Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Days of Our Lives (Chaye Sarah)

While the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” the reading actually commences with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s laborious effort to procure a burial place for her. Through this ironic juxtaposition of the title and the ensuing subject matter, Torah invites us to ponder what constitutes a good life. When we lose someone that we love, we are often moved to reflect on the meaning of their days—and our own.

The portion begins: “This is Sarah’s lifetime: one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Noting the somewhat verbose and repetitive phrasing here, the great medieval teacher Rashi ( an acronym for RAbbi SHlomo ben Itzchak) suggests that the verse offers a subtle appraisal of Sarah’s life. Why doesn’t Torah just say, “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty seven years?” Rashi answers: “The wording is repeated to indicate that all of her years were equally good.”

But how can this be? In whose life are all the years “equally good”? Certainly not Sarah’s. She celebrates ecstatic successes and suffers terrible losses. To cite just one example: Sarah miraculously bears a son at ninety, then finds out, after the fact, that her husband has come perilously close to sacrificing him at God’s request three decades later. Her life seems more like a roller coaster than the smooth and steady ride depicted by Rashi. Indeed, many of us find that we can relate to the character of Sarah precisely because we share her ups and downs.

The Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger notes this difficulty with Rashi’s commentary. He teaches: “There must be differences, variations, and changes during 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. . . Fulfillment, wholeness, completion—these can be found in every place and at every time. Thus, ‘They were all equally good.’”

As the Gerer rebbe notes, we all encounter triumph and tragedy and everything in between. Our challenge is to find meaning in all of these experiences—good and bad, sacred and mundane, thrilling and tedious, pleasurable and painful. Some years and days and hours are surely better than others. But as learning opportunities, all are, in a sense, “equally good.” To live consciously and conscientiously is to get the most out of every moment. This is Sarah’s enduring legacy. May it be an inspiration to us, this week and beyond.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Don't Look Back (portion Vayera)

When asked the secret of his legendary longevity and success, the great Negro League pitcher and home-spun sage Satchel Paige advised, “Don’t look back—something may be gaining on you.” His wisdom is both profound and obvious. We can neither change the past nor predict the future; all we ever really have is the current moment.

Yet who has not succumbed to the temptation to look back? As William Faulkner once noted, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t really even past.” Our history often pursues us. Sometimes it plays a positive role in our lives, offering us instructive lessons. Sometimes it takes the form of harmless nostalgia. And sometimes the pull of the past can be devastating.

In this week’s portion, Vayera, God destroys the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before raining down fire and brimstone, God sends angels into Sodom to rescue Abraham’s nephew Lot and his wife and daughters. The angels warn, “Do not look back, lest you be swept away.” Lot’s wife defies their admonition and immediately turns into a pillar of salt.

Why does she look back—and why is she transformed into salt? As usual, our Sages offer varying interpretations. In their debate over the fate of Lot’s wife, they indirectly address the question of why we, too, frequently find it so difficult to break with the past.

Rashi points to salt’s essential quality as a preservative. Just as salt prevents things (like food) from changing, so did Lot’s wife sin through her inability to change, to separate herself from the immorality of the surrounding culture. By contrast, Nahmanides is more generous in his appraisal. His commentary suggests that Lot’s wife struggled to leave Sodom because she had so many friends and family members who remained there. He identifies salt with the tears she must have shed for the loved ones that she would never see again.

Why are we drawn back into the past? Sometimes we prefer our well-established and deeply ensconced routines to new challenges, even when we recognize the necessity of change. Other times, we are compelled by the legitimate pull of old and beloved ties. And often it is a complicated combination of these and many other factors.

This week, try thinking seriously about your past and your attitude toward it. When is it helpful to look back? When—as suggested by Satchel Paige and the story of Lot’s wife—is it harmful? How do we balance our tradition’s call to be present to the moment with its emphasis on communal memory? When do we need to draw upon the metaphor of salt’s preservative qualities? And when should we dry our tears and fix our gaze straight ahead?

May your week bring insights, answers, and an abundance of good questions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

One Step Ahead (portion Lech L'chah)

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, God tells Abraham, “Walk in My ways and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). The language here is strikingly similar to the description of Noah that we read last week: “Noah. . . was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

For the talmudic Rabbis, such parallels beg for commentary, so they offer an insightful comparison between these two biblical patriarchs. While both are clearly depicted as righteous, the Rabbis make a good argument for Abraham’s moral superiority. A close reading of the text notes that while Noah’s blamelessness is qualified by the term “in his age” (as I noted in this forum last week), the injunction to Abraham is unqualified. Furthermore, while Noah walks with God (et ha-Elohim), God commands Abraham to walk ahead of the Divine Presence (hithalech l’fanai). Noah is present with God, step by step—but Abraham actually takes the lead, with God’s blessing.

This difference in “walking” is borne out in the lives and actions of Noah and Abraham. When God tells Noah about the coming deluge, Noah does as he is told and builds the ark. He saves himself, his family, and the selected pairs of animals, but does not protest on behalf of the rest of humanity. By contrast, when God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps up and argues on behalf of their citizens: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Noting this distinction, the Hasidic tradition calls Noah a tzadik im pelz—a righteous person in a fur coat. When everyone is freezing, he covers himself with warm garments, without regard for those around him. Abraham, on the other hand, lights a fire that warms everyone in the room.

We Jews are the descendents of Abraham. It is not enough for us to walk with God; God asks us to take the lead in healing what is broken in our world. Self-interest is valid, but it is insufficient. As Hillel notes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Our challenge is to act in ways that spread the light and warmth beyond our own households. To be a Jew is, by definition, to be engaged in the affairs of the wider world, and to work for justice for all.