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Dvar Torah - Chayei Sarah

This week, we witnessed a sad milestone. The shloshim of the victims of the Hamas massacre on Simchat Torah passed. Around the world, in Israel, and here in Melbourne, Jews gathered to commemorate what we have lost.

Jewish mourning moves through five stages. The first is Aninut, the period immediately following the death until the burial. During this time, mourners are exempt from positive commands, such as prayer, Shema, and tefillin, as they perform the tasks necessary to bury the body in appropriate honour. After the burial, Aninut gives way to Shiva, the most intense mourning period. Traditionally, mourners don't leave their houses, don't greet people, and don't interact with the world. They have a week to spend in introspection and reflection, dealing with the gaping wound left in their world. After Shiva, mourning gradually recedes as mourners rejoin society, first through shloshim (the first thirty days), then the twelve months (a child mourning for their parent) and finally into the rest of their lives. The deceased never leave us, and the hole where they were in our lives never fills, but as time progresses, we get used to stepping around it and living without their day-to-day presence in our lives.

Public mourning is very different. While the mourning occurs as usual for those whose relatives have passed away, for the rest of us, the grief and shock move in another, less linear way. While I have become accustomed to living in a post-7 October world, I do not yet find my life resuming its previous rhythms. Maybe it never will. After an event of such magnitude and terror, we can never be the same.

In this week's parsha, we see a conjunction of private and public mourning. Sara, our mother, passed away. Before Avraham could bury her and grieve, he had to arrange a funeral. At that point in the story, something extraordinary occurs. The dwellers of the land tell him: "You are a prince of G-d amongst us, in the best of our graves bury your dead. No man amongst us will prevent you from burying your dead." Avraham was not only accepted by the people who lived in the Land of Israel; they respected and valued his presence! It wasn't just Avraham who mourned for Sara; everyone who lived near her joined in. However, after the burial, we hear little about Avraham's mourning for his wife. At that point, the public grief had ended, and Avraham was left to his private sadness. The Torah, respecting his privacy, chooses not to update us about that process.

The Jewish people are still in mourning for the events that happened this past Simchat Torah in a very public way. It isn't possible to quickly exit mourning after such catastrophic and evil acts. However, we must nevertheless begin the slow process of rebuilding our sense of self and nationhood. The journey back to confidence and feelings of safety will not be smooth or linear. However, we must begin to embark on that journey.

At the end of Shiva, there is a common practice for someone to ask the mourners to stand (after sitting on the floor or low stools for seven days), put on leather shoes, and leave the house. The mourners typically walk around the block. They slowly and carefully reenter the world and resume their public lives. We as a nation must undertake that process, but without the help of someone coming and showing us the way. While we continue to give voice to grief, outrage, anger, and the desire for revenge, we cannot allow our community to be defined by these terrible events. We will dwell on that awful day and its aftermath for a long time and remember it forever. However, as horrible as 7 October was, it is more than a month past. While we will live forever with its effects, with the wound it left in our psyche and our self-image, we cannot allow it to define us going forward.

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