The following sermon was delivered by Rori Picker Neiss at Bais Abraham Congregation, St Louis, MO on October 26, 2013, Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah. Rori serves as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham and is completing her studies at Yeshivat Maharat.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה: וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ:
Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hevron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.
Thus begins Parshat Chayei Sarah. This is the first time we are introduced to the city of Hevron, but it is certainly not the last time. In this week’s parsha, Sarah dies and Avraham needs to find a proper place to bury her. In his search he encounters Ephron, a Hittite, who offers to give Avraham a burial plot for free. Avraham refuses to accept the land as a gift and insists on paying for it– and ultimately overpays for it. He acquires Ma’arat HaMachpeilah– the Cave of Machpeilah– and the land that surrounds it and buries Sarah. Later in our parsha we learn of Avraham’s death, and he, too, is buried in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah next to Sarah.
The first time I was introduced to Hevron– other than through stories such as this in the Tanakh– was in 2003 when I travelled with my father, brothers, and a few family friends to tour the city.
Our trip to Hevron began with a stop at Kever Rachel, the burial site of the matriarch Rachel, located in Bethlehem. Two soldiers in full armor met us at the van to escort us into the building. I remember waiting as I exited the van for the next person to make her way out. The soldier brusquely insisted that I go inside. I pointed out that there was one more person in the van, thinking he just hadn’t noticed her climbing over the seats. He snapped at me more forcefully: “Get inside!” That is when I realized he knew she was there. His job was to make sure that I didn’t stay out in the open where he couldn’t protect me.