Chayei Sarah: Creativity, Continuity and Death

If the relationship between morality and creativity begins in earnest with the introduction of the phenomenon of covenant, then its most important measure of success is continuity: the capacity of a living tradition to be both sustainably principled and creatively adaptable enough to endure the passage of time. It is one thing for God to enter into covenants with individuals like Noah or Abraham, but another thing entirely for those covenants to be transmitted across future generations.

Jewish identity itself is a mystery of continuity that stretches over the course of more than twenty-five centuries. We cannot hope to settle the debate over why and how exactly the Jewish tradition has survived and thrived so consistently over so many generations. But Parshat Chayei Sarah gives us insight into the very first of the intergenerational transitions in the chain. And as an appeal to those in every successive generation who worry that theirs might be the last in their respective moral and creative traditions, our parsha makes a particularly hopeful case for continuity by showcasing an intergenerational process that begins in the most desperate circumstances imaginable.

We saw last week in Parshat Vayera how a sense of alienation among the biblical characters rises to its pinnacle in the binding of Isaac. With the death of Sarah kicking off this week’s parsha, we are confronted with the full force of the fallout from the akedah. How will Isaac, whom we imagine to be utterly estranged from his father, live beyond the loss of his mother? What will become of the tradition with the passing of its founding generation? The very end of Parshat Vayera hints at the eventuality of a future for the Abrahamic tradition, citing the birth of Rebekah, Isaac’s future wife and the mother of Israel. But still, at the outset of this first passing of the torch of the covenant from parent to child, the context of Abraham’s recent near sacrifice of Isaac makes the success of the transition seem extraordinarily unlikely.

This sense of unlikelihood and instability represents a current of anxiety that, up until our parsha, runs in the background of the entire saga of Abraham and Sarah. It serves as an elegant foil for the importance of continuity in the relationship between creativity and morality, framing threads of intergenerational discontinuity in the story. As pioneers of a new tradition who boldly embrace the uncertainty that comes with true innovation, Abraham and Sarah uproot themselves from the land of their birth, and then begin to wonder if they will ever bear children of their own. As the prophetic face of a religious experiment, Abraham in particular personifies how violently the pendulum swings from generation to generation in these chapters of Genesis, as he goes from smashing the idols in his father’s house to nearly killing his own son in the name of God.

This feeling of disjointedness and discontinuity threatens the major vehicles for morality and creativity in the story, including not just the integrity of Abraham and Sarah’s divine mission, but the very survival of the families involved. Indeed, many commentators attribute Sarah’s death to her learning of Isaac’s near death in the immediately preceding akedah. Thus, we see that without commitment to intergenerational continuity, and the relative stability and regularity that it brings, the vision of Abraham and Sarah’s religious revolution will quite literally die. And so the importance of continuity as a necessary part of the Torah’s vision of the relationship between creativity and morality comes into view in a way that is particularly fitting and moving: through our parsha’s focus on mortality, through the Torah’s first proper funerals.

The most poignant insights concerning the importance of continuity appear in our parsha’s deep reckoning with death and dying. The prominent role that death comes to play in our parsha shifts the momentum of the biblical narrative from extreme alienation between generations to a spirit of reconciliation and stabilization of the tradition. This change to an emphasis on continuity in the face of death unfolds with a certain level of drama and urgency, as the deaths of the matriarch and patriarch constitute the respective bookends of our parsha. In the beginning Abraham buries Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, which is, significantly, the first property in the Promised Land to be owned by the nation of Abraham, and which becomes a primary symbol of the Jewish People’s heritage, believed to be the final resting place for all of the founding patriarchs and matriarchs except Rachel. In the end of our parsha, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together, honoring his memory even despite how he hurt them both indelibly, and exhibiting a generous spirit of brotherly harmony that is rarely more than a dream for their descendants today.

Mourning becomes a powerful catalyst for continuity in our parsha, healing the wounds of the past and sealing commitments to the future. In the case of Abraham, Sarah’s death puts him in touch with his own aging and mortality, inspiring a particularly powerful iteration of our parsha’s newfound sense of familial stability and reconciliation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more poignant reversal in Abraham’s behavior than what we see in Parshat Chayei Sarah, in contrast to his binding of Isaac in the previous parsha. After burying Sarah, Abraham’s last words and acts in the biblical narrative are devoted to finding his son Isaac a wife. And after all of his radical efforts to distance himself and his family’s future from the pagan society of his forebears, he sends his servant to search for this future wife in the land of Abraham’s father.

