Romantic memory weaves a garland around the name Machpelah, though the area has more robust connotations in Israel’s current environment.
Machpelah, established from early Biblical times, was an important place of pilgrimage for medieval travellers like Benjamin of Tudela, who described the two stages by which a determined visitor gained access to the site. The ordinary traveller was told by his guide that the outer area contained the remains of the patriarchs, but if one were determined and prepared to pay the guide extra it was possible to go further, descend some steps and enter an underground cavern which was the real burial place.
Regardless of the political problems of today, there is a poetic dimension of the Machpelah story which should not be forgotten. The bones of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives come to life like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision if you cast your mind’s eye back down Jewish history.
You encounter the spirit of the patriarchs and are immediately asked, “You Jews of the 21st century, four thousand years on from when we ourselves lived, do you fittingly honour our memory as the founding fathers of Judaism? Do you devote to Judaism the spiritual eagerness of Abraham, Isaac’s love of tradition, Jacob’s tenacity even in times of trouble?
“Do you honour our principles, not just our mausoleum?”
JUST A MINUTE, SARAH.
Sarah, what right did you have to die just when you were becoming interesting?
You figure in a sheaf of Biblical stories, but hardly ever do we come to grips with you as an individual. You are Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh’s romantic interest, Isaac’s mother, Hagar’s rival… but it’s all about you in relationships with others, not you in your own right.
Were you really beautiful, in appearance, in character? Were you really pious and God-fearing, thinking of God, meditating on eternity? Were you really clever, a good organiser, an efficient homemaker? Did the Midrash get it right when it said your tent had a light burning from one Erev Shabbat to the next, that you were not only hospitable but brought the women under the wings of the Divine Presence, that you wanted Isaac to study in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever?
Did Abraham value your wisdom and hearken to your voice? Did you willingly allow Isaac to go with his father, even if he never came back? Did your tears flow in private, so that neither your husband or son would realise how torn apart you were?
When you died, was it old age or the shock of events? When Abraham came to mourn for you and weep, was he weeping for himself, now alone and bereft, or for you, such a woman of worth whose going made the world poorer?
Sarah, don’t leave yet before we have worked out your preciousness and personality!
ASKING A WOMAN HER AGE.
Though called “Chayyei Sarah” – the Life of Sarah – the sidra deals with the matriarch’s death and burial. Sarah died at 127 (Gen. 23:1). This is the only reference in the Bible to a woman’s age at the time of her death.
Samson Raphael Hirsch remarks – how times have changed! – that since “the lives of the women are in general farther away from public life, a record of their age is not necessary to fix the chronological order of events of history”. If Sarah is an exception it must because thanks to her the Jewish people would have a future; Isaac was 37 when she died (Gen. 17:17) and had had time to absorb his parents’ values.
Polite conduct more or less up to our own day has required that a woman’s age neither be asked nor mentioned. If asked, a woman would be coy and either change the subject or not tell the truth. A mother would tell her child she was 21 – and keep saying this until even the child knew it was a fiction.
This approach is disappearing, but it raises the question of whether one’s age necessarily matters. Certainly, for legal purposes it can be relevant, but there can be a young person with an old head on their shoulders and a much older person who remains remarkably youthful. England had a prime minister who was in his 20s and others long past a supposed retirement age. Judaism calls “Rabbenu” a man who assumed office at 80 and led the people for 40 years.
Society must find room for all age groups to make their contribution. The young must not be held back, but neither must the old be treated as useless. Two of Aaron’s sons were severely punished because, say the rabbis, they said of Moses and Aaron, “When will these old men die?” (Commentaries on Lev. 10).
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com