Marc Chagall

2023-11-11 - Parashah Chayei Sara - “Life of Sarah”

Torah: (Bereishit) Genesis 23:1 – 25:18; Haftarah: I Kings 1:1-31


This Parashah is mainly about the marriage of Isaac, the promised son, with Rebecca. But the Torah portion begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Avraham. From this the rabbis surmised that we should show respect for the dead even in the midst of happy events, but then life must go on and each individual should live his or her life leaving his or her own legacy.

Sarah dies at the age of 127 and Avraham mourns for her. In Avraham's negotiations with the Hittites for a place of burial for Sarah, he states: "I am a stranger and a sojourner living with you. Give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight." (Genesis 23:4) This exemplifies the dual role that every Jewish person living in the diaspora has. On the one hand, he is the resident of a country, and as such he must contribute for its welfare, but on the other hand, he is always an alien, for his allegiance is to God living as a stranger to the idolatrous customs of that land and as a sojourner for his ultimate desire is to live in the land that was given to him by God, Eretz Yisrael.

So, too, a believer must always be ready to live a life of a lonely alien, resisting the sinful culture that surrounds him and maintaining his unique responsibility to be the salt of the world and be pleasing to the LORD by obeying His commandments who says: "for you are [but] aliens and sojourners with Me" (Leviticus 25:23). This world is not our home; Yeshua is preparing a home for us in the heavenly.

Since this Parashah begins and ends with the death of Sarah and Avraham, respectively, let's look at some traditional Jewish customs and beliefs about this subject.

In a simplistic way, man is consisted of body and soul, the soul departs at death and the body goes back into the earth. The following passage is an exemplification: And it came to pass, as her [Rachel’s] soul [nefesh] was departing, for she was dying, that she called his name Ben-oni [son of my suffering], but his father [Ya’akov] called him Ben-yamin [son of my old age] (Genesis 35:18).

But, in Hebrew, the concept of soul or spirit is more complex. We read in Genesis 2:7: “And the LORD Elohim formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (neshamah); and man became a living soul (nefesh). And in Ecclesiastes 12:7 we see another word for soul, or spirit: “And the dust returns to the eretz as it was, and the spirit (ha’ruah) returns to God who gave it.”

Some rabbis of old concluded that there are three parts, if you will, of the soul: 1) Nefesh, 2) Ruach, and 3) Neshama. The nefesh is the spiritual existence which resides in the body and keeps the physical metabolism working and the person alive, which is common to all living beings. The ruach is a connection between the neshama and the nefesh and it is the intellectual awareness of life and the cause of feelings and personal qualities. The neshama is the spiritual existence which pulls the man intellectual comprehensions and emotions toward the divine (reading the Torah in its original language has its benefits).

The “nefesh” is believed to reside in the blood: Genesis 4:10: “And He (God) said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground.’” and Genesis 9:4: “But flesh with its life (nefesh), which is its blood, you shall not eat. And surely your blood of your lives I will require; at the hand of every beast I will require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.” Note that God will require the human blood even spilled by animals. From this passage the rabbis not only developed a dietary law – eating meat without its blood, but also the tradition of gathering every drop of spilled human blood and prepare it for burial, as we have seen the ultra-orthodox men doing that at the sites of the Palestinian homicide bombers in Israel. They are a volunteer group called ZAKA. The name is an acronym for Zihui Korbanot Ason, Hebrew for “Identification of Disaster Victims.” They are often the first rescue workers to appear at the scene and the last to leave. This is to show the respect that the Jewish tradition has for life which is extended to the dead.

From Shulchan Aruch (literally "Set Table," a collection of codes of Jewish Law by Joseph Karo, published in 1565) we can glean some customs regarding death and burial.

Death is to be allowed to come in a natural way, there is to be no attempt made to hasten death or to prolong life. No preparations regarding funeral arrangements are to be made in anticipation of death. It is the custom — after Ya’akov’s example — for the children to gather at the bedside for final words or a blessing. Also, candles are placed in the room to greet the Shechinah when it would come to meet the departing soul. The tradition of the candles comes from Proverbs 20:27: “the soul (neshamah) of a man is the light of the LORD.”

When a person dies it is customary to be buried within 24 hours – as simply and as quickly as possible. Deuteronomy 21:23 says: “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him that day.” We have seen this custom applied to the body of Yeshua who was taken down from the Roman execution-stake and buried hastily before sundown. If one dies on Shabbat or on Yom Kippur, the preparations and the burial are postponed for the next day.

Cremation was not traditionally practiced by the Jews - probably because the pagan nations had the custom of burning the bodies - but there were instances when the Jews also burned dead bodies. For example in I Samuel 31:12, the dead bodies of Saul and his sons who were desecrated by the Philistines were burned. The rabbinic belief is that cremation destroys the lifeblood of the body and negates final resurrection. But this belief needs to be revised in light of the millions burned during the Holocaust in the German crematories.

Embalming is also not practiced, even though we have two biblical instances: Joseph and Jacob. That is probably because they lived in Egypt and that was an Egyptian custom. However, if the embalming is necessary for one reason or another, such as transportation, the blood that it is withdrawn from the body must be interred with it.

