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Chayei Sarah 5779-2018

“Abraham’s Eulogy for His Beloved Sarah”

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we learn of the passing of the Matriarch, Sarah, at age 127.

In Genesis 23:2, the Torah states וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע, הִוא חֶבְרוֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן, וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ,, Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.

The Torah proceeds to share the fascinating details of the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, and Abraham’s efforts to secure a proper burial place for Sarah, his beloved wife.

Abraham successfully purchases the Cave of Machpelah, which, of course, became the fabled burial place of not only Sarah, but of all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel.

The famed Torah luminary, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau questions the reason for the apparent redundancy of the term לְשָׂרָה “l’Sarah,” for Sarah. Scripture, in Genesis 23:2, had already noted, וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה , “va’tah’maht Sarah,” that Sarah had died in Kiriath-Arba. It would have been sufficient for the Torah to have stated that Abraham came to eulogize “her” and to cry for “her.” What is the reason for the repetition of the word, “l’Sarah”?

The Nodah b’Yehudah suggests that Abraham’s eulogy was presented only after the eulogies delivered by several of Abraham’s contemporaries, who all spoke of Sarah’s legendary stature and accomplishments. Although there is no textual source for this, perhaps the Noda b’Yehuda felt that the term וַיָּבֹא , “va’yah’vo,” and he came, implied that Abraham spoke after previous eulogies had already been delivered.

When the locals spoke of Sarah, they apparently spoke primarily of her role as the wife of the great Abraham. Abraham, however, wished to extol Sarah in her own right, not merely regarding her role as a facilitator for his accomplishments.

Abraham, better than anyone, recognized Sarah’s special innate virtues, and therefore felt compelled to offer her the praise that she rightfully deserved, extolling Sarah as a spiritual giant in her own right. The fact that the Torah chooses to repeat the word “l’Sarah,” for Sarah, implies that Abraham cried specifically for the loss of Sarah, a truly righteous individual, rather than weeping over the impact of her death on him.

This particular interpretation, shows the very special relationship between the first Patriarch and the first Matriarch, both in life and in death. Clearly, Sarah lived her life to advance and enhance her husband’s deeds, and Abraham lived his life to advance and enhance Sarah’s unique achievements.

Not for a moment to compare myself or my wife to Abraham and Sarah, but, this Torah portion and the Nodah b’Yehudah’s sensitive interpretation, compels me to share a few words of praise for my own wife, Aidel.

Aidel and I will soon, with G-d’s help, celebrate 43 years of marriage. Now that we are “empty nesters,” we frequently recall the early years. As newlyweds and as communal leaders in a dynamic and growing community, our early years of marriage paralleled not only the historic development and growth of the Lincoln Square Synagogue and its Adult Education Program, which I headed for 15 years (attracting over 1,000 students each week), but also the founding and growth of the remarkable LSS Beginners Service.

As many of you know, the Beginners Service was the brainchild of the world-famous composer, Steve Reich. Steve threw out a challenge to me and said that if I would conduct a service for people with little or no synagogue background, he and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Beryl Korot, would attend.

In December 1975, two weeks after our wedding, the Beginners Service began in the cavernous ballroom of the old Lincoln Square Synagogue building with only four attendees: myself, Steve Reich, Beryl Korot, and another fellow, a tall accountant, also named Steve Reich.

Every other week, some strange guy would come in on roller skates, with a tennis racket in hand, and ask, “How do you know that there’s a G-d?”

Who would ever believe that such a service would ever succeed? After all, we were competing with, at that time, the most popular Shabbat synagogue service in New York City, conducted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Cantor Sherwood Goffin.

Slowly but surely, people started coming, and then, on Saturday March 18, 1981, The New York Times published a front page, second section story on the Beginners Service. The rest is history. It was standing room only, from then on.

Over the past 42 years, approximately 15-20,000 people have attended the Beginners Service, and through the efforts of NJOP, Beginners Services are now offered all over the country and throughout the world. Every week, I still marvel at the privilege of being able to conduct the service. At the end of June, each year, I ask myself, if the next year can top the previous year’s extraordinary experiences. And, each year, an exciting group of new “Beginners” join the service, and, invariably, serve as a great source of inspiration to both myself and Aidel. The Beginners Service has proven to be one of the most effective methods of bringing people to religious observance. The success rate is truly remarkable.

As we reminisce, Aidel and I think of the 15-20,000 guests whom we’ve hosted over the last 42 years. It’s hard to believe that in the first 10 years, when we had four little children afoot, and had little help in the kitchen, we hosted guests for meals on both Friday nights and for Shabbat lunch every week, with the exception of lunch, once a month, when there was a Beginners luncheon at the synagogue.

When Aidel, in her wisdom, realized that it was important for us to have private family time for the children, we stopped hosting on Friday night and usually invited guests only for Shabbat lunch. We did not have a personal cook, or even much kitchen help. I did most of the shopping and Aidel did all of the cooking. With no previous cooking experience, Aidel proved to be an outstanding cook, in addition to working part-time as an exceptionally talented clinical therapist and taking extraordinary care of our children.

Many people perceive the Beginners rabbi’s wife as simply an extension of the rabbi himself, but she is much more than that. Aidel has been my partner in everything that I’ve accomplished, first as Educational Director, and later as the Founder and Director of NJOP. She has been at my side providing astute guidance, wise counsel, and unconditional support for everything that I do. It would be fair for me to say, as Rabbi Akiva said of his wife (Nedarim 50a), שֶׁלִּי וְשֶׁלָּכֶם, שֶׁלָּהּ הוּא , what I have accomplished and what others have benefitted, are really due to her. While others may see Aidel as an extension of my success, I see my success, due primarily to my wife, Aidel.

We look back and wonder how we did it without a sleep-in nanny, without much kitchen help? I did the shopping, she cooked the food, we set the table, and after Shabbat we washed the dishes and immediately started preparing for the next Shabbat. As the children grew older, they helped, and now we miss them as we set the Shabbat table ourselves.

I can’t speak for Aidel, but from this husband, there are no regrets, just intense gratitude.

These words of tribute are not intended to serve as a living eulogy. Parashat Chayei Sarah was just a propitious opportunity that I couldn’t pass up to express some well-deserved words of thanks.

May Aidel and our family be blessed with good health and happiness for many years to come. May we continue to merit to help our brothers and sisters, who have enhanced our lives so profoundly, grow in their Judaism and enrich our people with their good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.