Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Chayyei Sarah 2011

Parashat Chayyei Sarah by Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander
18 November 2011

I have a soft spot for this week’s Torah portion because it brings to mind the best sermon I’ve given so far in my homiletic career. Some years ago, I was the rabbi of a small congregation in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The community was over one hundred years old, and its members continued to hold their own in the face of a strong Mennonite (*) presence in the town. This was my first solo pulpit, and I decided that I had been there long enough to be able to present them with a mildly political sermon. The portion is called Chayyei Sarah, i.e., ‘the life of Sarah’, yet it begins with her death and moves quickly on from the purchasing of her gravesite to the matter of finding a wife for Isaac. In the name of Sarah, Mrs Manoach and the daughter of Jephthah (**) I duly prepared a feminist polemic about the erosion of women from the text, and looked forward to sharing it at the Friday night service.

Once a month on a Thursday, the Interfaith Council of the town would meet. As one of the newest members of the group, I had quickly acceded to the position of vice-president. This particular Thursday, a representative from the fledgling Muslim group told us of their experiences as they tried to build an Islamic Centre. They had received hate mail and threats, and had decided it was too dangerous to have a sign on the front of their building. I felt helpless. The following evening, I walked onto the bima with my Sarah sermon in my hand, looked out at the congregation, and put the sermon away.

“I had a great drash planned for tonight,” I told them, “all about women in the Torah. However, something more important has come up.” I told them of the troubles of the Muslim community. “We have to help,” I said. “Of all the people in this town, who knows better what it is like to be a small group from a different religion? I don’t know how, I only know that we must do something. It’s in the Torah portion!”

At the end of Chayyei Sarah, Abraham reaches the end of a long and fulfilling life. His death is described simply, as is his burial:

“His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah” (Gen. 25:9)

Ishmael? What is Ishmael doing there? The last we heard of him he had been cast out  from Abraham’s home, and was living in the wilderness of Paran (Gen. 21:21). Isaac is the legitimate heir, and makes the funeral arrangements. There is no reason for Ishmael to be present.

“I tried to imagine what happened,” I said. “The only way Ishmael gets to be there is if Isaac invited him. Isaac must have found him and said, ‘Abraham was your father also – let us do this together’. We have to reach out to our brothers and sisters, and deal with this situation together.”

That was my sermon. The following week I learned that my congregants had been discussing it with each other over dinner and work and Mah Jongg. A plan was made, and the work began. The Muslims and the Jews ate together, and talked together; we visited each other’s homes and sanctuaries. We began to live together as neighbours and friends.

It is many years since I was in Virginia. I checked a couple of websites today and saw that members of the synagogue and the Islamic Centre are currently volunteering together to run a homeless shelter at the Catholic church. Isaac and Ishmael are still a team. As for the Sarah sermon, I threw it away.

(*) Member of an evangelical Protestant sect that rejects infant baptism, Church organisation, and the doctrine of transubstantiation and in most cases refuses military service, public office and the taking of oaths. Noted for simplicity of living and plain dress. From German Mennonit, after Menno Simons (1496-1561), Frisian religious leader.

(**) Mrs. Manoach was identified only as the wife of Manoach, even though a messenger of God spoke to her, and she gave birth to Samson (Judges 13).  Jephthah made a foolish vow, and therefore had to sacrifice his daughter. Despite her graceful acceptance of her fate, she was identified only as the daughter of her father. (Judges 11)