Monday, November 9, 2009

The Full Catastrophe

This week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah begins with the death of the matriach Sarah. It notes,"The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. The great medieval commentator, Rashi, notes the odd phraseology of her age and suggests, rather obliquely, "This comes to tell us that all of her years were equally good."
What? How can this be? Is it possible that a person can live a long life in which each year is equally good? Sarah suffers tremendous hardships: infertility, dislocation, deception. Her husband twice tells powerful foreign rulers that she is his sister instead of his wife, subjecting her to possible kidnapping and rape. And without a word to her, he also takes their beloved son, Isaac, the child of her old age, and prepares to slaughter him at God's request. So how could all of Sarah's years be equally good?

I like the response to Rashi offered by the late 19th century hasidic teacher, S'fas Emes. He writes: "But surely there must be differences, variations and changes during the years of 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. . . Thus we read in Rashi, “They were all equally good.”

In other words, life throws everything at us: joy and sorrow, good times and bad. We exert little control over the circumstances that we will face. But no matter how difficult things may get, we never lose the ability to determine how we respond to those circumstances. This is Sarah's greatness. Her gift is not a life free of suffering, which is a chimera; it is the determination to find goodness and blessing and opportunity in even the darkest of times.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a book called "Full Catastrophe Living." In it, he speaks of the same path exemplified by Sarah: the challenge of finding meaning in both the ups and downs of life. And Rabbi Harold Kushner refers to this as a b'rchah sh'leimah--the full, complete blessing of integrity that comes when we can seek the sacred in the full gamut of our experiences.

When I was in Nepal, I took a photograph that now hangs in my living room. It is a picture of a family eating a meal of condolence--on a ghat, or burial platform where they just cremated their loved one. The picture captures that sense of "full catastrophe": the sorrow of the loss, and the blessing of loving family with whom to mourn. It is about letting the paradox of love and loss and life and death go unresolved; about letting it just be, all of it, what it is, and accepting it as ours. See the picture above.

The great Sufi poet, Rumi, expresses this, too, in his extraordinary poem, "The Guest House." I will conclude with it.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

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