By Judith Rosenbaum
This week’s Torah portion, Hayei Sarah – literally, the life of Sarah – paradoxically begins with her death. After this dramatic first verse, Abraham seeks to memorialize her with a burial place and then to secure their family legacy by seeking a wife for their son, Isaac. Though the parasha does not actually tell us much about the life of Sarah, it does raise the question of how one might mark the life and passing of a significant person.
The gap between the title and content of this Torah portion always makes me uncomfortable. Not only because of the many gaping holes in the Torah’s account of Sarah’s life – What was her experience of going forth to an unknown land, of being taken into Pharoah’s court when Abraham pretended she was his sister, of having her only son nearly sacrificed by her husband? – but also because it reflects the tendency to turn our attention to someone’s life only at the time of their death.
I’ve often had the experience of sitting at a funeral or memorial service, moved by powerful testimonies to the deep impact of the deceased, and wondering why we so often wait until a person is gone to give public attention to her importance in our lives and community. Better late than never, to be sure, but shouldn’t we have built-in systems to let our loved ones, teachers, mentors, and friends know what they have meant to us? I am grateful for the profound wisdom Jewish tradition holds on death and mourning, but I also wish it offered more structures for honoring and celebrating the living.
I have noted this challenge in my work at the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), as well. Over the past decade, we have built a collection called We Remember, featuring personal memorials about Jewish women who have made a difference in our communities and beyond. These evocative tributes are among my favorite pieces in our vast archive, and yet while reading them, I find myself fervently hoping that the authors managed to convey even a fraction of their beautiful words to the subjects while they still lived.
This is one reason why I am proud to announce the launch of a new collection at jwa.org called We Celebrate. We developed this collection to provide the Jewish community with an opportunity to honor the women who inspire us and shape our lives. The collection invites users to create personal tributes for any occasion on which one might ordinarily give a gift to say “thank you” or “mazel tov” – a birthday, new job, bat mitzvah, retirement, conversion, graduation, marriage, coming out – as well as to remember someone who is gone. Taken together, these tributes help JWA expand the narrative of Jewish women’s experiences and depict the richness of their lives.
JWA has always taken a democratic approach to history, telling the stories of both prominent, recognized leaders and unknown “everyday” women; We Celebrate provides yet another channel for a grass-roots gathering of Jewish women’s history. Already, we’ve received moving expressions of gratitude for a long-term friendship, of deep appreciation for an influential teacher, of grateful acknowledgement of the risk a parent took in leaving the Soviet Union to seek a better life for her children.
We Celebrate serves as a reminder of the many opportunities in our busy, daily lives to recognize the people who have made a difference to us and share our appreciation with them now, when they can take in our words. It also helps create a record of the moments that comprise a meaningful life, day by day, year by year. It is essential to memorialize our loved ones as Abraham does Sarah – and We Celebrate provides that option, too – but we should not limit the articulation of a legacy to the time of mourning and loss. Let’s build it as we live, with love, honor, and joy.
Judith Rosenbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change.