Chayeh Sarah 2018 Hope through High Expectations
November 3, 2018
It feels like we’re in the midst of a moral hurricane. Society seems to be lurching, inflicting wounds, trauma, and intensity upon those caught in its winds. As if in shared despair with the psalmist we might declare Esa Einai el Heharim, me’ayin yavo ezri? I lift my eyes to the mountain, from where will my help come??
As the ancient Chinese curse would have it, these are indeed interesting times. A week ago our Jewish community suffered an attack nearly unknown in our over 300 year-long presence in this country. 11 of our own were brutally massacred at the hands of a hateful and evil man while they were celebrating life and hope at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The impact of this event will be felt in evolving ways for years to come.
When there is a traumatic attack, we go into survival mode looking for the absolute right and singular address for the blame or cause of the atrocity, as if by naming it we could uproot it forever. It’s an instinctive reaction that distracts from the fear, horror, pain, and suffering we share. I get it. But this moment also needs to be about taking a breath, collecting ourselves, and then, choosing to move in an intentional direction. Together.
The families in Pittsburgh are all in shivah, and we spiritually join them this Solidarity Shabbat. The most important element of visiting a shivah home is to simply be silent, be present, and to listen. The worst thing any of us can do is to presume to tell a mourner how they feel, or burden them with how we feel about their loss. It is awkward and torturous to not say anything, but that silence is the holiest gift we can offer. Our presence is healing in ways our words can rarely achieve, probably because it not only offers human warmth, but because it allows the mourner to take a breath and safely process what has happened to them.
This Shabbat, we share in solidarity with synagogues around the country and around the world who are dedicating prayer and attentive silence to the families and community of the victims in Pittsburgh, holding them until they will be ready to start putting the pieces back together again. Of course, we are left wondering what is happening in our country, and where is this all going.
The U.S. has been getting abruptly more dangerous for us as Jews. The ADL noticed a sharp uptick in acts of anti-Semitism since 2016, with a whopping increase of 57% just last year alone, and with shameless acts of vandalism even this past week as if to add insult to injury. It seems clear that in some measure this comes partly from the cover the current U.S. administration has wittingly or unwittingly offered to otherwise fringe white-nationalists. The unconventional, irresponsible, and chaotic ways in which our President has communicated with the nation has created such mixed messages, it has been easy for people with bad ideas to feel a sense of security about going public with their thoughts and they’re increasingly acting on them. Though clearly not a cause, it has been a passive force in allowing the already present and growing audacity of haters. And this has been a trend around the world.
The sense of direction we had been accustomed to as a nation since winning WWII has apparently grown stale, and America is beginning to convulse with the confusion that comes with too many years of toxic politics, of lacking a clear sense of purpose and identity as Americans, and plain old bad leadership. We all feel it, even if we may have disagreements about who and what should take what proportion of the blame. And now Jews are dying at the hands of shameless anti-Semites.
And so here we are, joining in the chorus along with the Psalmist: From where will my help come? I must tell you, however, I have been soothed and inspired by our parsha from this week. As if on cue, we have a message of hope and guidance from the darkness.
Last week, we read about the moral heroism of Abraham confronting God on his good decision to destroy the absolute cruelty of the communities of Sodom & Gomorrah. But then we read about Abraham’s apparent abdication of moral courage to object to God on God’s traumatizing request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac at the Akeda. As a result, Abraham and Isaac never communicate in the Torah ever again, and we are left holding one of the most difficult narratives in the Torah: How could God do this to anyone? Is this what God’s love looks like? Is this something we can sanction, let alone believe in and seek inspiration from? Is this a God we want to believe in?
This week, our parsha opens with a funeral, but ends with a wedding and a holy reconciliation. Our mother Sarah dies. The Midrash contemplates openly that what caused her death was the trauma of learning from Satan that Abraham had in fact offered up her only son Isaac to God as a burnt offering. Her heart was so broken she collapsed on the spot. Who could blame her?
Abraham, however, rises to a new level of moral achievement as he leads his family through this trauma. He brilliantly and fairly negotiates the purchase of a cave in which to burry Sarah and the rest of the family, and then sends for a wife for his son Isaac. The charge he gives to his servant is a study in ethical standards, as the appropriate wife for Isaac must live up to admirable levels of sincerity, graciousness, kindness, generosity, and truthfulness—something we should all still value and demand for ourselves and for those we invite into our lives. At that point in the midst of his difficult circumstsances, it might have been understandable for Abraham to suffice to just take anyone he could find for his son, just so he could start to rebuild. But no, Abraham asserted high standards for his family’s recovery from their traumas.
