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Remembering Life, Not Death at a Time of Violence

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Chayei Sarah 5779

This week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah begins in a peculiar way. At the start of the portion we are told of the length of Sarah’s life, and only by accident do we learn of Sarah’s death. “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years,” the sedrah begins, and now we know, by implication, that she must have died. The wording is unusual, and a famous Midrash on it tells us that Sarah was just as beautiful at the age of 100 as she was at 20, and that she was just as free of sin at 20 as she had been at 7. It is a fine eulogy for a strong, significant figure who has passed from the scene.

This death marks a transition in the Genesis narrative from the tales of Abraham and Sarah, our first Jewish father and mother, towards the next generation, which will feature Isaac and Rebecca. But first we begin with an ending, which in view of the terrible Anti-Semitic attack last weekend at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh raises some issues.

Sarah is the second Jew in history, and through the past two Torah portions, with the exception of Abraham, she has been the most important figure in the developing story of the Hebrews. Yet her death itself goes without notice. Instead it is her life that is highlighted in Chayei Sarah, whose very title means “the life of Sarah.”

It has been quite the opposite case so frequently in our people’s long history. Far too often we are known only in our deaths, and particularly if those deaths are the result of martyrdom, as was the case in Pittsburgh. This remembering, while an important mitzvah central to our people’s collective memory, too often focuses on the destruction itself. We memorialize the victims of a racist white supremacist in Pittsburgh because of the fact that they were slaughtered in shul on Shabbes during a bris. We don’t really know them, of course. But it seems wrong to remember only the way they died and not who they were.

For me, the most moving part of the candlelight vigil and memorial I participated in last night was the recitation of who the victims were in life: a retired accountant, two kind brothers, the grandfather of the baby being circumcised, a 97-year old mother and Bubbie, a couple married on that same bimah 60 years ago, a brave doctor who rushed in to try to save lives and was murdered for it. They had names, families, accomplishments, lives. They were martyred for being Jews, and being in a synagogue, something that has happened many times over the centuries. But they were more than that: they were human beings with full lives.

It is impossible not to remember them as victims of the oldest race hatred in human history, Anti-Semitism, just as it is impossible not to remember the victims of the Holocaust because they were murdered by the Nazis and because of how they were murdered.

But it is not enough to do so.

Perhaps this week we need a new kind of Torah: Chayei Yehudim, these are the lives of Irving, Cecil and David, Rose, Melvin, Bernice and Sylvan, Joyce, Jerry, Richard, Daniel. May the memories of their lives be a blessing.

And may we be able, in the future, to remember only the goodness of lives and not the violence of deaths.

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