Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5781
Hannah, I really like how you brought us so many different Rabbinic perspectives on Abraham’s motivations in this parasha. I also think that your idea that Abraham was trying to feel equal to the Hittites is smart and perceptive. I was particularly taken by the idea that Abraham was trying, through his actions, to secure God’s promise that the land would belong to him and his descendants forever. This idea, on which you quoted Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zichrono livracha, connects to a larger thread of rabbinic thought about how we are to relate to prophecy, or providence, or destiny. As Rabbi Lord Sacks attests, Abraham was promised the land for his descendants for all time, but at the moment he is 137 years old, his wife Sarah has died (which must make him acutely aware of his own mortality) and he possesses neither the land nor a line of descendants to inherit it.
What do we do when we have a vision of our future, whether a vision from God or elsewhere, and that vision is not happening? When we do not see evidence that it will be fulfilled? When time is running out?
What Abraham does in this parasha, not only in this episode but in the next as well, is take action into his own hands. He purchases the cave and he sends his servant on a mission to find a wife for his son. Both actions have the results he seeks — an ownership stake in the land, and progeny. Nechama Leibowitz says “[Our ancestors] did not regard prophecy as freeing them from action, absolving them of responsibility for their destiny. On the contrary, they accepted the promise of God as obliging them to work and strive to the best of their ability and understanding towards its fulfillment.”
Action and faith are not contradictory but complementary. One can be entirely certain of one’s destiny and still take any and all action that will help bring it about.
This connects to another related idea stemming from the parasha. Rashi comments on the strange formulation of Sarah’s age in the first verse, which says that when she died Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years. Why doesn’t Torah just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” Rashi asks. “The wording is repeated,” he answers,” to indicate that all of her years were equally good.”
But the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Lieb of Ger, isn’t buying it. Even a cursory look at Sarah’s life indicates that all of the years were not equally good. “There must be differences, the Sefat Emet insists. “variations, and changes during a person’s lifetime. There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age. But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days… Fulfillment, wholeness, completion—these can be found in every place and at every time. [This is the way we can understand Rashi’s claim that], ‘They were all equally good.’”
So the Jewish way isn’t to expect that what happens to us in every year of our lives will be equally good, not that we sit back and wait for God’s promises of blessing to come true, but that we wrest fulfillment out of whatever comes, out of whatever conditions life brings us. We look for what is whole and what is complete and what is good in every year that we live. That is the Jewish way. Many people have said that 2020 has been a terrible year. And that is true. There has been a great deal of suffering and hardship and loss in this year. And many of us can remember other years of our lives that were differently but perhaps equally heavy or challenging. Yet even in the worst conditions, as Viktor Frankl taught, “what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform personal tragedy into a triumph….suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
This week the Jewish world mourns the death of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. If you don’t know of Rabbi Sacks, you will be in for a treat when you find his writing. He was an Orthodox rabbi, but he made the particular universal, building bridges across faiths. This is particularly relevant as we read about the Cave of Machpelah and the city of Hebron. He was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013. In 2002 in The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid a Clash of Civilizations, he wrote “God has spoken to [hu]mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims,” … “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of [hu]mankind.”…“God is greater than religion.”
But perhaps more relevant and important to our topic this morning and to what’s happening in our country, Rabbi Sacks again and again wrote of the human responsibility to make meaning of our lives and to do so in particular by contributing ourselves to making our world more whole. In his book, To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks wrote:
“As long as there is hunger, poverty and treatable disease in the world there is work for us to do. As long as nations fight, and men hate, and corruption stalks the corridors of power; as long as there is unemployment and homelessness, depression and despair, our task is not yet done, and we hear, if we listen carefully enough, the voice of God asking us, as God asked the first humans, ‘Where are you?’ (To Heal a Fractured World, 82)
And in relation to the question about where God’s responsibility for fulfilling promises ends and human responsibility for taking action begins, he said:
“One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, [God’s] ‘partners in the work of creation’. The God who created the world in love calls on us to create in love. The God who gave us the gift of freedom asks us to use it to honor and enhance the freedom of others. God, the ultimate Other, asks us to reach out to the human other. Life is God’s call to responsibility.
…part of our role as Jews is to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. When this happens, the Jewish spirit is at its best, and we are able to bring a little fragment of heaven down here on earth.”
So on this Shabbat, in the eighth month of a global pandemic in which, Hannah, your mom has taken particular responsibility to teach and to calm and to heal and to make our world more whole, needed leadership for which we are all profoundly grateful, we pray that each of us will be inspired to find our contribution as Rabbi Sacks urges us to do. Every year is not going to be equally good, but every year will have opportunities for us to look at the arc of history taking place around us, and like Abraham, to find where we can take action to bring God’s promise of justice and mercy and love and freedom and peace closer to fulfillment.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.