It is customary to wash the body, anoint it with spices and perfumes, and shroud the body in a white cloth. That is what the women wanted to do with the body of Yeshua after He was hastily placed in the tomb because the sun was setting and the Passover Holy Day was upon them (Luke 23:54-56 & Mark 16:1). The Orthodox use the Kittel – the white robe from Yom Kippur – to clothe the body and cover the head with the Tallith from which the Attarah – the neck band – and the tzitzith are removed. In the bygone days coffins were not used, and even today are not used by the Oriental Jews, they just wrap the body with the white cloth and place it in the ground. Today, if a coffin is used, it is usually made of plain pine wood without any decorations and at no time the coffin which has the body inside is left without the lid, or the face of the deceased exposed.

The mourning is a time of healing and introspection. We read in the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: ‘Weep not for the dead, neither bemoan him [that is], ‘Weep not for the dead’ [that is] in excess, ‘neither bemoan him’ — beyond measure. How is that [applied]? — Three days for weeping and seven for lamenting and thirty [to refrain] from cutting the hair and [donning] pressed clothes.’” Talmud - Mo’ed Katan 27b.

In the traditional Judaism there are four periods of mourning: 1) the Aninuth – the time between death and burial; 2) Shivah – the seven days following the funeral; 3) Sheloshim – the thirty days; and 4) The year of mourning:

— 1) The Aninuth – the Bible also mention several traditions for this period, such as, cutting the hair, putting on sackcloth and placing ashes, or dirt, on the head, and rending of garments. The one that it is still symbolically practiced today is the rending of the garments. If the dead is a parent the rent is made on the left side, but if it is any other relative a rent is made on the right side of the outer garment. The tear must be a hand breath in length and then sown back after 30 days. More recently this custom is mostly done at the grave site where the mourners tear a ribbon pinned on the outer garment. Another custom is to cover the mirrors inside the house for a week. The superstition is that the spirit is hovering in the room and would become visible, but also it is done as not to be a distraction for the mourners. There is also a folk custom to throw the water, which was left uncovered, outside of the house because the Angel of Death may have dropped blood into it.

— 2) The sitting Shivah, the seven days after the funeral, comes also from a biblical passage, Job 2:12-13: “And when they lifted up their eyes from far away, and did not recognize him, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they tore everyone his robe, and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him; for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Mourners sit on the floor with shoes removed; no bathing or shaving, no business transaction, no forms of entertaining are done, and all religious ceremonies are omitted, such as putting on the tefillin. Shivah is interrupted by the Shabbat or a Holy Day.

— 3) Sheloshim - the 30 days, mourners are not to wear new garments but only the torn one - some wear a black band on their arm - still there are no shaving and no personal enjoyment of any kind performed during this time.

— 4) After the 30 days basically the mourning ends except for the reciting the daily Kaddish for one year in the synagogue. Traditionally it is done by men, but some congregations also allow women. This recitation ends after one year with the Yartzeit, the yearly commemoration, symbolized by lighting the Yartzeit candle. Some also observe it with fasting.

Touching a dead body renders one unclean (Leviticus 5) therefore, a Kohen is forbidden to touch a dead body or to enter a cemetery because being unclean he cannot perform his priestly duties. Today, even without the Temple, the Kohanim perform functions in the Synagogues, such as reading from the Torah and blessing the congregation, therefore, the tradition remains. Exception may be made in case of the death of parents and close relatives. Some other rabbinical traditions have been developed without any biblical basis, such as: people who died of unnatural causes such as criminals and suicides are buried along the fence in the cemetery, and unconverted Jewish spouses are not permitted to be interred in the Jewish cemetery.

Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her (Genesis 23:3). But how should we, as believers, look at this sad event when someone that we care for dies?

Yochanan 11:35 says that Yeshua wept at the death of Lazarus, but was He weeping because Lazarus was dead or for other reason? To understand why Yeshua wept we have to look at the entire passage. In verse 4 when He was told that Lazarus was sick Yeshua responded that this sickness was not unto death but for the glory of God. Then on verse 11 Yeshua, after two days, says that Lazarus had fallen asleep, but the talmidim have not understood what He said, so He tells them plainly, Lazarus is dead. But then, when Yeshua comes to the village and sees everyone weeping, He is moved with compassion and Himself weeps. From the beginning He knew that He is going to resurrect Lazarus, therefore, He was not weeping because Lazarus died, but He was weeping with the mourners because of His compassion towards the human condition; He was weeping because in our weak flesh we terrible miss the person who died.

With our minds we know that: "to live is Messiah and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21) and "absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8), but our flesh weeps because we lost from our realm a dear person - a loved one, we weep not for them but actually for us because we are left on this earth without them and we experience the feeling of becoming more alien than before. Yeshua weeps with us because He understands us and has compassion for us, but He promises to never live us without His Shalom in any situation.

Once Avraham, at the age of 140, had arranged for the marriage of Isaac, the destiny of the Jewish people moved on to the next generation, even though Avraham lived to be 175. But here the Bible makes a statement: "the life which he lived" (Genesis 25:7) indicating that Abraham lived his life fully; not one day was wasted.

May we also not waste a day, but live a full life for Messiah Yeshua, for God's glory, who is waiting to greet us with open arms and words of comfort: well done good and faithful servant.

Shabbat joy, peace, and blessings! Shabbat Shalom!

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