Parenting By Parsha: Chayei Sarah

Part of the fun of living with a toddler is trying to guess what rules you’re living by at any given moment. They know exactly what should and shouldn’t be done, but no grown-ups have been briefed on the daily dos and don’ts — we find out we’ve crossed a line when we get a negative response. 

By fun, of course, I mean bewildering madness. 

Yesterday, we were playing with cars and dolls. Often, that means ‘parking’ the cars in a row and then wheeling them to one another, so I picked up a yellow car and put it alongside a red one. “No!” said my kiddo, “I’m using that!” 

“Oh, okay,” I answered, “How can we say that nicely?” 

“No-o,” he replied, in a sing-song voice, “I’m u-u-sing that.”

Not exactly what I was going for, but I’ll take it. We continued to play. Every so often he would chastise me for crossing a rule I didn’t know existed or grab something from my hand (“That’s mine!” he yells), then I remind him that there’s a kinder way of proclaiming one’s ownership of an object. 

Ever since our toddler started daycare, he’s been practicing social interactions at home. He plays them out in little skits with his toys, often asking my wife and I to weigh in on a situation. “Oh no!” he might proclaim, “Lady Gaga (the rubber duck) took the car from Danny (the toy fish)!” 

“That’s not very nice, Gaga,” my wife or I will answer, “What can Danny say to her? What should he do?”

Obviously, there’s a certain amount of negotiation over toys, art supplies, and other objects at daycare that he’s puzzling out. Our kiddo is one of 12 toddlers engaging in creative play and learning, and I’m sure that sometimes he wants a car or a crayon that someone else is using. Sharing is hard, especially for our pandemic kids who haven’t really engaged with anyone else for most of their lives. It’s all well and good to say that what’s mine is yours, but how do you even define what ownership is? Is it important to feel that something belongs to you? 

This week’s portion deals with those same questions, in its own way, as well. This week we’re reading Chayei Sarah (literally, the life of Sarah), which, confusingly, begins with Sarah’s death. According to the text, she lived 127 years. Seeing as she birthed her son, Isaac, at age 99, that means she got to raise him into adulthood. She did not, however, get to see him marry or have children of his own.

Abraham’s grief for Sarah gets half of one verse, “Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her,” says Genesis 23:2, before Abraham gets on with arrangements. The next verse tells us that “Abraham rose from beside his dead” and began to negotiate with the Hittites for a burial plot. The negotiation — a real estate transaction, in essence — lasts 12 verses. 

The back and forth between Abraham and the owner of the plot, Ephron, is not actually that complicated. The Hittites are offering Abraham the right to bury his dead among their dead, and Abraham is insisting upon owning his own plot. Ephron says the biblical equivalent of fuggedaboutit — “what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead” (Gen. 23:15) — and Abraham is having none of it. By hook or by crook he will pay for the land, which he does, eventually burying Sarah at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. 

As I read this, I couldn’t help but wonder about the apportioning of the text. It’s a little lopsided, to say the least. Perhaps the biblical author wanted to assure anyone reading the text that Abraham does, indeed, own the land on which Sarah (and, eventually, he and Ishmael as well) would be buried.

This conclusion is only reaffirmed by the next chapter, in which Abraham negotiates a bride-price for his son Isaac. In this case, as well, there is an insistence upon doing things through the proper channels. No funny business — Abraham’s servant makes the financial offer very clear before Isaac ever lays eyes on Rebekah. 

Why, I wonder, is it so important to feel ownership? Whether it’s a plot of land, a transaction with a potential bride (this is problematic for many reasons, of course, but that’s a different question), or a toddler grabbing a LEGO out of your hand — what purpose does this sense of possession serve?

There are probably a lot of answers to that question, but one that comes to mind is a sense of security. When I own something, that ostensibly means that it won’t just disappear one day. Of course, this is false — anything can happen at any moment; we don’t control anything. Nevertheless, it makes us feel better to think that declaring “That’s mine!” (as my kiddo does so well) will protect us from undue loss and suffering. 

Abraham doesn’t want to risk coming back to find he no longer owns the land on which Sarah is buried. For him, it’s worth the money. Learning to share, through that prism, means risking loss and being okay with it. Trusting those around you not to let you down. Trusting yourself to stand up for the things you believe you can lay claim to if the person you shared it with does let you down. 

These are complicated thoughts, and for now my wife and I will probably just keep practicing how to ask for something back in a nicer tone of voice. Still, I think and hope that taking a moment to reflect on why we feel an urge to possess things (and even people) will help me let go, too.