Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18), begins:
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
We have not heard from Sarah since Chapter 21, when she asked Abraham to send out the maid-servant Hagar and her child, Ishmael, born to Abraham. Midrash offers many suggestions for what happened to Sarah between that moment and her death, reported here. Avivah Zornberg suggests that Sarah died from an experience of “the reversibility of joy,” in relation to the Akedah [binding of Isaac]. (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, [JPS, 1995], p. 399)
Without short-changing what Zornberg has to say about Sarah’s life and death — which I recommend everyone read — I thought this single idea of death by “reversibility of joy” worth considering…especially as we enter Shabbat tonight, with Transgender Remembrance Day ahead of us and weeks of turmoil behind us.
Joy, in All its Reversibility
In many ways “Shabbat Shalom” is as much a challenge as an invitation. It’s an invitation to pause, admit some limits to our ability to effect change in the world, to affirm and to celebrate. But it’s also a challenge to let go of our work-a-day selves, which are usually more about doing than being, and not so easily shed.
Transgender Remembrance Day, November 20, adds new elements to both these aspects of Shabbat: An invitation to affirm and celebrate Creation, a world of such variety, so many faces, minds and genders. And a challenge to envision a world in which gender-conforming, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can all “embrace their whole selves and live up to their divine potential,” and then to live for a day, or even for an hour or two – into the wholeness of such a vision.
There is much to be done to make the Jewish community and the wider world a safer, more just and more welcoming place for all. There is much grieving to be done for lives lost to anti-trans violence. And the Occupy movement has increased our awareness of how much needs changing to create a just political and economic system that works for 100%.
But Shabbat calls us to step back from striving, to enjoy what we do have and a vision of the world as we know it can be. We cannot fail to recognize the divine potential in and around us. And we need time to celebrate and nurture that….without giving up the struggle for lasting, wider-reaching change. One lesson of Chayei Sarah, I think, is that we should value Shabbat for its very transitoriness. We can make time for joy — reversible, and partial, as we know it to be — without losing sight of how far we still are from a world where 100% of humanity is recognized as 100% “in God’s image.”
If You’re In DC, 11/18/11
Join “Occupy Shabbat DC” to welcome Shabbat and honor Transgender Remembrance Day. McPherson Square, 6:00 p.m.
R. Joseph Berman in A Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance, prepared by Keshet: working for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life