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 Kedoshim: Neither Inaccessible Nor Absurd

Our parashat hashavua (“section of the week”, i.e. the part of the Torah assigned by ancient Jewish tradition for this week in the Jewish calendar) begins with the most inaccessible and ludicrous of demands: 

“Speak to the People Israel and say to them, ‘be holy [kadosh], as I ‘ה your G*d am holy [kadosh]’.” (Lev. 19.2)

But when we investigate using our tried and true Jewish implements of interpretation, we find that what was thought was far from us is actually very near to us.

What does the Torah mean by kadosh, “holy”? The Rabbis who interpret our tradition, following the invitation to “turn it over and over, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5.22) consider several options. To be kadosh, they offer, is perhaps to act like G*d, or, perhaps, it is to hold oneself separate. I suggest to you that it is both, and we must realize that there are times when to do one we must do the other.

This seems, as I said, either inaccessible or absurd. After all, don’t we strive for unity among all, and if so, why teach that we should hold ourselves separate? And acting like G*d, i.e. “holier than thou”, has a very bad ethical reputation in our world of political manipulation of religion.

But there is a different, more ancient insight from our tradition:

What does it mean to be “kadosh”, i.e. act like G*d?

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What does the Torah mean when it says You shall walk after the Lord your God? (Deut.13.5)  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah [i.e. the Presence]; for has it not [also] been said: For HaShem your God is a devouring fire? (Deut.4.24)  

[It means that we should] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing:

As G*d clothes the naked, for it is written: And ‘ה made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them (Gen.3.21)  

so you must also clothe the naked. 

The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: And ‘ה appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18.1)  

so you must also visit the sick. 

The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that ‘ה blessed Isaac his son (Gen.25.11)  

so you must also comfort mourners. 

The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: And ‘ה buried [Moshe] in the valley (Deut.34.6)  

so you must also bury the dead. (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)

What does it mean to be “kadosh” i.e. be separate?

The 11th century Ashkenazi authority Rashi, using the interpretive tool of noting juxtaposition of texts, suggests that to be kadosh in this manner is to separate ourselves from the acts which are prohibited in the preceding parashah. In other words, just do what the Torah commands.

But the 13th century Sephardi teacher Nahmanides sees a more general idea. He points out that the Torah commands the priests to maintain a certain level of constant separateness from that which would render them unable to do their assigned tasks in the sacred space. (From a teaching by Rabbi Dov Landau of Bar Ilan University, Israel)

The rabbis of antiquity, when asked how we were to go on after the sacred space in Jerusalem, the Temple, was destroyed, answered that the Torah also says you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19.6). Therefore, Nahmanides teaches, we should all see ourselves as priests in terms of fulfilling the command to be kadosh.

Now more than ever as we struggle to know what is true and good in a world that drags everything into relativity,

as we face feelings of demoralization over the forces of greed and cynicism in our national and local social circles,

as an American politician encourages bigotry and violence against those who would oppose his urge to power,

There is a way forward, and it is neither inaccessible nor absurd: be kadosh by separating yourself from cynicism and greed and demoralization. Be kadosh by holding on to the teachings that formed your sense of ethics. There is nothing inaccessible or absurd in the clear demand of the mitzvah to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, and, as our Gevurot prayer puts it, “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”.