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Chayei Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

“Where Life Hangs by a Fragile Thread”


“The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah.” Thus says a midrash describing the moment when Sarah was told that Abraham had taken her son Isaac and had slaughtered him on an altar as a sacrifice. “Sarah began to cry and moan the sounds of three wails that are the three blasts of the shofar. And her soul burst forth from her and she died.” How else can one explain the sudden death of Sarah in the second verse of this parashah?

Etz Hayim (Torah and Commentary) cites an arresting remark attributed to Avivah Zornberg describing Sarah’s death as “a reflection of her inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” Zornberg’s is a statement of existential nature par excellence. It points to that fragile place within us that seems to require that there be meaning, predictability, and safety in our lives. Sarah, faced with such a dreadful loss, is robbed of all three all at once, and finds herself unable to bear such a fate. The emotional pain is so unbearable that “her soul burst out forth from her.”

We all know this place within. All our lives are about making meaning out of our circumstances. We are the greatest commentators of the Torah that is our life, ascribing meaning to the most mundane of events.  We yearn for meaningful relationships, seek meaningful work, and want meaningful experiences. Yet we want it all to be as predictable as possible—afraid as we are of what we cannot foresee. And we want it all to fall unfailingly within the framework of our expectations. We want to be fully in control of the predictably unfolding meaningful life we expect to live. We, for sure, never want to feel that “life hangs by… a fragile thread.” Our greatest fear is to find ourselves in Sarah’s shoes, overwhelmed by tragedy, faced with the emptiness of a meaningless life. But isn’t this very fear what is preventing us from truly being alive in the first place?

What if we lived each day holding in consciousness that, indeed, “life hangs by… a fragile thread,” knowing that we could be alive in this moment, and perhaps dead the next? How precious each instant would become! How miraculous each breath! Perhaps our greatest delusion is our belief that life ought to be predictable, safe, and meaningful. But the “meaning” we construct is based on anticipation of the future and reconstruction of the past. We plan for tomorrow’s meaningful events so that we can document them thoroughly in order to create meaningful memories. Meaning is never of the “now.” Now is happening now, raw and immediate, alive and dead in an instant; a fragile exhilarating thread pulsating between what isn’t yet and what no longer is. Now is all we have. Now resides in a place inherently empty of meaning, explanation, justification, right or wrong, better or worse. Now is the place where we can be fully alive, blissful beyond our wildest thoughts.

“The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah.” It is there not to cause us to wallow in the frightful suffering of an “unreliable world” but, like in Jericho, to bring down the walls of fear that strangles our ability to be fully alive now.

PS: I am starting an “Introduction to Kabbalah” course next Tuesday, November 22nd. It is free and open to everyone both in person (if you are in the Seattle area) and on Zoom (if you are not). We ask everyone to register so that we can email you the private Zoom link for the course. For more information click here. Thanks!