Chayei Sara Batmitzvah
Rabbi, family, friends and members of Woodside Park Shul, thank you for being here with me on my special day.
This morning we read Parashat Chayei Sarah. This parasha teaches us to reflect on the past and what you can learn from it. Chayei Sarah means the life of Sarah, which is unusual as it begins by telling us about her death. It uses a very strange expression to tell us about her age, that “her lifetime was 100 years, and twenty years, and 7 years”. Why doesn’t it simply say that she was 127 years old?
Rashi teaches us that her life was broken up into sections so that we can get a full picture of who she was. At 100 she had committed as few sins and mistakes as a woman of 20. At 20 she was as beautiful and innocent as a 7 year old. This is the first time that we can see that someone’s death is not about the body that has stopped breathing but in fact all about the achievements of that person in their lifetime. It shows the relationship she had with all of those around her and keeps the memory of who she really was alive.
In chapter 23 verse 2, it says “Veyavo Avraham lispod leSarah, velivkotta” “And Avraham came to tell the story of Sarah and to cry for her.” We notice something very unusual in this sentence. All the letters in the word Velivkotta are the same size except for the kaf. What’s that trying to tell us? One thought is because Avraham wasn’t expecting Sarah to die, another that he was still in shock as he wasn’t with his wife at the time.
Avraham wanted to bury his wife somewhere that could remain the burial place for his family. He came across the cave of Machpela, and approached the Children of Chet, who owned it. Even though they offered it to him for free he insisted on paying for it. Underneath their kind words he knew that it had to be a business decision, and it would belong to his family forever. This shows how much respect you have to have for people’s final resting place.
Avraham then began to think about his son Yitzchak. He wanted him to be married, for someone to be there for him and love him, so he sent Eliezer, his servant, to search for a wife for Yitzchak.
Eliezer was worried about the responsibility of finding the right woman so he prayed to Hashem. “Let me set this test. I’ll wait by the well and the first woman to offer water, not only for me but for my camels as well, that will be a sign that she is the right one for Yitzchak”. A beautiful woman came and drew water for Eliezer and his camels. Her name was Rivka, she was a relative of Avraham, and the perfect wife for Yitzchak. She made him welcome into her father’s home and agreed to return with Eliezer. Yitzchak fell in love with her and they were married.
Later, Avraham married a lady called Keturah who some people think was Hagar, the mother of Yishmael. Hashem blessed Avraham and he became really wealthy. Sadly, he eventually passed away and the Torah tells us again in that strange way that he died at 100 and 70 and 5. One explanation is that when he was 100 he looked like a man of 70 and when he was 70 he was as innocent as a child of 5. His sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, were reunited to bury him together in the cave of Machpela.
The parasha end with the death of Yishmael, at 100 years and 30 years and 7 years. For both Avraham and Yishmael, the way the Torah describes their death as, “vayayassef el amav”, “and he was gathered in to his people”. What does this mean? If someone is very important to us, then they become part of our memories, and our behavior, and they remain in our hearts forever. We can learn from everyone.
As part of studying for my Dvar Torah, I wanted to explore what I can learn from Jewish people who influenced my two favourite hobbies.
One of my favorite hobbies is tennis, and I recently read about a female Jewish Tennis player called Angela Buxton. Angela was born on the 18 August 1934 in Liverpool. Her Grandparents on both sides were Jews who had immigrated to England from Russia. Angela’s father owned a successful cinema chain in north-western England, which allowed her to attend boarding school.
Whilst there, a coach noticed her tennis ability and talent and encouraged her to train so Angela started playing tennis from a young age. Angela’s most successful year was in 1956 when she won loads of awards including the women’s doubles title and reached the singles final at Wimbledon! Unfortunately not all of her experiences in tennis were that positive. She discussed the anti-semitism she faced in an interview with the New York Post.
“When I wanted to join the Cumberland club I had to fill in a form: Name, address, telephone number and then religion. I had several lessons there with a guy called Bill Blake, and I kept asking him about membership. Eventually, he turned round to me and said, “look Angela, please don’t keep asking me you’re not going to be able to join the club.” “Why not I’m not good enough?” “No, because your Jewish.” And that was the beginning. It was the first time it had hit me in this country.”
She went on to travel to California to train but was again carefully told that she wasn’t welcome to play matches in the Los Angeles Tennis Club. In 2004 she told reporter Marc Berman that she was still on the waiting list to join the all England club 50 years after her success at Wimbledon. It was very upsetting for her, and I was really shocked to hear that because I had never heard of people not letting Jews in a club due to their religion. Sport shouldn’t be about what religion you are; it should be about your ability.
From the mid 1950s Angela was able to practice at the private indoor court owned by a man called Simon Marks, the Jewish owner of Department store chain Marks and Spencer. Simon had become aware of the difficulties, which Angela faced. Sadly Angela began to suffer from a serious hand condition and she was forced to retire in 1957 at the age of 22.
In later life she fundraised to help support her old tennis partner Althea Gibson. As one of the first black female tennis player Althea faced the same discrimination as Angela. Once she retired from tennis she became very poor. Angela’s actions show us that we should care for everyone around us, she realised that her old partner was in need and she helped her without even thinking twice.
Another one of my favourite hobbies is Art and I recently found out about a Jewish artist called Judy Chicago. Judy was born on the 20th of July 1939 in Chicago. Her father, Arthur Cohen was descended from the famous Hassidic leader the Vilna Gaon, but Arthur had left religious life and became an active member of the communist movement.
I discovered that not only was she an artist, but she was an author too. Judy studied art in the California state university. She worked on many different projects throughout her life and produced lots of amazing artwork which has been exhibited all over the world. Some of my favourite pieces of artwork of hers are: peeling back, 18 Bowls of feelings, the dinner party and the installation view of rainbow Pickett and Trinty.
One thing I like about her work is that every piece is linked to something and each piece is unique, but what I found really interesting is that most of Judy’s artwork is related to Judaism. She had lots of collections which relate to the holocaust, Shabbat and Jewish festivals. Even though her father didn’t remain religious, she stayed connected to her Jewish heritage. That is something very important to me.
The main lessons that I took from the Parasha are that we should use what we learn from the difficulties we face to become stronger. Also to take on board what we are taught by the people who are important to us, even if they are no longer with us. It is something I didn’t just learn from the stories of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah and even Yishmael, but also from Judy Chicago and Angela Buxton. We may sometimes be faced in difficult situations, however we must all be positive and rise to the challenge.