Remembering Them As They Lived: Parashat Va’era, November 3, 2017
by Rabbi Heather Miller
Who was Sarah the matriarch?
Does the story where Sarah fixes a meal for the three strangers that come to her tent in an act of audacious hospitality come to mind? Or that she originates the lighting of the Shabbat Candles as we learning a midrash? How about the story where Abraham and Sarah once went down to Egypt to escape famine. But this was no walk in the park— it was a dangerous prospect. Only slightly less dangerous than facing the famine itself.
This is because Abraham feared Sarah’s beauty would endanger his life should she share that he was her husband. After all, a widow can be remarried.
So, they decided to try to avoid the situation altogether by hiding her so that no one might see her. And, they determined that if she were found, they would pretend like she was his sister instead.
Midrash tells us day came to enter Egypt and she hid in a trunk, but sure enough, at the border, officials insisted upon examining the chest to determine the amount of duty payable. When it was opened, a bright light proceeded from Sarah’s beauty and, just as they suspected would happen, every one of the officials wished to take her for his own wife. Each official offering a sum higher than the next. Pharaoh eventually won that debate by showering her with land and riches. He even gave her his own daughter, Hagar, as her handmaiden. Later, when she confessed that she was, in fact, Abraham’s wife, he bid her farewell and allowed her (and Abraham) to keep the riches.1 A very similar account occurred with another king, Avimelech, later in the parashah.
Her name was Sarah, meaning princess, perhaps because of her stunning beauty that enticed not one, but two kings. But before this, her name was Sarai, meaning “my princess,” which midrash tells us was because before she was ever a princess to the masses by marrying these kings , she was as a beautiful, holy leader to Abraham and her tribe. Abraham admitted that she was even more of a prophet than he. We learn that wherever the couple went, Abraham converted the men, and Sarah would convert the women. She was the mother of monotheism as much as Abraham was the father of it.
One cannot overstate Sarah’s role in setting the foundation of the Jewish people. Indeed she was a strong and courageous figure. Her earnest prayers for a child, for Isaac, were answered by God Godself.
Yet, during the high holy days ,each year, we only remember her as the jealous wife who banishes her handmaiden and handmaiden’s young son from her home, or as the sad and voiceless mother of Isaac, who dies following the binding of Isaac by Abraham. She dies of shock, sadness, of worry and grief at the prospect that her only son was nearly murdered at the had of his own father.
Memory is a funny thing. Often, we remember the demise of luminaries, over the glory of their lives. You may have experienced this when grief takes you back to replay the death of a loved one over and over again. Have you experienced this – those times when the life of a loved one lost takes a back burner position to their death? I oftentimes find myself having to make an effort to remember the vitality of my stepfather because the memories of holding his hand at the moment of his death take over my consciousness.
Why does our memory do this? Because death is shocking. It’s sad, it’s unexpected even when it is impending. Trouble comes when the memory of death eclipses the memory of a strong and impactful life.
I think of this as the Princess Diana effect. Images of that black Mercedes in Paris pierce my mind and heart. I have to make real effort to remember the vibrancy of the life she lived and the world of glamor and good deeds that she did.
This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, depicts the activities of Sarah’s life. And curiously, in next week’s Torah portion, within the first two verses, she dies. Strangely though, that parashah is called Chayyei Sarah, the life of Sarah, but not this one where most of the action of her life is recorded and retold— isn’t that odd? Why isn’t this week’s Torah portion called “the Life of Sarah?” And why is the life of Sarah emphasized in the portion where she dies?
This is to teach us that even as we know about the death of a loved one, that should not be the focus of our memory. Rather, even in the face of death, we should strive to remember a loved one in the vibrancy of their life, and let the values, morals and lessons of their lives instruct us in ours. I was told by someone for whom I recently did a funeral intake that the purpose of a funeral intake, that is where the family and loved ones of the deceased share memories of them after death and prior to burial, that the purpose of that type of a funeral intake is to re-member the person. Not only to remember them in mind and heart but also to re-member them to put them back together in their vibrancy. Particularly after a long and prolonged death, the act of memory and intentionally remembering their life serves a different and unique and holy purpose. Our goal should be to focus on life, and endeavor to not let their death eclipse their life.
