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Chayei Sarah: The Bitter and the Sweet

"Then Abraham rose from beside his dead..." (Bereshit/Genesis 23:3)

For a parsha titled "the life of Sarah" or "Sarah's lifetime," it's ironic that this portion begins with Sarah's death.

Gustav Dore, "Burial of Sarah"
Gustav Dore, "Burial of Sarah"

Or maybe it's not so strange. Because this entire parsha is people reacting to Sarah's death, a testament to how much power the dead have in our imaginations and lives. As one of the readings for the Yom Kippur Yizkor service reads, "our dead inhabit us like ghosts." The entire parsha, and all of its main characters, are haunted by Sarah.

They should be. We hear a lot about "Children of Abraham" and the "Abrahamic faiths," but Jews specifically are the children of Sarah. Abraham has other children, whose descendants aren't considered part of the Jewish People. It's through Sarah and her only son that the inheritance flows.

But out of the shadow of Sarah's loss comes the bright, burning light that is Rivkah. I have read numerous times--several by Orthodox writers--that if we were being honest, when we talk about the founders of the Jewish people, we'd talk about Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob. Isaac's pretty passive--about all he does is dig a well--while Rivkah is an absolute supernova of energy, activity, focus, and will.

Oh, also, this parsha contains something that, if you believe there are no mistakes in the text, is one of the most delightfully petty insults in the whole megillah. Abraham buys a burial place for Sarah from a guy named Ephron, who attempts to cheat him. So in the verse where Abraham pays him, Ephron's name is spelled incorrectly, or "defectively."

Join us at 9:00 am this Saturday for coffee, donuts, and what's always a lively discussion.

Other lenses

Want to know what other Jewish thinkers are saying about this parsha?

Wikipedia has an incredible treasure trove of geekery about the weekly portion, laying out everything from the number of Hebrew letters in the parsha to summaries of classical commentaries. Prepare to go down a very deep rabbithole.

Sefaria is an amazing free resource--an ever-growing library of Jewish texts in both Hebrew and English. In addition to the Hebrew text and translation, it provides the text of most of the classical commentaries (not all of which have been translated... yet). The parsha is one of the first links on the main page.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, does a podcast called Ten Minutes of Torah--perfect for when you're time-constrained. The Union for Reform Judaism has a whole page of resources for the parsha, ranging from beginner's guides to pieces on the contemporary relevance of the portion. The Women of Reform Judaism site has a glorious archive of the entire text of The Torah: A Women's Commentary divided up by parsha.

My Jewish Learning has a summary of the portion, the parsha itself and the haftorah, and commentary.

For a Reconstructionist take, visit Reconstructing Judaism's weekly learning page.

T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has a weekly d'var that looks at the parsha as a starting point for contemporary political issues.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism has a parsha commentary archive.

Keshet's Torah Queeries page provides commentary from an LGBTQ perspective (search on the portion name).

The Jewish Theological Society (the Conservative Branch seminary) provides weekly commentary at JTS Torah Online.

Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women, has a collection of Divrei Torah written by women and organized by parsha on its site.

Limmud, a 35-year-old grassroots Jewish learning event that started in the UK and has become an international phenomenon, maintains an archive of commentaries.

Liberal Judaism's Thought for the Week provides concise but thoughtful analysis of the portion.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of England, engages in profound commentary on the weekly portion in Covenant & Conversation.

InterfaithFamily puts out an animated Torahlog including contemporary reactions, poetry, folk music, and Jewish scholarship on the parsha.

The Jewish Renewal movement's site maintains an archive of commentary. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi--an author and Jewish Renewal rabbi--does commentary on her site.

The #parshachat hashtag on Twitter marks a constantly-running social media conversation on the parsha.

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