Archive for October, 2013

Chayei Sarah: Extraordinary Reconciliation

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah
 
“Avraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. . . . “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 25:1)
 
Good morning! 
 
This week’s Torah portion begins with Avraham purchasing a burial plot for Sarah, continues with the adventures of Avraham’s servant while finding a wife for Yitzhak, and concludes with Avraham’s death and a short genealogy of his descendants. Towards the end of the parsha, we learn from the verse above that Avraham remarried at some point; a few commentators believe that he married Keturah before Sarah died, but for now let’s take it at face value that he remarries after Sarah’s passing. 
 
It’s easy to miss this short report in a casual reading of the Torah, especially since the other events of the portion are much more dramatic. On the other hand, it’s a remarkable portrayal of the human capacity for love and relationship: here is an old man, having gone through many trials and challenges in his life, who nevertheless opens his heart to another after the death of his wife of many decades. This is a truly beautiful moment in the Torah; here we feel so clearly the Torah’s faith in humanity. 
 
So far, so good- but the ancient rabbis add an even more amazing twist to the story. Our friend Rashi, following a much older midrash, identifies Keturah with Hagar, Sarah’s servant and the mother of Avraham’s son Yishmael, who we last saw weeping in the desert after being expelled from Avraham’s household at Sarah’s insistence. (Sarah’s insistence, but Avraham’s complicity; cf. Bereshit 21.) Not only that, but the ancient sages make a pun out of her name, saying that she was known as Keturah because her deeds were as beautiful as ketoret, or the incense of the Temple service. 
 
Again, let me emphasize: the last time we saw Hagar, Avraham had banished her into the desert and she and her son would have died without heavenly intervention- and the next time we meet her in the text, according to Rashi and the older sages, she and Avraham are getting married! Not only that, but the rabbis imagine that she led a beautiful and pious life in the interim: how amazing that our sages could portray an Egyptian servant girl as a model of admirable living, without becoming embittered or cruel, after her harsh experiences at the hands of Avraham and Sarah. (See not only chapter 21, link above, but chapter 16, when she first gets abused by her masters.)
 
Taking this midrash to its logical (or perhaps emotional) conclusion, we must also consider the depth of Hagar’s ability to forgive Avraham for his previous behavior, perhaps along with Avraham’s t’shuvah for sending her away into dangerous conditions – for without deep t’shuvah and deeper forgiveness, how could the sages imagine that such a violently broken relationship could ever achieve such reconciliation? 
 
So not only do the ancient rabbis take the story of Avraham’s late-life marriage and turn it into a story of tremendous personal transformation- from expulsion to reconciliation, from shame to repentance and repair- but they do so by offering us Hagar as a model of extraordinary personal qualities. In this reading, the Egyptian Hagar becomes an exemplar of forgiveness, patience, and forbearance- traits that Judaism holds as pious and worthy and important. 
 
The Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot 4:1, defines the wise one as one who learns from every person. The rabbis of the midrash identifying Keturah with Hagar go even further: they imagine that the wisest and greatest have much to learn from those considered lowest and least- but who may be even higher and holier in matters of the spirit. The rabbis were not afraid to imagine an Egyptian servant girl as a great soul, an equal to Avraham; who among us may be even greater, and our teacher if only we would see? 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
 
PS- the interpretation above is a reformulation of thoughts originally shared at TBE on Rosh Hashanah, and also offered in a different form this past weekend at another synagogue.
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Vayera: She is My Sister

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Vayera 
 
Avraham journeyed from there to the region of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Avraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So King Avimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him. . . . (Bereshit/Genesis 20:1-2)

 
Hello again! My apologies for the erratic production of these weekly commentaries over the summer and holiday season. My hope is to get back in the regular swing of things but lately I’ve learned the value of saying bli neder.
 
Well, enough about me, what about Avraham and Sarah? Why is Avraham always passing his wife off to other men? Really, last week (see verses 10-20) and now, as above, this week too? 
 
Now, if I was scholar of Biblical literature or history, I’d point out that if there are two stories of Avraham encountering a foreign king and telling him that Sarah was really his sister, this can’t be an accident but probably evidence that the earliest sources of the text were oral narratives, in which a story might take different forms (Pharaoh? No, it was Avimelech!) and enter the shared culture in different ways. 
 
On the other hand, the sages and teachers of classical Judaism believed that every word and every story had its own meaning and lesson, and this is no different. In fact, our friend Rashi notices a profound difference between the verses above and the verses inBereshit 12 which tell of Avraham going down to Egypt and telling them that Sarai was his sister. So let’s take a look: 
 
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.” If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Bereshit 12:11-13)
 
What you may have noticed, and Rashi points out, is that in the earlier story, Avraham (then Avram) asks Sarah (then Sarai) if she will change how she presents herself to others. In the second story (the verses at the top) Avraham just does it on his own, without asking Sarah for permission. Rashi’s language seems rather critical of Avraham; he says that he did this “against her will, because she had already been taken into the house of Pharaoh on account of this.” 
 
I read Rashi as strongly implying that Avraham abused the permission that Sarah had granted him in one situation by presuming it applied in a different one. Of course, in both of these stories, there is a divine intervention so that Sarah is neither harmed nor sexually exploited, but still, it seems that Avraham should have obtained Sarah’s permission before speaking on her behalf. 
 
Whatever the origins of these two odd stories, we read them not as historical curiosities but as narratives with moral force. In this case, we see ourselves in Avraham’s thoughtless act; who among us has never taken a loved one for granted, deciding for ourselves what is best for them without consultation or dialogue?
It is all too human to act impulsively out of fear or anxiety, forgetting that others may have their own perspectives and desires and dignity. It is both ethical and loving to make sure we include others in decisions that affect them; we can understand Avraham’s fear without excusing his act. Avrahamwas called a prophet in Avimelech’s dream, but he also appears to us as only human, sometimes falling short, sometimes rising to great heights,  just like us, the inheritors of his legacy. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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