This happens with individuals and also in societies. For instance, next Thursdays is the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass”— a night where we often focus on the horrors of the beginning of the Holocaust, rather than on the vibrancy of the communities that were snuffed out.
The night of November 9th, 1938, a Nazi-instigated wave of violence destroyed at least 267 synagogues, damaged over 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, desecrated cemeteries, brutalized thousands of Jews, and killed 91 throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Stunningly, 30,000 Jews were arrested and moved to concentration camps that night.2 It happened.
And, we can only guess what Jewish life would be like today had these communities survived. But we must consider the glory of their good days and remember those as much as we need to remember their demise. For instance, did you know that Reform Judaism was founded in Germany, and gained popularity in Austria. It has a wonderful past there, rooted in the ideals of enlightenment, citizenship, free thinking, logic, and universalism. Ideals that many of us hold dear today but were nearly extinguished by Kristallnacht and the events that followed. We must remember them.
Sometimes, when communities are destroyed, we find hints of greater days prior, and we must lift these up. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we even find great treasure troves of evidence of vibrant societies and their earlier days. Such was the case when, last year, hidden in a church basement, 170,000 pages of Jewish community writings, thoughts, scripts, and texts were uncovered in Lithuania. These were the work of more than 100 synagogues and Jewish social halls that hid their texts in a church basement when World War II broke out. They include writings on philosophy and medicine, and more regular items showcasing Jewish life in Vilna.
The stash of ideas of Jews doing Jewish things and thinking Jewish thoughts originated from an organization called YIVO, founded by Einstein and Freud, who had originally collected the papers as they were written. When the Nazis took over their headquarters, they forced Jewish leaders to whittle down the archives to a small percentage of pages to later be displayed by the Nazis in a museum to be built remembering extinct societies.
The leaders did as they were told for fear of death, but not without simultaneously smuggling out as much of the papers as they could hide so that they could be hidden in the church basement. They called themselves the Paper Brigade. They were guardians of the ideas, thoughts and writings of a once vibrant community.
Over the years the papers have been found tucked away in the church, but recently this new area was found in a side room previously undiscovered. That’s where those 170,000 pages were found. Among the papers discovered were an 1857 contract between the Vilna Union of Water Carriers and the Ramayles Yeshiva; as well as a 1751 manuscript on astronomy complete with solar system from a French rabbi; a 1910 letter written at a German spa by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose stories of Tevye the Dairyman inspired Fiddler on the Roof, and a 1933-34 fifth-grade autobiography by someone named Bebe Epstein, all of which were put on display in New York City this week.3
They are the evidence of a vibrant community of 100,000 Jews, 95% of whom were murdered during the Holocaust. We have the Paper Brigade to thank for this invaluable treasure reminding us not of their deaths but rather of the incredible life history of this society in the prime of it’s life.
Remember, Lithuania was where the tradition of Mussar was founded— and practical, ethical Judaism was popularized— values and practices that I know many of us would find meaningful.
As you know, we have now come to the point in the service where we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. We do this in memory of so many whose deaths we remember. Here, at Beth Chayim Chadashim, it is our tradition to remember and recite each week for the six million and all victims of the Holocaust. We do this for Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans Jews throughout history who have us to say kaddish for them. We do this for men, women and children who have died of AIDS. We do this for women who have died of unsafe and illegal abortions. We do this for all who have died in acts of violence, terrorism, war and natural disaster.
And indeed, it is important to remember a person’s death because that reminds us to take note of the passage of time of our grief since our beloved has died. We recite the Kaddish tonight in memory of them. And also we must endeavor to remember them on their own timeline, the timeline of their lives.
So, along with remembering why people died, tonight, in honor of Sarah and her great contributions, let us also recite Kaddish for the members of the Paper Brigade whose risky acts of resistance will now allow for a resurgence of important ideas, and for each of the great thinkers and feelers and dreamers and artists and scientists and teachers who lived at that time because life is not only defined by death but more so, I hope, by living. So, too, may we remember all those who have contributed to our lives and society in the vibrancy of our lives. May we continually make their lives a blessing.
1. Genesis Rabbah 40:6, Jewish Encyclopedia.
2. Temple Israel Rabbi Zinkow email dated Nov. 6, 2013.