d'var Torah: Chayei Sarah

(You are going to have to use your imagination as you read this one. Imagine my daughter, who’s been gifted with a set of pipes like a nightingale, assisting me by singing the “Rent” lyrics at the end of this d’var Torah. Not me croaking through the goofy Fame and Beatles lyrics.)


For those people who were so enthralled with the Torah reading that they might have missed the story, I want to give a quick summary: The portion begins by announcing Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s mourning for her. He purchases, for an enormous sum of money, a burial place for her. He sends his servant Eliezar back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezar happens upon Rebeccah, and she accompanies him back to Canaan. In one of my all time favorite lines in the Torah, we are told that Isaac is walking through the fields at sunset when Rebeccah arrives. Torah says “Raising her eyes, she saw Isaac. And she fell off her camel.”

Rebeccah recovers her dignity, covers her face, is formally introduced to her future husband, and joins him in the marriage tent, which is also Sarah’s tent. And Torah tells us that Isaac “took Rebekah as his wife, and loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Abraham marries again, and has a few more children. Ishmael returns to the area at some point, and when Abraham dies Torah states that both Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him.

As I prepared for to give this d’var Torah (which may or may not have been measurable in hours rather than days ago) I was struck by the number of people who linked songs – and particularly modern pop songs – to Torah portions.

One Rabbi linked Pharaoh’s responses to Moses to the title song from Fame (“I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly”)

I read a commentary that Parsha Naso could use a variation of “Trust will keep us together” as it’s background music.

I have seen this weeks portion associated with The Beatles (“All ya need is love, love. Love is all ya need”).

There’s even a curriculum that is part of the “GodCast Network” website that states “Each Torah portion is like a pop song, only it’s longer and doesn’t have choruses…. and a couple of other things.” and tasks students with playing this game of musical match-up for each weeks portion. Having listened to the radio with my daughters, I can only imagine what combinations students would come up with.

What is it, why is it that we are so drawn to connecting our ancient words with modern melodies and lyrics?

Yes, Heather, the Beatles are still considered modern.

Torah is also sung, and that singing has distinct musical styles whether it’s ashkenaz, sephard or something even more exotic. The Torah trope underscores the action, helping the listener hear the main ideas of each phrase and keep the sense of the overall story.

When I was studying musical theater in college, one of my first professors pointed out the lunacy of the whole form. People spontaneously breaking into song about the wells fargo wagon or hot meat pies or the names of horses in an upcoming race. And this professor explained why audience members go along with it. Song allows the characters at critical points in their lives, in a heightened emotional state to express themselves at that emotional level. What would be expressed with shouts and groans and pounding the table in a regular play often makes more sense in musical form. Also – and this is key – a well-crafted song allows the singer and the audience to move from emotional point A to it’s conclusion faster that if they were speaking. Music allows for a kind of emotional shorthand.

Characters in crisis, highly emotional situations described with brief musical phrases that let the listener fill in the gaps. It sounds a lot like Torah, doesn’t it?

So I’m offering yet another musical spin on a portion. All credit goes to Rabbi Eddie Sukol, who reminded me of this song sometime last year, and it’s stuck in my head since then.

And maybe that’s another reason why people associate songs with Torah – both have themes, phrases and ideas that come back to us, or stick with us, long after the music has ended.

525,600 minutes,
Chayey Sarah – Sarah’s lifetime
525,000 moments so dear.
the span of Sarah’s life came to one 127 years
525,600 minutes –
Sarah died and Abraham mourned her
how do you measure, measure a year?
What was it that Abraham mourned?I believe Abraham mourned the loss of the woman who found fulfillment in the life around her.
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.
525,600 minutes!525,000 journeys to plan. 525,600 minutes – how can you measure the life of a woman or man? Abraham was at his best when he was having visions on mountaintops, arguing about justice in Sodom with the creator of the Universe, fighting 5 kings at once, or walking the length and breadth of the land. In Abraham’s life, even simple hospitality becomes the stuff of legend. And a backyard barbequeue turns into a vision quest of mythic proportions.
But Torah tells us that Abraham was an utter failure when it came to domestic affairs. When he felt threatened because someone might find his wife beautiful he hid behind a lie. When Sarah laughs at the idea of her ancient husband concieving, God has to bend the truth to maintain his self confidence. When there is conflict between Sarah and Hagar, he threw his hands up and told them to work it out.
In truths that she learned, or in times that he cried. In bridges he burned, or the way that she died.
Sarah’s death rocks Abraham’s world. With Hagar banished and Sarah gone, he has nobody to lean on to handle the mundane aspects of life.
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
What does he do?
In 525,600 minutes – how do you measure a year in the life?
Like all truly great people, Abraham does not demand the universe reshape itself so he can remain in his comfort zone. He adaptsHe lives Chayey Sarah – The life of Sarah. Abraham steps into her shoes.

No more mountaintops, no more kings. From the moment Sarah dies, God never speaks to him again. But he doesn’t seem to mind.

He sets his tent and stays there. He finds a wife for his son. He makes peace with his past. He learns to love again.

525,600 minutes!
The portion ends, telling us that the span of Abraham’s life was 175 years
525,000 moments so dear.
Abraham breathed his last, and was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him in the caves of Macpeleh, which he had bought.
525,600 minutes!
Sarah’s lifetime, the span of Sarah’s life came to one 127 years
how can you measure the life of a woman or man?

Shabbat Shalom