Yigal M. Gross

Remembering biblical Sara—and our Sara

“And the life of Sara was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.” (Genesis 23:1)

“When she was one hundred years old she had a twenty-year-old’s moral innocence …and when she was twenty years old, she had a seven-year-old’s [blemishless] beauty” (Genesis Rabbah)

Many years ago, in Biblical times, Abraham journeyed from Beersheva to Hebron. It was a difficult trek for the aging patriarch. Physically, Beersheva was separated from the Judean hills by a forbidding landscape that was barren and harsh—a challenging journey for a hundred-thirty-year-old to make. But Abraham’s greatest challenge was emotional. Abraham had just narrowly escaped losing his son—“your only son, whom you loved”— upon a fiery alter at Mount Moriah, at God’s behest, only to suffer a personal body-blow. In Beersheva, Araham learned that Isaac’s mother, his beloved Sara, the companion who steadfastly stood by his side during all those years of physical and spiritual trial and travail, was gone. He was returning to a home that was now empty, whose candle had gone out and whose protective cloud had departed. As he slowly ascended the hills to Hebron, Abraham asked—how do I say goodbye?

It is a challenge that Sara Lamm Dratch’s family and friends faced almost one-year ago and which we still face today as we approach her first Yahrtzeit next week. How do we say goodbye to our Sara?

Perhaps by seeing how Abraham said goodbye to his Sara.

In Genesis, the Bible relates that “Abraham came to eulogize Sara and mourn for her.” But then something remarkable happens. The Bible relates that, following the eulogy and following his tears, “Abraham rose up from his deceased’s face.” One wonders – what happened to Sara? Why does the Bible suddenly become so impersonal and disassociate Sara’s body from her name?

Because that’s precisely what Jewish mourning is about – disassociation. Not dulling pain by forgetting—on the contrary, we actively commemorate. But the point of that commemoration is to distill an individual into an idea that lives on, stays with us and guides us. In Abraham’s mourning, Sara the person ceased and Sara the persona began. A persona that to us, her descendants and Biblical students, still looms large today.

The same holds true for our Sara.

Like Biblical Sara, our Sara partnered with a man of faith—her husband, Rabbi Mark Dratch—on a spiritual journey. A journey that, like the Biblical Sara’s journey, took her far away from the land of her upbringing and from those she loved to places like Florida, Toronto and Stamford. A journey, that like Biblical Sara’s journey, was littered with challenges along the way, but was always driven by an overriding sense of mission—a desire to “create lives,” and touch each community she encountered with her warmth, humor, wit and faith.

And that persona was packed with personality. Indeed, like Biblical Sara, our Sara was irreverant. When angels informed Abraham that his aging wife would bear a son, Abraham believed—but Biblical Sara laughed, and I believe that our Sara would have laughed as well. For, to me, Biblical Sara’s incredulity to the angels’ prediction is a testament to her strength of character, not her lack of faith. Behind the laugh was a brutally honest realist, who cut to the core of things rather than stand on ceremony, and whose clarity of vision was not obscured by titles and platitudes. A normal person, who had longed as long as Biblical Sara had longed for a child, would probably embrace the opportunity to think wishfully. But that was not Biblical Sara, or our Sara. Our Sara would rightly say, as Biblical Sara did, that it is ridiculous for a one hundred year old to conceive—and, she would surely add, who cares if angels say it’s not?

Which makes the self-sacrifice and devotion that typified both Saras all the more remarkable. “Say you are my sister so that [the Egyptians] will be good to me on your behalf and I shall be allowed to live because of you.” The same Sara who had the spunk to challenge angels was silently submissive, agreeing to be given over to Pharaoh, to save her beloved husband’s life. A husband she loved so dearly that she was willing, when she was barren, to do the almost unimaginable—let her husband take another wife in the hope that she would bear him the children Biblical Sara so wished she herself could bear. Like Biblical Sara, our Sara devoted herself totally to the people she loved. Her husband, children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and friends were her world. And she was ours. She illuminated our lives with her laughter and her love.

The most profound thing that one can say about our Sara—or Aunt Sara, as I knew her—is that, a year later, we are still measuring the enormity of her loss.

Mourning is a constructive process—“Better to go to a house of mourning than a house of merriment.” People enter a house of celebration in order to forget; they enter a house of mourning in order to remember. For in a house of mourning—through the act of remembering—one learns not only about the departed, but about oneself. One asks—what will people remember about me? What do I stand for? In a house of mourning, “The living take note.”

During her sojourn with us—which was far too short—our Sara, like Biblical Sara, showed us how to substantively live life to its fullest. She showed us how to love and laugh, showering all those fortunate to meet her with her vibrance, brilliance, irreverance, kindness and warmth. Her legacy was her personality. A personality so singularly powerful, that it transcends the bounds of life and continues to inspire and strengthen us.

About the Author
Yigal M. Gross is an attorney who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife Tamar Warburg and their children Ella, Sara, Yonatan, Aviva and Norman.
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