Archive for Chayei Sarah

Chayei Sarah: One Human Family

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This is the line of Yishmael, Avraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Avraham. . . .(Bereshit/ Genesis 25:12)

Good morning! Last week we discussed how the Torah emphasizes the moral necessity of attending to the suffering of the maidservant Hagar and her son. Yishmael is the first born of Avraham, but not the son of his wife Sarah, so he and his mother are expelled, but not forgotten. In this week’s parsha, which is mostly concerned about finding a wife for Yitzhak (who will continue Avraham’s line from Sarah) we have a genealogy for Yishmael and his descendants, starting with the verse above.

You’ll notice that the verse above is very specific about who Yishmael is and who his parents were; the verse emphasizes that Hagar was his mother, and she was an Egyptian maidservant. Well, we knew that from last week, so why be so particular about Yishmael’s lineage now?

Among the various rabbinic commentaries, there are two answers at odds with each other, one of which I like better than the other. First, we have a fellow named Samuel ben Meir, otherwise known as Rashbam, who compares the verse above, which says that Yishmael is Hagar’s son as well as Avraham’s, to verse 19, in which Yitzhak is specifically listed as Avraham’s son without mention of his mother. Rashbam thinks this is to disconnect Yishmael from the line of Avraham and emphasize that we should think of Yishmael as the son of Hagar, the Egyptian servant girl, not the son of his father.

Another medieval commentator, David Kimchi, AKA Radak, thinks the exact opposite: that the Torah goes out of its way to remind us that  Yishmael is Avraham’s beloved first born, and that despite his mother being a lowly servant girl, Yishmael was blessed by God as a son of Avraham and given much success.

Now, to be clear, neither of these views is espousing what we’d call a meritocratic perspective on Yishmael’s blessings. Both views see lineage as important, but Radak’s is a more open and hopeful interpretation, which we can build on even further. We might say: of course Yishmael is not limited in his blessings by being Hagar’s son. There is certainly a strain of Jewish thinking, not limited to the ancients, which places great weight on lineage, class and inherited privilege, but there is another which sees all human beings as made in the image of God and in a fundamental way equal to each other.

I’m probably pushing the text a bit too far, but that’s what I see in Radak’s reading. Mentioning Avraham, Yishmael and Hagar in the same verse draws our attention to their common humanity, a lesson sorely needed in this time of great ethnic, religious and political division. Yes, Judaism sees the line of the covenant coming through Yitzhak, and yes, Islam sees it coming through Yishmael, but according to Radak, the sons of Avraham make one larger family. Would that we all saw each other as family across the divisions and conflicts of humankind!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Chayei Sarah: Varieties of Courage

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah 
 
Now Adonijah son of Haggith went about boasting, “I will be king!” He provided himself with chariots and horses, and an escort of fifty outrunners.  His father had never scolded him: “Why did you do that?” (1 Kings 1:5-6)
 
Good morning! 
 
The inspiration for this week’s Torah discussion is perhaps the most famous usage of the word “chickens**t” in my lifetime. For those who haven’t been following, Jeffery Goldberg, a well-known journalist who often writes about Middle East affairs,reported that some unnamed official in the Obama administration referred to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “chickens**t” for various putative reasons. In response, many supporters of the PM expressed outrage at the crudeness of the expression and what it implied about national relations with Israel. (Googling this imbroglio yields tens of thousands of hits.) 
 
One popular expression of this anger at the unnamed official was an image floating around the internet showing Netanyahuand Obama in their youths- Bibi in his commando uniform and the President laying back, smoking a cigarette. (You can see that here.) Now, please note, we’re not going to get into whether one side in this political debate is more chicken than the other. Rather, I’m interested in the notions of courage behind the accusations from both sides, and in particular, that image, linked above, of the commando versus the civilian, clearly implying that one who was courageous in battle certainly couldn’t be a “chickens**t” in politics. 
 
Now we’re ready to go back to the text. There are two haftarot that deal with the final days of King David- this week’s and thehaftarah for Vayechi, at the end of the book of Genesis. Both of these haftarot are chosen to contrast the scene of a Patriarch at the end of his days with that of King David on his deathbed. This week we read of Avraham’s tremendous concern for his legacy and persistence in finding a proper wife for his son, while in a month or so, we’ll read about Yaakov blessing each of his sons with a unique blessing before he dies. 
 
Contrast those images with the mighty David close to death; this week we read, as in the verse above, of a struggle between his sons and their associated court factions due to the fact that David never named his heir. In the following chapter (the haftarahfor Vayechi) David’s charge to his son Solomon includes a general exhortation to obey Divine commands but also gives very specific instructions for revenge and murder. Let me make this plain: David may have been the most valiant warrior of his generation, but he did not have the moral clarity or courage to confront the unworthy son who acted as king while his father was still alive. Even more poignantly, it seems that David could not let go of resentments, hatreds, and bitterness on his deathbed; it take tremendous strength to face one’s mortality and let go of unsettled scores, but that’s a kind of courage David apparently didn’t have. 
 
