Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Kindness Trumps Rights

Throughout many generations of wandering in Exile, our ancestors would begin to develop our community institutions whenever we came to a new place, and it seemed like we would be able to stay for a while. The first such institution was neither the beit midrash (learning center) nor a beit knesset (center for gathering and prayer) – it was, rather, a beit avot v’imahot (a place for our parents/ancestors) – a cemetery.

In this week’s parashat hashavua (weekly parsha) Abraham yet again models for us for the first time this ancient Jewish cultural norm. Sarah dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham, after the shock of the loss, realizes that he has done no preplanning. Sarah must be appropriately and respectfully buried, but he has no beit avot v’imahot – no place where he and his descendants might bury those who go before them into death.

Such is the life of an immigrant. All of his family of origin, and hers, were buried back in Ur in Haldea, the city in which they were born and raised. Abraham must now approach the people of the land – our text calls them “the Hittites”, not necessarily naming their ethnicity – and he speaks the ancient words which still speak of the immigrant’s condition, of loneliness and vulnerability:

I am a stranger living among you (Bereshit 23.4)

Abraham goes about the business of purchasing a cave in which he buries Sarah, and in which he will, in his turn, be buried. That cave, called Makhpelah, is today often invoked as the first “proof” that today’s Jews, descendants as we are of Abraham and Sarah, belong in the Land of Israel – we have holdings there, some say, that go all the way back. For that reason, some Jews insist on residing in the ancient city of Hebron which is next door – to assert that ancient “right”.

I put “quotes” around the words “proof” and “right” because both words are problematic. In our Torah tradition, much of what is written is not necessarily proof; and in Jewish law, there is no category of “rights” – rather, to be a Jew is to consider what our obligation is in any given situation that may confront us.

Consider the situation of Abraham the Ivri, that stranger who immigrated from another place. What “proof” might it offer for us?

In our own day, in these uncertain times, let it prove a reminder: that Abraham offered generous hospitality when the moment called for it, and when he needed it in return, the Hittites among whom he lived offered it to the stranger who lived among them. He was allowed to buy the land with the cave in it, and he was allowed to bury his dead in peace. He was safe with those people among whom he appeared as an immigrant – no documents, no papers, no “proof” of any “right” to what he needed. 

Abraham is for us a role model – not only for our own behavior, but also for considering our treatment of the immigrant who appears among us. The Torah tells us that HaShem commanded Abraham to “walk with G*d”, and our ancestors tell us what that means:

Rabbi Hama beRabi Hanina said, what does it mean to walk after the attributes of the Holy blessed One? It means to clothe the naked, for it is written:  HaShem made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them, so should you also clothe the naked. The Holy blessed One visited the sick, for it is written: HaShem appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, so should you also visit the sick. The Holy blessed One comforted mourners, for it is written: It came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son, so should you also comfort mourners. The Holy blessed One buried the dead, for it is written: G*d buried Moshe in the valley, so shall you also bury the dead. 

We can learn from Abraham the further instance of parashat VaYera – as G*d sustains the living, so shall we, by offering hospitality (shelter, food and rest), and from the Hittites’ treatment of Abraham in this parashah – as Abraham sought to live in peace with his neighbors, and as the Hittites dealt kindly with the immigrant in their midst, so shall we, by acting to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, “treat others with the loyalty to our common humanity as you desire it for yourself.”

The passage finishes this way:

Rabbi Simlai concluded: Torah begins with an act of gemilut hasadim (altruistic loving kindness) and ends with an act of gemilut hasadim. It begins with it, for it is written: HaShem made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them; and it ends with it, for it is written: G*d buried him in the valley. (BT Sotah 14a)

Rashi said of Sarah that she was as ethically pure at twenty years as at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred years as she was at twenty. May it be said of us that even when we became older and more skeptical, more tired and more given to cynicism, we continued to see the stranger in our midst and hear in our hearts the command to walk with G*d, that we – whether we find ourselves to be the vulnerable stranger or the safely settled, might always respond in g’milut hasadim.

Mitzvot come at you from every direction these days. Here is one in which I hope you will join me should the occasion truly arise: 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation?

This Shabbat, called Nakhamu after the first word of the Haftarah, meant to be a Shabbat of consolation. The first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, that time of terrible destruction once long ago and now a time to face the equally terrifying consequences of our actions in our own days, is meant to reassure us that, after all the suffering and loss, consolation is possible.

But on this day it is difficult to feel consoled.

A Jew in Jerusalem – called the City of Peace! – attacks fellow Jews marching in the Gay Pride parade with a knife. Other Jews set fire to a Palestinian home and murder a child. Both in the name of religious faith.

Jews in our own community attack each other. Not with weapons, not yet – G-d forbid – but the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the tongue is as sharp as the sword, and a person can be attacked just as viciously with words as with weapons. All in the name of faith.

According to those Rabbis, our Jerusalem Temple was destroyed as an echo of the destruction we were visiting upon each other. No Jewish organization can exist without the acts which uphold it – which literally hold it up – study of Torah, Avodah – mindfulness, and Gemilut Hasadim – loving kindness. The Temple was destroyed because we pulled its foundational supports out from under it, in acts of commission and omission.

There are many ways to express the foundational structure of organized Jewish life; they all have in common a search for meaning and purpose guided by learning, mindfulness, and acts of loving kindness toward others. They are all variations of one structure: the Jerusalem Temple, symbolized by all the good we are meant to do and taught to do.

And there are as many ways to destroy the Temple and all it symbolizes. The self-destruction we bring down on our own sacred community increases with each act of violence, each religious hypocrisy, each arrogant, “noble” political stand.

It’s no wonder that many Jews are turned away from the Jewish community, as daily we fail to practice the ethics we speak. Where we will find the consolation promised by the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

א  נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Comfort, be comforted, My people, says your God.

ב  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of the hand of ‘ה double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

Our time of service is clearly not yet accomplished. As it was put in an old makhzor, “our sins are confessed in the daily papers.” What will each of us do, in our own small way, to stand against the anger, and fear, and despair of our own day, lest we contribute to the undermining of the three pillars of our spiritual existence as Jews? What are you doing to help hold up the beacon of hope that Jerusalem is supposed to be? 

We cannot hope to act for good in the larger world until we stabilize what should be the source of our inspiration. We must be learning all that strengthens us, each of us, as a Jew; we must be mindful always; and we must act knowing that our every act of loving kindness does, in a small but real way, repair the world. 

Begin now; continue now; redouble your efforts now, that we might yet come to a place of consolation in our days.

Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?


On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.


It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.


Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:


על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)


We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.


Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 


Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.


Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.


Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.


Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?


The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.


As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.