Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Live This Day As If It Is Someone Else’s Last

I believe passionately that the key to meaningful life is learning. And I am not simply offering you my personal opinion. Our Jewish tradition asserts that if we are open to learning new insights, new perspectives, new ideas all the time – even in situations that don’t seem suited to learning – we can redeem a moment, even one that seems bleak and unforgiving.

This Shabbat we read Hayyei Sarah, “Sarah’s life”. The parashah begins with the death of Sarah, our first Matriarch. Abraham mourns. He must buy a plot of land in which to bury her (until this point he has been a landless nomad). Then we read that Abraham gives some thought to his children’s future at this point, and the parashah ends with the marriage of his soon Isaac to Rebekah, at which point we are told that “Isaac was consoled after the death of his mother Sarah”. 

There is so much to learn from this parashah, from Abraham’s experience of Sarah’s death, to the family dynamics and the behavior that ensues, and, finally, the entrance of Rebekah on the scene. It is easy to note that we move in one parashah from death to new life. It has also been noted that Isaac may have some issues with the women in his life, since he was consoled by taking his new wife into his mother’s tent. Maybe a little over-involved with Mom? To be fair, a loving partner is often the key to our ability to overcome grief and go on with our lives.

I ask you to focus with me on something a bit more subtle.  If we look carefully at the end of last week’s parashah, we can see that Abraham was living in Be’er Sheva – and Sarah is living in Kiryat Arba, also called Hevron. They are, at best, distanced from each other, perhaps even estranged. (Understandable! after Dad took the only son of the couple out to sacrifice him, without even telling Mom where they were going.) There may have been quite some distance between this couple for quite some time.

But then Sarah died, and Abraham “came to mourn her”. The wording suggests that he had to travel in order to be with her – that he was not near at hand. 

Imagine the journey that he took – the distance, not in physical steps, but in emotional stages. Guilt. Sadness. Self-recrimination. The sting of memory. Regret. Resignation. And, finally, steeling himself to see it through.

Abraham arrived at Sarah’s deathbed too late to bid her goodbye, but in time to mourn her. And that, perhaps, was enough of a reconciliation.

On Yom Kippur, if you have wronged someone and s/he has died before you had the chance to beg forgiveness, you are required to go to the grave of that person and ask for it anyway. Not because we believe that you will contact that person in some possible afterlife, but because you need to take the steps Abraham took. 

We are all told, “live each day as if it is your last”. On this Shabbat, our parashah seems to be suggesting that we might also want to try our best to live each day as if it was someone else’s last.

Shabbat Lekh Lekha: Finding Light in Darkness

One  of the more arresting insights about this week’s parashah is that it describes G-d’s third attempt to create a world.

The first attempt ended in a terrible, world-destroying flood. The second was not as cataclysmic, since G-d had sworn never to do that again, and set a bow in the clouds as a Divine reminder. Yet the second attempt also failed: even as the first humans had transgressed a boundary by reaching for G-dlike knowledge, so the Tower of Babel describes humanity’s naive hubris, displayed in an attempt to build a structure that would reach to G-d’s territory. Heaven, perhaps, or just a sort of safety unknown, and unknowable, to humans.
This third attempt shows us a G-d far less ambitious, a creation with far less impact. Not a world, and not all of humanity – just one person. What a picture: G-d reduced to searching through the world for one person who will listen, and follow.
How many times have you attempted to begin again? how disappointing it is to try once more after a failure! how much less shining the path looks, how much reduced one’s enthusiasm is…..
There is a story of a person who, in her youth, sets out to save the world. After some time and a few setbacks, she realizes that the world is a very big place, and perhaps it’s best to set one’s sights more realistically upon, perhaps, the nation. After a while the complexity of that mission overcomes her, and she begins to see how much work is needed just to lift up her own city. Then, having begun truly to see deeply, she realizes that her own neighborhood needs her attention. Then, of course (you can see it coming) she looks around and notices what needs doing in her own home. Finally, she understands: she has her hands full just to begin with herself. And that is, after all, a whole world, as the Rabbis teach: “one who saves one life, saves an entire [potential] world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.9).
G-d begins again with one person, possibly feeling – let’s just assume that G-d as a Creator, a role model we are meant to emulate, feels – a bit let down, that the Divine creative capacity has been disappointingly reduced. Where’s the special effects?
A great and difficult lesson of Jewish tradition offers you the insight that it is not in turning away from your failure, but in seeking within it, that one finds triumph.
Thus, in the seemingly humble beginnings of one person who listens, and who acts,  an entire people will emerge. The one person is called first Avram, then Avraham, but he calls himself ivri, “the one who crosses over”. Finally, a crossing of boundaries for good. And it only happened because of all those former boundaries that were destroyed.
Many Jewish commentaries on this parashah voice a sense of wonder that Avram is called out of nowhere, for no reason. It is entirely possible that G-d called out to many other people, who did not listen, and who did not respond. In one ancient commentary it is said that G-d’s call to Avram was not simply go forth but go forth, and light the way for Me. In the simple willingness to go forth and try again, you too can light up the world.

