November 20, 2003
Permission to Grieve
Parshat Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
Years ago, one of my colleagues had the awesome task of officiating at the funeral of a 9-year-old girl killed by a car while riding her bicycle. My friend gathered the children from that small Jewish community and gently invited them to speak their true feelings.
"I'm mad at my mom because she won't let me ride my bike." "I'm mad at my friend for dying." "I'm scared that I'm going to get hit by a car." She turned to the youngest one: "I'm still sad," he said.
That 4-year-old's earnest and innocent remark has stayed with me ever since. We live in a society not so tolerant of grief, and I sometimes worry that even those of us who allow ourselves to feel our sadness at the funerals, try too hard to dry the tears as soon as we leave the cemetery.
Jewish tradition certainly acknowledges the reality of grief, offering wise step-by-step instructions to help the mourners heal and the comforters give solace. Yet, even our tradition -- sensitive though it is to the human need to grieve loss -- expects us to stick to a grief schedule. Although our yearly Yizkor cycle encourages us to remember our lost loved ones, the grieving is supposed to stop and we are expected to get on with our lives.
This week's Torah portion -- Chaye Sarah ("the life of Sarah") ironically begins with Sarah's death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son, Ishmael. From this portion come many of our burial and mourning traditions: that we mourn for a set time and then stop, as Abraham did for Sarah; that we have a community cemetery, something Abraham arranged for after Sarah died; that we offer a hesped (eulogy) over our dead, a tradition that grew out of one interpretation of Abraham's response to Sarah's death; that the immediate survivors bury their dead, as Abraham buries Sarah, and Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, Abraham.
But this story of the death of our first matriarch reveals yet more about grief and mourning.
After Sarah dies the Hebrew text gives two words to describe what Abraham does -- "lispod ... v'livkotah." Many English translations make the text sound quite matter-of-fact: "Sarah died ... and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites." At this point Abraham begins to negotiate the purchase of a burial site for Sarah (Genesis 23:2-4). But a more literal translation of the third verse might be: "Abraham got up from above the face of his dead one." Picture Abraham, kneeling or sitting up against Sarah's body, wailing and crying, his face right over her face, his tears falling on her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth. Abraham wails for Sarah and he weeps for her (lispod l'Sarah v'livkotah).
How often do we give ourselves permission to let out such true feelings? We tend to turn to the business matters quickly. We appreciate (or are relieved by) stoicism in ourselves and in others. We tend to forget, or fail to acknowledge, that we are "still sad." Abraham did not immediately begin his negotiations to buy a burial site for her body. When Sarah died, Abraham hung his face over her face and he wailed.
Nor is Abraham the only one to experience grief over Sarah's death. Sarah's son, Isaac, is 37 when his mother dies. We hear nothing of his immediate response to her death, but three years later, in the beautiful scene of Isaac and Rebekah's first meeting, we glimpse Isaac's grief over his mother: "Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother" (Genesis 24:63-67).
It's the first time love between a man and a woman is mentioned in the Torah. It took three years after Sarah's death for Isaac to find comfort, to find love, to feel love.
Life will go on, grief will lessen; joy, even love, will return to most of us at some point after we lose dear ones. Yet that abstract knowledge about some time in the future can be cold comfort to those of us in grief now. While we wait for joy to return, for pain to ease, we would do well to remember and to take some lessons from the ways Abraham mourned, and from the length of Isaac's grief. And, when needed, we would do well to recite -- and to be there for others when they recite -- the words of our little friend:
"I'm still sad."
Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim -- House of New Life -- in Los Angeles.