I have been to a lot of funerals in my lifetime. It isn’t that my past is strewn with innumerable losses — thank goodness! Rather, my parents and their church community saw death as part of what it means to be a human in community. As such, it was essential to show up for others in their times of mourning and mark that moment of grief and loss with them. In the case of my home community, funerals were often half-celebrations filled with gospel music, full-throated preaching, and occasionally an ecstatic affirmation that we would see the deceased in “the by and by” (i.e. heaven). You can imagine my minor shock in my early teens when I discovered that not all communities marked death with such resilient vigor.
Commemoration is a peculiar art. Whereas one community might sing songs of joy over the prospect of being united with those who have passed away, another community might sit in the somberness and sorrow of the moment and use highly structured rituals to wade through an ocean of grief. But what of the individual who must bear that sorrow seemingly alone and without any broader grounding?
In parashat Chayei Sarah, we see Abraham in a different light following the death of his wife, Sarah. Gone is the quiet (maybe even misguided!) confidence he displayed in the near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. As the text says:
“Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, ‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.'”
— Genesis 23.2-4
There is something about losing Sarah that undoes Abraham. You might be thinking, “Uh, yeah. It is obvious! He lost his wife! Of course he would ‘be undone’ over her!” And that is true. However, my eyes are drawn to verse 4, where Abraham declares himself a ger toshav—a “resident alien” in the midst of a land and a people who are not his own. To my mind, this compounds Abraham’s loss—he has lost his partner, he has remarkably little community, and he is mourning her and burying her in a foreign land.
In the case of Sarah, Abraham buries her in a cave (The Cave of Machpelah), a common family practice in certain communities of the ancient Near East. Beyond being a common practice, a cave is an interesting choice; it is bounded and intimate. Thus, it seems better suited to “hold” the specificity of Sarah’s memory. In moments of mass loss, however, like the tragedy of war, where sometimes individuals die far away from the lands of their birth, it seems nearly impossible to mark or “hold” those losses in a way that preserves that intimacy and knowledge of who they were.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many nations began creating monuments, or crafting secular, national holidays like Armistice Day or Veterans Day to commemorate those who died in wars. But monuments and holidays are not a eulogy, nor do they carry the intimacy of the Cave of Machpelah. Rather, such monuments and holidays foreground an event (WWII), or an idea (bravery) that often obscures the individual. It is for this reason that some monuments strive to find new ways to imbue monuments with meaning, such as including the names of the deceased. As the lightly fictionalized version of architect Maya Lin said in the made-for-TV movie, To Heal a Nation:
“[a memorial is] not a phone book. The whole point is to make a journey; to find your place in time during this [specific] war by seeking the time and place that a friend, or lover, a father or a brother died. The chronology is the whole point.”
In the case of personal loss and in the case of the mass losses of war and other tragedies, the point is to make a journey towards specificity—the specificity of time, the specificity of the loved one now gone, and the specificity of the shared memories that those of us left behind carry into each day.
This quest for specificity reminds me of a peculiar, somewhat humorous, rabbinic tale. Rabbi Bana’ah is a wandering rabbi who travels around the countryside of Israel, spelunking into various caves and marking the ones containing human remains. On one such excursion, he happens upon the cave of Machpelah, where he magically encounters Abraham’s (long deceased?) servant, Eliezer. The servant tries to stop the rabbi from entering the cave because Abraham and Sarah are somehow locked in a post-mortal love embrace. Rabbi Bana’ah persists, however, (and eventually makes it into the cave where he speaks with the ever-ancient Abraham,) because it is his duty to mark the specific dimensions of the cave in order to warn other Jewish explorers that human remains are in the cave, thus creating a potential ritual hazard. The story is obviously focused on communicating a legal principle about coming into contact with a corpse. However, it has always kind of baffled me that Rabbi Bana’ah fails to marvel at meeting his ancient forefather and foremother. Instead, he is focused on the task of communicating what this cave means for passersby. To put it more succinctly, the rabbi overlooks the specific, meaningful commemoration and communion with his ancestors because he is caught up in another important, but mundane, process of memorializing (i.e. marking off space for a specific purpose).
Now, I get that I am (over-)reading WAY TOO MUCH into this text and taking it out of literary context. And don’t get me wrong, it is critically important within the (ancient) Jewish legal framework that someone take responsibility for marking off caves with corpses in them. But this particular story of Rabbi Bana’ah’s marking off of caves strikes me as similar to creating holidays and setting up monuments that honor those who were lost due to war. It is a necessary “marking off”/commemoration, but the wondrously complicated stories of the individuals who lie behind that commemoration get overlooked, and that is a shame. As our tradition implies, “each life contains an entire world.” Our forebear Abraham wept over the loss of the “world” that Sarah embodied. As we approach this Veterans Day, I wonder how we might find ways to engage with the memory of those many “worlds” that have been lost in wars of all kinds, rather than obscuring them behind larger symbols and monuments.
Join LABA Rabbinic Fellow Kendell Pinkney for a free virtual study session on Thursday, November 12 from 1:15 – 2:30 PM. Details below.
A Virtual Text Study with LABA Rabbinic Fellow Kendell Pinkney
Thursday, November 12 | 1:15 PM
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
– L.P. Hartley
How do we mark the past? What does it mean to commemorate a life now gone – whether by old age, by tragedy, or by war? And what might classical Jewish sources – creatively applied – offer us in response?
Join LABA Rabbinic Fellow, Kendell Pinkney, for a study session spanning a range of topics from the weekly Torah portion (Chayei Sarah), to individual and collective memory, to memorialization and Veterans Day.