Death: Peace Or a Coup? -- This Week’s Torah

In “Chayei Sarah,” this week’s Torah and Haftarah readings, there are two deaths and one impending death. The effects of each on the surrounding community are quite different, and we can learn from each of them.

The death of Sarah leads mostly to Abraham’s effort to buy a burial place for her and, it turns out for himself and several others of his family as well. He makes clear that until this moment he has been landless, a “ger toshav,” a “sojourner settled.”

 Is his land purchase a triumph, a peaceful bargain struck in an uncertain context? Most of Jewish tradition treats it that way, but later Torah (Lev. 25: 23) says that all human beings are “gerim toshavim,” sojourners who may settle on Earth but do not own any part of it. Only YHWH, the Breath of Life, owns the Land, the Earth.  We humans only rent it temporarily while we live. 

One might even learn from the story that only the dead get to “own” the land by purchase -– for then our earthy dust returns to the earthy dust whence it came, while our breath returns to the Breath of Life whence it came.

The next death in the story is Abraham’s own.  The main consequence is that his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who seem to have been estranged for decades, come together to bury him. Indeed, this is the only time Torah calls them “Abraham’s  sons.”

We can only tell each other our imagined stories of what their conversation was like at the graveside of their dangerous father. Remember, he sent one of them into the wilderness ill-equipped to survive, and the other he took up the mountain, intending to slaughter him as an offering to God. Yet they joined to bury him and they reconciled with each other, so that Isaac went to live where Ishmael lived: The Wellspring of the Living One Who Sees Me.

For years my life-partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I have urged that this passage (Gen 25: 7-11) should be read on Yom Kippur as the reconciling resolution of the two stories that traditionally we read on Rosh Hashanah, of the near disasters that are visited upon the two brothers. And it deserves being lifted not only then but often as a quintessential teaching of the reconciliation that Torah teaches at its best.

Finally, the Haftarah or prophetic passage (I Kings 1: 1-31) that complements this Torah passage is a story of the very last days of King David, and here the consequence is very different.  David himself has promised the succession to Shlomo, “the peaceful one.” (We know him mostly as Solomon.) But another son has attempted a palace coup, gathering various officials around him and calling himself “king” even while David still lives.

The symbols of legitimacy gather around David. The Prophet Natan and David’s principal wife Batsheva, Solomon’s mother, ask David to say publicly what his choice is. He speaks for Solomon.  The plotters of the coup disperse, and as we know, Solomon becomes king when shortly after, David dies.

We ourselves live at a moment when all the normally legitimate social institutions are prophecying one succession in power.  Yet palace officials are edging close to a coup, and refuse to reconcile with previously estranged communities. Can we learn from Ishmael and Isaac?


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