Far from compromising the integrity of his creative and moral vision, Abraham’s restored contact with his roots is an investment in continuity that enables and enhances his project. Not only does Rebekah turn out to be a member of Abraham’s extended family—representing a powerful reconnection between Abraham’s posterity and his ancestors—but through her generosity and journeying spirit she is also regarded by many commentators to be his heir on a spiritual, moral, and creative level as well. And while the text suggests that Rebekah shares more with Abraham and his legacy than perhaps even Isaac does, the effect that her presence and character has on Isaac is no less dramatic. Indeed, it is far from coincidental that Isaac is able to mourn Abraham after falling in love with Rebekah. The similarities between his new wife and his father are healing for him on a very profound level. Rebekah’s seamless association with Abraham’s best qualities represents an essential ingredient in Isaac’s ultimate identification with his own lineage. While he must always live with the memory of his father almost killing him, Rebekah’s example seems to help Isaac make peace with his inheritance, and move beyond his childhood trauma, at least to some extent.

In a particularly tender passage about Rebekah’s impact on Isaac’s shift in consciousness in our parsha, the Torah tells us how “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Gen. 24:67). In the wake of the existential disjointedness that comes from losing his mother, Isaac finds solace and devotion to the future in his love for Rebekah. Accordingly, at the end of our parsha, the text says, “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (Gen. 25:11). This is a formulation that is exclusively employed in the Torah to signify momentous transitions of leadership; it appears after the later deaths of Moses, Joshua and Saul as well. It is the Torah’s clearest indication that continuity has been secured for another generation. The Hebrew Bible is full of tension and disconnection between fathers and sons, but in Parshat Chayei Sarah we see mothers and daughters unlock the promises of continuity.

In considering Abraham and Sarah’s mortality, we begin to see how the ultimate success of their mission to spearhead a new value system on earth depends not as much on their creative courage, charisma or demonstrations of faith, as on the mission’s survival beyond their own lifetimes. Our parsha zeros in on the individual lives and mortality of our morality-creators-in-chief. But why? What is the fundamental significance of the observation that biblical encounters with death are crucial in revealing continuity as an essential ingredient for moral and creative fulfillment? What exactly are we meant to learn from Parshat Chayei Sarah about the relationship between creativity and morality, beyond the fact that continuity is important?

At the peak of Abraham’s reckoning with mortality, as he makes the final vow of his life—to find his son a wife, in the wake of his own wife’s death—the text describes him as zaken ba bayamim. This label is often translated as a redundant or perhaps emphatic phrase meaning “old and advanced in age.” But the fact that Abraham is the first biblical figure to be described this way, even though we have already seen others who live longer, leads some commentators to understand Abraham as the first person in the Torah to achieve genuine wisdom through aging (Gen. R., 59:6). In context it appears that at least part of the Torah’s definition of wisdom is embodied by this visionary’s commitment to continuity in the wake of recognizing the reality of mortality. In the end our parsha’s lesson about the relationship between creativity and morality is rooted in this aged and balanced maturity. In his twilight years, as a passionate revolutionary whose creativity has dramatically unsettled the continuity of the status quo, he ultimately recognizes the value of stability and tradition for sustaining his vision. And thus, Abraham comes to embody the Torah’s ideal of creative and moral wisdom. Thousands of years after his death, his enduring memory suggests that transcending mortality requires fully confronting it.

Everything new represents some kind of discontinuity, a break from what came before. But the legacies of Abraham and Sarah show us that the most important innovations—based on visions of truly improving the world—are also necessarily the most difficult, and must therefore somehow make tradition out of their revolution. In order to effect real creative and moral change, these enterprises must maintain the pioneering spirit that makes them disruptive, rather than fall victim to their own destabilizing inclinations. They must be steady enough in their forward-thinking ways to be passed from generation to generation, or they will likely only succeed in causing more harm than good, before disappearing entirely. One does not need to read the Torah to know that without continuity everything comes to an end. And yet the power of intergenerational continuity only appears in full effect when we recognize that truly creative and moral missions cannot be accomplished if they live and die in one generation.

Of course the achievement of continuity for any tradition introduces the dangerous potential of falling into complacency and rigidity, and losing sight of the original creative and moral inspiration of the founders. Indeed, in later chapters of the Torah we will see how continuity is often as much a guarantee of, as a guarantor for, vigorous creativity and morality. But if the lives and deaths of Abraham and Sarah are meant to remind us that true wisdom consists of informing our most pioneering efforts with a commitment to continuity, then navigating the opposite side of the equation must be left for their descendants too.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Benjamin Perlstein is a political and strategic communications consultant living in Tel Aviv. He is an alumnus of the Yeshiva Summer Fellowship at Mechon Hadar in New York City, and holds a BA in Political Science from Tufts University.