Shabbat Noakh: What Do you Do with It When It’s Broken?

The parashat hashavua for this week is Noakh, the week on which, as everybody knows, we read of the great Flood. But in year two of the Triennial Cycle, where we find ourselves this year, the flood is over: Noah has opened the window, and the dove has flown in with an olive leaf in its mouth. The Ark has come to rest and Noah and his family have emerged from it.

This year we read the aftermath, and see G-d’s answer to the question: what do you do with it after it’s broken?

In last week’s parashah, at the end of the Creation story, we saw how quickly things got out of hand. Humanity was barely created before we began to break things, make mistakes, and rebel against the idea that we should be obedient to G-d, and follow rules. Already by chapter 6 of Genesis, we are told: “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. G-d regretted making humans on the earth, and was saddened at heart. (Genesis 6.5-6)

Years ago a computer version of the creation story went around the web, and when it came to this point, it had G-d hitting DELETE – and nothing happened. The human beings kept getting more and more out of control. But in the original version, G-d brought a life-ending flood. Not only sinful humans, but innocent ones, were killed, and not only humans but animals, which were certainly blameless. What kind of G-d would do that, in a fit of anger and regret over the creation of such a terrible error?

It would be easy for an apologist to claim that “G-d had nothing to do with it, it’s just evil human choice”. But that’s no answer for those of us who seek a sense of G-d’s presence everywhere, in everything. What do we do with the innocent lives lost, and what do we do with the idea that G-d regrets. We’ll need a response to that questions, because in our reading for this week, G-d will experience regret again: this time, for destroying the earth in anger over human sinfulness. G-d will denote the rainbow as an eternal reminder – to G-d! – not to do that again.

The G-d of the Torah is not infallible. As my teacher put it in one of his books, the Torah gives us the portrait of the Artist as a young G-d. 

Knowing that even G-d has bad days, makes mistakes, and has regrets is a challenging thing if your theology is predicated on perfection. But there is a weird salvation in the idea of an imperfect G-d, and it has to do with G-d as role model. G-d creates; we, on a smaller level, create. G-d destroys; we, hopefully on a smaller level than world-wide, destroy. And G-d regrets.

Jewish tradition urges us to follow G-d’s example in clothing the naked, as G-d did last week for Adam and Eve; in visiting the sick, as G-d will do for Abraham; and burying the dead, as G-d will do for Moshe. And here is a shred of an even more important teaching: how to regret, as G-d does, and go on. Not to lose hope; not to give up; not to lose faith in oneself and one’s creative potential.

Even G-d has regrets in the early days, realizing the nature of good and evil that G-d has let loose. Even G-d has to get used to it, and choose how to act in the face of possible failure. Being a successful person in G-d’s image is not about being perfect at all.

And then G-d picked up the broken world, soothed and comforted it, made a new promise in rainbow colors, and G-d, and we, went forth. Chastened, more realistic – and still hopeful, just as we remain today. The broken places will never be whole, but after all, as another Jewish poet put it, “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. (see a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen performing the complete song here.)

It doesn’t matter how bad it looks – look for the light.