The Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, begins with Sarah’s death at the age of 127. Abraham mourns deeply. The Torah says he wails. But then he gets up to take care of the business one has to take care of after the loss of a loved one.
Sarah has died while the family was in Hebron, and Abraham looks for a grave for her there. He is offered a free grave by the Hittites, but he turns it down and instead pays full price for the Cave of Machpelah, where he will also eventually be buried along with Isaac, Rebeccah, Jacob and Leah.
By not accepting the free gift of the grave and instead paying full price, Abraham shows his desire to sincerely honor his wife, to demonstrate his love for her after death. He takes the more difficult step and shows her honor, just like we stop along the way to a grave before we actually perform the burial. We don’t do it the easy way — we do it in a fashion that honors the deceased, that is not done in a rush. Even when we fill a grave, we first use the shovel upside down to demonstrate that honor — to not do it too efficiently or quickly in a way that might detract from the honor we are showing.
After the burial of Sarah, Abraham takes on another mission. He wants to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Since the time of the Akedah, the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, there is no communication recorded between Abraham and Isaac, who was very close with his mother. Further, there are commentators who state that the reason Sarah died was due to the shock of hearing of the attempted sacrifice of her beloved Isaac. It is not a far distance to travel to connect those dots and see where there may have been friction between Isaac and his father.
Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, with the sole caveat that he may not choose a woman from the Canaanite people. Eliezer travels and comes to a well. He arrives there with a caravan and several animals. He sees a woman named Rebeccah (Rivka) at the well. The Midrash tells us that the water actually rose up to greet her. But Eliezer waits. And when Rebeccah offers water for Eliezer’s animals, as well as for him, he knows he has found the right woman and negotiates with her family to secure her immediate travel to meet Isaac and marry him. The Torah tells us that Isaac marries Rebeccah and is thus comforted from the grief of the loss of his mother.
Thus Abraham brings comfort to the son he almost sacrificed and whose near sacrifice led to great pain and shock for Sarah — and may even have led to her death.
When we come to the end of our portion, we learn of the marriage of Abraham to Keturah, a woman we have not yet met in the Torah. It has been suggested in commentary, however, that Keturah is actually Hagar, the woman whom Abraham threw out of his camp into the wilderness, along with her son Ishmael, who Abraham fathered.
While this is not clear from the Torah, it would be nice to know that Abraham found a way later in life to go back to the woman he had abandoned to make amends with her. And it makes logical sense that he might have done just that, because when Abraham dies, it is his abandoned son Ishamel and his stepbrother Isaac who come together to bury their father. After the pain he caused them, perhaps through his actions and with the passage of time there was some element of forgiveness.
While it was God that commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac — and to listen to Sarah and abandon Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness — that did not lessen the pain of Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael.
In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, we are taught, “Do not consider yourself to be a wicked person.” Why is that? Is it because if you consider yourself a wicked person, then you accept your sins, your pain-causing deeds, as merely part of your nature? You accept you are evil and make no attempt to improve.
But Abraham, despite the anger against him, provided for the most respectful possible burial for Sarah, found a good woman for Isaac to bring him comfort, and perhaps even made amends with Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham, despite the ill will against him (which was not his fault), continued to act with the best possible intentions.
And it is through these actions that he teaches us an important lesson: It is possible even after death to make amends. It is the desire to be redeemed, the desire to repent in our relations with others that defines who we are. It is the relentless effort to do the right thing under even the worst of circumstances that defines us as humans. We may never see the results of the good things that we do, but that should never dissuade us from doing them anyhow. PJC
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer is the rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue.