As we approach the end of October, the next major holiday that will soon be upon us is obviously... Halloween! I always find this a bizarre and fascinating time; when people decorate their lawns with fake tombstones, telephone poles are littered with accident-prone witches, and TV channels all show marathons of horror movies. It seems appropriate then that our Torah portion this week should also focus on death. Even though our parasha is called "The Life of Sarah," it actually contains the passing of Abraham, Sarah, and even Ishmael. So quite the morbid title, to be sure!
Halloween fascinates me, because I see it as secular society's attempt to process death. We make light of it - and hang ghosts on our porches - because it scares us; and humor is a way to drive away our fears. Everyone processes death differently, and Halloween suits some people quite well. Others find their own way of coming to terms with dying, often as they try to accept that it is a part of life. In the Bible, our ancestor Isaac truly seems to struggle with his own grief. Some commentators believe that ever since Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, nothing has been the same. The trauma of that event has marred all their lives. Aviva Zornberg, in her book The Beginning of Desire, writes, "there is, after all, a tragic residue of the Akedah [near-sacrifice] in Abraham's family."
Isaac, in particular, is covered in residue, and he is traumatized by the experience. After his mother's death, we never hear him speak in our Torah portion. Everything happens to him, he is never the doer or the actor. We can almost imagine him: consumed with grief and unable to
seek comfort from his father, since Abraham was the one who nearly sacrificed him on the altar. Even today, many people are crippled by grief, unable to find a way out of the void and the darkness left by the death of a loved one. We cannot free ourselves from our depression, we need someone to intervene.
The medieval commentator Rashi tells us that the word for comfort, "nechama," can be explained as "machshava acheret," "a different thought." We need to shift our focus away from our sadness, find something new and different to draw away our attention. In Isaac's case, he meets his eventual wife, Rebecca, and she brings him comfort.
We know that Isaac not only loved Rebecca, but was finally able to process the death of Sarah, because the Torah says, "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death" (Genesis 24:67).
Death is indeed a part of life. And as
such, there's nothing wrong with having a holiday that focuses on the occult, and caters to those people who love horror movies (weirdos...). Our Torah portion reminds us that death happens, and that many people find it hard to process loss. Our job, as a community, is to be there for one another, to not judge how other people choose to grieve, and to help those we care about move on with their lives once they have had time to mourn. Death is truly a mystery, and it is intriguing to see how people find different ways to cope with that great Unknown. I am glad that this season, and this week's reading, each give us an opportunity to reflect on death, and to acknowledge - uncomfortable as it may be - that death is always nearby.