Isaac meets Rebecca, brings her into Sarah’s tent, and “is comforted for the loss of his mother.” Abraham looked after the future, not only for his legacy, but to heal his traumatized little boy. Abraham could not turn the clock back on their relationship, but he could seek to make a better future for his son and his descendants. Not just any future, but a better future built on the foundation of personal integrity.
Abraham later marries other women, and has many more children before sending them all away “to the East” to insure the safety of his heir. Ultimately, we conclude our parsha with Abraham dying “B’seyvah Tovah, zaken v’save’ah/dying at a good ripe age, old and contented,”and was honored to be buried by bothIsaac and Ishmael, the same Ishmael he had sent away on the order of his wife Sarah, and the same Ishmael claimed as the spiritual ancestor to the Arab peoples, our direct cousins. Both sons of Abraham were in their own way traumatized by the circumstances of their father’s life, but in the end they were able to come together. Thanks to the care Abraham took, they both were able to heal as they carried on with their lives. The parsha concludes with describing the death of Ishmael, an honor reserved for precious few in the Torah.
There are so many opportunities for the narrative to collapse into darkness, but somehow it never does. Despite the overt injustice. Despite the morally intolerable testing. Despite the abandonment, loss, grief, and corruption of Bethuel and Lavan, Rebecca’s father and brother, we are left with reconciliation, with roots in a new land of promise, and the inspiration that, despite a long life of travail, it ispossible to grow old, gain wisdom, and die full and contentwith having made a profound difference in this life. We are left with a sense that there is in fact light at the end of a long dark tunnel.
Our Chassidic traditions are brimming with notions that Abraham, who represents chesed/compassion and mercy, was a conduit for real love in this world. Overlaying that idea upon all the difficulties he endured, might give us some hope. Hope that the challenges in our lives and the insecurities we fear are but a test of our mettle to see if we can keep our moral witsand potential for compassion, just like Abraham. To see if we can withstand the downward pressure the current environment and social trends are creating, and continue to embody mercy and love; to live upto our moral standards; to smile in the face of darkness and travail, and to keep our tents open to the stranger. Just like Abraham.
To resist crass and cynical self-centeredness, to resist building walls between ourselves and our neighbors, and to overcome the primal destructiveness that comes with self-preservationist impulses. Just like Abraham. To, despite the pain, fear, and suffering, look ahead, do the right thing, and demand others also get back to doing the right thing. Just like Abraham.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe, a great Chassidic teacher once taught that God had been whispering “Lech Lecha/Get up and go to become your best self and become a blessing for others,” to everyone alive, but it was only Abraham who heard, internalized, and acted upon this calling with his absolute fullness. Abraham did so despite having suffered loss, grief, and the hopelessness that can come with being unable to have children. Abraham’s response to that subtle Divine calling was, “Hineni/Here. I. Am.”
I believe God is still whispering these words to all of humanity, and most certainly to us: Lech Lecha, keep going, keep moving forward to craft a superior version of yourself. The winds of inhumanity may rage around us, but, like the Buddah in the storm, or Elijah in the cave, we are called to pay attention to the silence, the still quiet Voice of God, and find within ourselves the ability to whisper back the words, “hineni. Here I am.” Heneni, Here I am, ready to hold fast to our original moral convictions, to our original sense of direction, to our original inspiration and purpose, and most importantly our commitment to love and compassion for one another, for the whole human family, and for this precious planet that is our only home.
Abraham was able to embody this attribute, and he died fulfilled and at peace. If we can take a breath, and, despite the swirling pain around us, be committed to continuing Abraham’s work ourselves, as our own calling and mission to intentionally design a better future, we will indeed be able to hold one another, bring light to a darkening world, and merit living deeply, knowing that we will be passing a more healed world to our next generation who might be inspired to, like Ishmael and Isaac, build bridges, work together, bury the past, and plant for the future.
Abraham went through a lot, and his final teachings to us in this parsha, to focus on the future by being uncompromising in our demands for moral and ethical accountability for ourselves and the people we would invite into our tents, family, and even government, will help us make meaning of the present. And this will help us get through this terrifying moment. Together.