This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter. The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition. As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.
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 effort to procure her burial place. Through this ironic juxtaposition of life and death, Torah invites us to ponder the makings of a good life.
The portion begins: “This is Sarah’s lifetime: one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Rashi notes the awkward, long-winded phrasing here, and comments that it constitutes 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? Can anyone really experience all their years as equally good? On the surface, this seems patently false for Sarah. She celebrates ecstatic successes and suffers terrible losses. To cite just one example: Sarah miraculously bears a son at ninety, then many years later finds out, after the fact, that her husband has come perilously close to sacrificing him. Sarah’s life seems more like a roller coaster than the smooth and steady ride depicted by Rashi.
The Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger recognizes 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 renowned rebbe of Ger notes, each of us encounters triumph, 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.
In the Mussar tradition, this involves the midah/character trait of equanimity—in Hebrew, m’nuchat ha-nefesh, or calmness of the soul. As Alan Morinis describes it in his book Everyday Holiness:
Equanimity does not spell the end of our struggles, but rather is an inner quality we can cultivate to equip ourselves to handle the inevitable ups and downs of life. The Mussar teachers want us to be a calm soul who is like a surfer who rides the waves on an even keel, regardless of what is happening within and around him. Even as the waves are rising and falling, the calm soul rides the crest, staying upright, balanced, and moving in the direction the rider chooses. It isn’t a kind of numbness. You still register the ups and downs of the feelings but you stay awake to the experience from an undisturbed place.
Our challenge is to be like our mother Sarah, finding meaning and purpose in every moment, riding the waves with grace.
Mussar Practice for this Week:
Reflect, whenever possible, upon the phrase, “Rise above the good and the bad.” When your emotions are triggered, recall that ultimate outcomes can’t be predicted or (very much) controlled, and return your mind and heart to an even keel. Like Sarah, find meaning in every moment.