Tragedy elicits many reactions, and while it can deepen divisions, tragedy also has the power to illuminate camaraderie and companionship, bonding and accompaniment. Yes, our experience as Jews throughout history means that contemporary tragedy triggers ancient traumas. However, our faith traditions and customs provide a container to grieve and mourn as individuals, families, and communities. The power of ancient custom helps us navigate unfamiliar territory, and there is perhaps no more ancient practice in the Jewish tradition than how we bury our dead with dignity and respect.
So innate are the practices of burial, that there need not be a biblical proof-text upon which to hinge our practices. It is deep within our soul, and our genetic memory leads the way.
One of the most emotional moments in the narratives of the Book of Genesis comes at the middle of Parashat Hayyei Sarah following the death of Avraham Avinu. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Sarah Imeinu dies in grief and in the midst of mourning, Avraham arises to secure a burial ground at the Cave of Makh’pelah in what becomes the family tomb where tradition holds that Sarah, Avraham, Le’ah, and Yitzhak are all interred. Thirty, or so, years before Sarah’s death, after her son Yitzhak was born, the family became divided. Having been abused by his older brother Yishmael, Yitzhak is protected by his mother Sarah in her expelling Yishmael and his mother Hagar from the family tent. Living estranged from one another, Yitzhak and Yishmael have no relationship as grown men. From the moment of Hagar and Yishmael’s expulsion, the Torah tells us no information about the relationship of the two brothers. Until…
And these days of the years of the life of Avraham which he lived were one hundred seventy five. He expired and Avraham died with hoary goodness, elderly and content, and he was gathered to his people. Yitzhak and Yishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Makh’pelah, in the field of Efron son of Tzohar the Hitti, which faces Mamre. (Genesis 25:7-9)
The true majesty and impact of this act is underscored by a very subtle mention of how Yitzhak responds to the shared experience of burying his father alongside his elder brother.
It was after the death of Avraham that God blessed Yitzhak his son; and Yitzhak settled at Be’er La’hai Ro’i (v. 11)
Eighty-six years before Yitzhak settled at Be’er La’hai Ro’i, Hagar had run away because she was being treated poorly by her mistress. In her self-imposed exile, and in her own grief, she had an encounter with God in which she is reassured that she will have son whom she will name Yishmael. The Torah says:
[Hagar] called in the name of Hashem who spoke to her: You are a El Ra’i, a God who sees, saying that ‘I can too go on seeing after being seen.’ Therefore, the well is called Be’er La’hai Ro’i – the well of My Life of Seeing; it is between Kadesh and Bared. (Genesis 16:13-15)
In an act of solidarity, healing, and unity, the two estranged brothers find peace through their shared tragedies and traumas. Not only do they come together to confront tragedy, they stay together to build peace.
To help us frame the horrific murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, I invite you to hear these wise words from friend and teacher, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: