July 15, 2024
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The Yin of Sarah’s Death, the Yang of Jewish Continuity

What can a story about the death of our matriarch Sarah teach us about the beginning of Jewish continuity?

As a Jewish educator and head of a Jewish day school, there is an implicit question in Parshat Chayei Sarah that lies at the heart of our mission: How do we apply forward-thinking strategies to our ancient texts and traditions, making them exciting, relevant and sustainable for today’s students so they will be inspired to carry them forward and live joyful Jewish lives?

This is particularly challenging when, more and more, students ask, “Why is it important to learn arcane pieces of text?” “How are age-old customs relevant to my life and the world today?”

A close reading of this parsha may provide the answer we are looking for. The death of Sarah triggers a profound shift away from our people’s transitional way of life and to a more stable tradition. This change paves a path toward continuity as the deaths of our matriarch and patriarch act as “bookends.”

At the outset, Avraham buries Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, the first property the nation of Avraham owns in the promised land. This becomes an enduring symbol of the Jewish people’s heritage.

In his 2014 Times of Israel blog, Tel Aviv-based political and strategic communications consultant Benjamin Perlstein writes that Sarah’s death puts Avraham squarely in touch with his own mortality. In the biblical narrative, Avraham’s last words and acts after burying Sarah are devoted to finding a wife for his son Yitzchak. He sends his servant Eliezer to search for this future wife in the land of Avraham’s father. Once Rivka “passes the tests of marriageability,” it is, in modern vernacular, love at first sight for Yitzchak.

This is the Torah’s undeniable signal that the promise of continuity has been secured for the next generation.

In a world of intelligent robots, genetic editing, drones, mobile super-computers and self-driving cars—all of which are dramatically changing the way we learn, communicate and live—Jewish continuity becomes the tie that binds; it is a tradition that links the generations and offers applicable lessons we can use now and in the future.

At Schechter, we believe that innovative thinking taught through a Jewish lens in a joyful, value- based environment grounds young minds and hearts in our tradition. It helps prepare them to become Jewish leaders and change makers, who will in turn impact the world for the better.

Sarah’s death serves as the yin to the yang of Jewish continuity; it makes a powerful case for those who question the relevance of our texts and traditions, and demonstrates our ability to continue a process that began in dire circumstances. As it is written in Pirkei Avot 2:21, Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’ibatel mimena—You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.

By Ruth Gafni

 Ruth Gafni is the head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. A member of the board of trustees of the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools, she serves as its membership committee chair. Ms. Gafni has published several articles for newspapers and educational magazines, and is a contributing author of the book “Fine Tuning a Listening Heart,” edited by Jeffrey Kress. Previously, she served in the Ridgewood, New Jersey, public school system as director of special needs, ESL and gifted and talented. During her tenure, she received the Ridgewood township’s Educator of the Year.

 

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