooped with loss, took another step toward healing in reclaiming life for his and Sarah’s greatest blessing. v’Avraham zekayn, ba bayameem, va-Adonai beyrach et Avraham bakol Abraham, was now old, advanced in years, and God blessed Abraham in all things. (Genesis 24:1)

Abraham treasured life and its abundant wonders, but nothing compared with Isaac – the miracle of his and Sarah’s love, the manifestation of God’s promise. As always happened when he thought of Isaac, his love was punctured by guilt. He couldn’t help but be transported back to that day of terror when he almost lost his son. Almost… in some ways, he did lose his son. He lost Isaac’s trust, his laughter, his innocence. He lost his son’s very presence. 

Looking about him, Abraham understood why Isaac had remained so distant from him, choosing to live in the southern country. Why would he want to live here? A cold slumber had pervaded this place since Sarah died … until now. Abraham beckoned his servant, Eliezer, and sent him to the city of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac.

Days and nights melded together. Abraham sometimes lost sight of where or when he was, living mostly in the past, sometimes in the future, never certain of the present. He often stood outside Sarah’s tent, yearning to again feel her as he had the first day he returned, following her death. 

One evening, standing in that place as dusk settled over the land, Abraham looked out into the open field, and saw the figure of his son, Isaac, wandering in solitude. Abraham resisted running to greet him, as he had run toward those marvelous strangers, who years ago crossed that same field to share the prophecy of Isaac’s birth. He watched his son from a distance, noticing a slight hunch to Isaac’s back – Weighed down in concentration or grief, Abraham didn’t know. 

Suddenly, from the east, a procession of camels, led by Eliezer, appeared on the horizon. Abraham’s pulse quickened. On the camel behind Eliezer rode a girl. Abraham remained still. Could this be the wife God had chosen for Isaac? He saw his son lift up his head in the direction of the travelers, pause, and walk toward them. There was some kind of commotion. Abraham squinted – the girl fell from the camel! She appeared flustered as she brushed herself off. She and Eliezer exchanged some words, then she drew a veil from her pack and draped it over her face. 

Even from afar, Abraham noticed how in that gesture the young woman suddenly stood taller, with greater presence and maturity, Isaac drew closer to her. Abraham smiled as he saw the two young people engage awkwardly yet eagerly. It reminded him of that day, decades earlier, when he and Sarah first noticed one another.

Something caught the corner of Abraham’s gaze. He turned back towards Sarah’s tent. Still empty, now it seemed different, similar to when she was alive. The wisps of a protective cloud gently hovered over its entrance. The side flaps billowed, suggesting a feeling of invitation. It glowed with a soft light, reminiscent of the lamp which had always illuminated hospitality and warmth. And Abraham could swear he smelled the aroma of fresh baked bread.1

All these things which disappeared with Sarah’s death, with Isaac’s estrangement, now returned. Abraham bowed his head and thanked God for restoring his family to him – thanked him for pushing him to journey, once again, to a new land that he didn’t know. 

* * *

As Jews, we are keepers of memory. As we journey through our days, we pause to honor those who have died, and recognize how they remain with us. It has been about 4000 years since we lost Sarah. This week marks three years since we lost 11 of her descendants – 11 of our brothers and sisters, gathered in prayer at the Tree of Life congregation for Shabbat prayer and celebration. Their deaths remain gaping absences in the lives of their loved ones, their community, our people, and all creation. And yet, their shared tent, Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, still carries their eternal essence.

The hospitality of Joyce Fienberg who always invited visitors to come for a meal after services. 

The generosity of Richard Gottfried, a dentist who devoted many hours to working pro-bono serving indigent immigrants and refugees. 

The kindness of the Rosenthal brothers, Cecile and David. Overlooked by many in society due to their differences, they made certain to always stand by the synagogue doors, welcoming each person in with smiles and compliments.  

The engaging leadership of Daniel Stein, dedicated president of a sister congregation who shared space with Tree of Life.

The tenderness of Jerry Rabinowitz, a family doctor who tended people’s body and soul. During the AIDS crisis he gifted his stigmatized patients with connection and touch, holding their hands without wearing gloves, and embracing them at each visit. 

The enduring love of life partners, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, married in the Tree of Life Chapel 62 years before sharing their last breaths there. 

The courage of Melvin Wax, veteran of the Korean War, who rooted loud and proud for the Pittsburgh Pirates, no matter what the score.

The encouragement of Irving Younger, son of two Holocaust survivors, whose mission in life was to lift up others – friends and strangers alike. 

And finally, The Tree of Life’s matriarch, Rose Mallinger. Like our matriarch, Sarah, age never dulled Rose. Even at 97, she was known for her strong presence, her sharp wit, and her laughter. 

Our hearts have been broken, time and again. But like Abraham and Isaac, like the Tree of Life congregation, we continue to pray even as we grieve, to sing even as we sorrow, to move forward even as we fear. We journey into our future strengthened by those who are always a part of us.

1  adapted from Bereshit Rabbah 60:16