A few weeks ago, I was doing some Sunday morning shopping. While puttering abound the store, I noticed a lady was sort of following me around the store. This is not completely unusual when you are identifiably Jewish. A lot of people have questions about Judaism and they ask them in unusual places. Sometimes it is in the copy room, the clothing department or even the frozen food section. I finally turned to the lady, greeted her and asked if I could help her. I mistakenly assumed she had a question about something kosher. Instead, she asked my name, took a deep breath and said, “You did my niece’s tahara.” I am certain there was an audible “crack” as my jaw hit the floor. I am used to odd questions and unusual conversations, but this was a first.
Rewind. Five years ago, I received my first assignment as a math teacher. It was in a rural county and the test scores were the “second lowest” in the state. It was one of those places where people made a living from growing tobacco and cotton and where a full set of teeth was as rare as an Ivy League education. My commute was nearly two hours away and I would stay at least one night a week at the home of a fellow teacher. My classroom was in the basement. It was the old shop room, and when I spoke, the echo was so bad, my voice could be heard in the next county. Of course, I was the only Jewish teacher, something that became clear by the days I took off, the way I sped out of the parking lot on Friday afternoon and the book of tehillim on my desk. One of my collleagues was a minister, whose mentor used an ArtScroll tanach to help deliver his sermons. He would come to me with his “old testament” religious questions. I have always wondered why I wound up in this district, but now I think I know the answer.
Fast forward. Since the frozen breakfast aisle was not the place to continue this conversation, I invited the aunt to a coffee shop. For the next two hours we hugged, cried and held hands. She told me her niece had long ago left behind her Jewish identity and her family. She settled in the same community where I was a teacher. Several months ago she found out she was ill, and contacted her family. They had not heard from her in years. As the end came, she decided against cremation, but didn’t want to be dressed and made-up either. She said she wanted to die as a Jew although she had not lived as one. My former colleague was a neighbour who visited her during her illness. She told him she wanted a Jewish burial, and he gave my name to the funeral director. He didn’t know anything about Jewish burial. He did not know that I had been a part of a Chevra Kadisha since I was 20. These are things that do not enter polite conversation. He just assumed that as a practicing Jew, I would know what to do. Like a lot of non-Jews, he assumed just being Jewish makes you an expert on your religion. We should be so lucky.
After I was called, I drove two hours away on an erev yom-tov to meet a group of women. We had one purpose. We were to quietly assist a woman whose Hebrew name was Chaya Sarah leave this world and enter the next.
As we drank coffee and shed tears, I was afraid that Chaya Sara’s aunt would ask me specific questions I couldn’t answer. Fortunately, she sensed that modesty, privacy and dignity were all a part of the process and left it at that. I was grateful for that. All she wanted was someone to listen to her. I could do that. During that time, I remembered something the Rav who oversaw my conversion told me. All Jews are ambassadors for our people. That precedent, he said, was set by Sarah imenu. I was very uncomfortable, but for better or worse, I was now an ambassador. It was my job to make sure she appreciated the people she belonged to. We talked about life and death, religion and philosophy. For a while I forgot that I had not completed my lesson plans, or finished my Spanish homework. The laundry would wait and the Challot for next Shabbat would rise without my nudging.
When we parted, we hugged and I invited her for a Shabbat meal. I have checked with her a couple of times to see how she was doing. We how have a dinner date.
I am writing this because it has been on my mind all week. This week’s parsha is called Chaya Sarah, even though it begins with her death. The parsha recounts the “days” her life. Sarah was irreplaceable. She converted the women as Avraham converted the men. She was not just the wife of Avraham and the mother of Isaac. As a Jewish woman, she taught us that we have a role beyond wife and mother. We are ambassadors, a unique role within the Jewish people. Sarah was taken from her comfortable home, and from her comfortable world. She was placed on a journey that led her to set the world on fire. She left her comfort zone to reach out to the world. In doing so, she reminds us that the “world” is relative. Sometimes it is as close as the neighborhood coffeeshop. May her memory continue to be our blessing.
Have a peaceful week.