Finally, a Torah portion without duplicity, pimping, seduction, incest, attempted second degree murder, banishment into the wilderness, family strife, or divine destruction via hellfire and brimstone, the expulsion of a woman and her son into the wilderness with little enough in the way of provisions that they almost die of thirst, and the utter destruction of two cities full of people.
Hayyei Sarah (“life of Sarah”) opens with the death of Sarah at 127. Tradition has it that she died of shock and grief on learning of her husband’s planned sacrifice of their son. Abraham buys a burial plot for her, the Cave of Machpelah, which will be the resting place as well for Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah (Gen. 49:31). The seller is Ephron the Hittite, who throws in the field around the cave as well and charges a “mere” 400 shekels. He probably thinks he’s going to be bargained down to something more reasonable, but Abraham doesn’t bite, instead paying the full price. His need is immediate, he can afford it, and he is in no mood to haggle.
The rest of the Torah portion reads like a fairy tale. Abraham sends his trusted servant (assumed to be Eliezer) to the old country (Aram-naharaim) to find 40-year-old Isaac a wife. Eliezer prays for a sign as he stops at a well (there’s always a well): The destined maiden should be so kind and eager to help that she will not only accede to his request for water, but volunteer to water his camels. Lovely Rebecca, Isaac’s first cousin once removed, does so eagerly. Her family, especially brother Laban, is overjoyed at the prospect of the marriage, especially since Eliezer has showered her with rich gifts. She wants to leave right away, a hint of trouble to come, which we’ll read about shortly. She meets Isaac as he walks in the field (afternoon prayer). They marry, and Isaac loves her. We don’t read that she loved him.
The portion ends by wrapping up the stories of Abraham and Ishmael. Abraham takes another wife/concubine, Keturah, who gives birth to six sons. Abraham provides for them but wills everything else to Isaac. Abraham dies contentedly, 175 years old, and Isaac and Ishmael bury him with Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. We learn the names of Ishmael’s 12 sons, chieftains of 12 tribes. Ishmael dies at 137 years of age.
Since there are three significant deaths in this portion, let’s take a brief look at the evolution of Jewish practices concerning death. Jewish funerals take place very shortly after death unless there is a strong reason for a delay. Traditionally, the chevra kadisha (burial society) cares for the body. The body is never left alone until burial but is watched over by shomrim (guards, watchers). It is ritually washed and wrapped in a linen shroud. The casket is a simple pine box, closed because exposing the body to viewing is considered disrespectful. This is not new. As explained by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips in “The American Jewish Way of Death, it is noted in the Babylonian Talmud that the poor were shamed by practices that highlighted socioeconomic inequality after death, such as “viewing the faces of the deceased rich while covering the famine-disfigured faces of the deceased poor, and displaying the deceased rich on an ornamented couch while the deceased poor were brought out for burial on a plain bier.” The rabbis decreed all faces should be covered and all be brought out on a plain bier.
However, after the Napoleonic Emancipation, Sandler-Phillips continues, Jews began rejecting traditional ways. As David Roskies wrote in “The Jewish Search for a Usable Past,” “The surest sign, then, of an irrevocable break with the past was when Jewish burials began to ape those of the Gentiles.” Ironically, this was especially true of Jewish socialists, who liked elaborate displays of the bodies of their heroes and thus unwittingly bolstered the capitalist foundations of the American funeral industry: embalming bodies for viewing in expensive coffins.”
After The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford was published in 1963, exposing the excesses of the American funeral industry, and additionally as environmentalism took hold, Jews began to return to practices that reflect the values of “sustainability, simplicity, equality, and community…that have helped Jews face death for thousands of years.” Or, to quote T. S. Eliot, “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Celebrities Don’t Always Rest in Peace
From: Morbid Curiosity: Celebrity Tombstones Across America
By Elaine McCarthy
Groucho Marx – Groucho’s cremated remains were buried at Eden Memorial Park in San Fernando, California, in 1977. An employee of the cemetery, angry that he was fired, pried the cover off Groucho’s niche and stole his urn. He brought it to his home in Burbank in part because Groucho had once said, “I would never be caught dead in Burbank.” Eventually, the perpetrator left the ashes on the doorstep of Mt. Sinai Cemetery, and the recovered Groucho was sent back to Eden Memorial Park. A locked gate was put in place and information is rarely given. If you visit his grave you will see that the gate remains unlocked during the day, and the screwdriver marks around the niche have gone unrepaired.
George Tobias – The hearse carrying George Tobias, who played Abner Kravitz on “Bewitched” was involved in a minor traffic accident while on its way to Mt. Sinai Memorial Park. While the drivers were exchanging information, two men jumped in the hearse and hijacked it, unaware that they had another “passenger.” When they realized they had a dead “Abner” in the back, they quickly abandoned the hearse in the middle of traffic.
John Barrymore – The corpse of John Barrymore, grandfather of Drew, was “rented” for $200 from the Pierce Brother’s Mortuary in Los Angeles, and secretly taken by buddies of his to Errol Flynn’s home for a macabre joke. They propped the dead leading man, not yet embalmed, in a chair in Flynn’s living room. When Flynn flipped on the light, much to his horror there sat a bloated Barrymore. The sight made him run screaming from his house, only to be told by his “friends” waiting on the porch that it was a gag.
In addition, Barrymore wanted to be cremated and buried in the family plot in Philadelphia, but his sister Ethel ignored his request. Instead, he was entombed in the Calvary Cemetery Mausoleum in East Los Angeles. In 1980, his final wishes were honored by his son, John Barrymore, Jr., who exhumed the body, cremated it, and moved it to Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia. In order to fulfill his grandfather’s final request, he was forced to pawn and sell many of the Barrymore family mementos that were bequeathed to him.
Harry Houdini – Houdini, who was always generous and donated money to repair or maintain the graves of other magicians, was a victim of extreme vandalism. A group of youths broke into the Machpelah Cemetery in Flushing, New York, and smashed his grave. They even stole the bust of him that was placed at the center of his grave. David Copperfield stepped in and donated enough money to repair the damaged grave. Copperfield merely carried on the Houdini’s tradition of donating money to fix the forgotten graves of fellow magicians.
On the day of my big job interview I woke up late. Frantically I threw on a suit. “OH NO!” I thought. “MY TIE!” My Dad was out of town and wasn’t there to help me, and for the life of me I did not know how to tie a tie!
I grabbed a tie and ran out the door. “Excuse me sir,” I said to the crossing guard, “I have an important job interview, can you please help me make this tie?!”
“Sure” said the guard, “just lie down on this bench.” Well if someone was going to help me I wasn’t going to ask any questions. After he finished and the tie looked good I just had to ask why I had to lie down.
“Well in my previous job I learned how to tie ties on other people when they were lying down,” he replied.
“What was your previous job?” I asked incredulously.
“I ran a morgue” was the reply.
When I announced that I was getting married, my excited mother said, “You have to have the rehearsal dinner someplace opulent, where there’s dancing.”
My father, seeing where this was heading, said, “I’ll pay you a thousand dollars to elope.”
“And you have to have a breakfast, for the people who are coming from out of town.”
“We’ll need a photographer. Oh, and what colors do you want for the reception?”
We eloped to Spain.
Mary Nichols, Arlington, Virginia
My young son declared, “When I grow up, I’m going to marry you, Mommy.”
“You can’t marry your own mother,” said his older sister.
“Then I’ll marry you.”
“You can’t marry me either.”
He looked confused, so I explained, “You can’t marry someone in your own family.”
“You mean I have to marry a total stranger?!” he cried.
Phyllis Showers, San Diego, California