My point here is that there are simply different kinds of courage, perhaps without correlation in any particular life. David had battlefield courage, but it seems he had very little ability to change his own behaviors or confront his children with their misdeeds (or his own failings as a father.) The ancient rabbis said that the real “mighty one” is the one who can conquer his own inclinations (Pirkei Avot 4:1), which I understand to mean a fearless moral inventory, introspection with unblinking honesty in order to master the self before going out to battle with the world. David won most of his battles on the field, but few of his battles with his own worst impulses. On the other hand, I’ve known people who would make lousy soldiers, but who confronted their own lives, and deaths, with tremendous dignity, forgiveness, acceptance and peace. I’ve known people who risked their careers, honor, status and wealth by speaking truth to power, and I’ve known people who never sought to change the world, but who examined their own failings with extraordinary effort. All these things are heroic; the world needs us all to be fearless in our own way. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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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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Chayyei Sarah: Cities of Heaven and Earth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayyei Sarah

Sarah died in Kiriath-arba-now Hebron-in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. . . (Bereshit 23:2)

At the beginning of this weeks’ parsha, Sarah, Avraham’s wife, dies near Hevron [Hebron] and Avraham goes to great lengths to purchase a burial site for her. This became known as the Cave of the Machpelah, or “doubled cave,” where according to the Torah all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs- except for Rachel- were buried.

Today, there is a building over those caves which house a mosque and a synagogue- parts of this shrine date from the medieval period, if not earlier. Surrounding the Machpelah is a city of about 120,000 people, mostly Arab, with a small Jewish settlement in the heart of the city. Just outside Hevron is a much larger Jewish town, Kiryat-Arba, mentioned in the verse above and now a busy community of thousands.

I was last in Hevron in 1998, and it was a confusing experience. I was thrilled to be in the places where Avraham walked, and being in the Machpelah helped me understand and truly feel the Jewish history embedded in that sacred place. On the other hand, Hevron is the center of much controversy: the Jewish enclave in the heart of the city was surrounded by barbed wire and guards and relations between the Jewish residents and their Arab neighbors was tense, at best, with violence a regular occurrence.

As far as I know, the basic dynamics in Hevron haven’t changed much in the past 12 years, and while there are, of course, widely differing narratives and claims on the city, my point today is a simple one: it’s easy when reading the Torah to imagine holy sites, connected to our ancestors, and feel that deep connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, our historic homeland. It’s much harder to remember that the holy sites of the Torah are today places where real people live complicated lives. There is the eternal Hevron, the site of Avraham’s purchase from Ephron the Hittite, and there is the earthly Hevron, where conflict between Avraham’s children is exacerbated by poor leadership and fiery extremism on both sides.

To make this distinction is not to give up any claim or belief; it is simply to acknowledge that history produces complex outcomes, and rights should sometimes be exercised with wisdom. I have my personal perspectives on the situation in Hevron, but I’d rather you found your own, and you might start at this page, put together by rabbinical students for the purpose of helping people understand  various aspects of the city. The site creators have their own leanings (everybody does), but you’ll find links to various Jewish and Arab websites and sources of information, along with divrei Torah and text resources here.

My prayer is that someday soon, all of Avraham’s children will celebrate in Hevron- and all across the world- in peace and joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Chayei Sarah: Blessed With Everything

Shalom Friends- when last we left our patriarch Avraham, he was sitting at the door of his tent, just waiting for strangers to pass by so he could perform acts of hesed/generous-compassion.

This week, we fast-forward some years and Avraham has just buried Sarah, his wife. Yet after the burial, we Avraham is described as both blessed, and yet lacking:

“Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. . . . .” (Bereshit/Genesis 24:1)

The Torah may describe Avraham as blessed bakol, or “with everything” [maybe “in everything,” or “in all things,” as above, the JPS translation] but Avraham apparently doesn’t feel that way, because in the very next verse he’s making his chief servant swear an oath to go get his son Yitzhak a wife from his home country. There are many, many interpretations of what bakol means; after all, if Avraham was blessed with everything possible, he wouldn’t have to ask his servant to go on a mission to help bring back a daughter-in-law. Our friend Rashi addresses this paradox by pointing out that bakol has the same numerical value as “son,” and thus reads the verse as saying that “since [Avraham] was blessed with a son, he had to get a wife for him.”

Rashi’s interpretation – that Avraham’s blessing of a son required him to help Yitzhak find a wife- is interesting because of how this phrase, bakol, is quoted in the Birkat Hamazon, or blessing after the meal. In a section in which we call God the “Merciful One,” we ask for blessing for ourselves and all who are gathered at the meal :

“Just as God blessed our ancestors Avraham Yitzhak and Yaakov, “in all things,” “by all things,” with “all things,” so may we all be blessed together with a complete blessing.”

[Note: Yitzhak and Yaakov also got their own blessings of kol or “everything;” cf. Bereshit 27:33 and 33:11. We’ll deal with that another time, along with the version of the text which includes the matriarchs.]

So here’s one way to look at it: just as Avraham’s blessing of a son evoked an obligation towards that son, so too, when we ask to be blessed like Avraham, bakol, we might think about how our the blessings we have can be oriented towards others. Rather than simply be thankful- no small task!- we might try to remember that Avraham’s greatness was not only that he was blessed “in all things,” but that he wanted to share that blessing with others.

That, in turn, is what it means to have a bracha shelemah– a “complete” or “whole” blessing, for how can we have everything if we don’t have the opportunity to practice generosity and compassion? We are whole when we give, and our blessing is complete when it is extended beyond ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- Here is a drasha I wrote some years ago on the same verse, and here is a third interpretation (but referencing some of the same texts.)

If you want the text of the entire parsha, you’ll find it on hebcal, and if you want the entire text of the blessing after the meals with translation and transliteration, there’s a great download here.

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Chayei Sarah: Legacies Unforeseen

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This week we read the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which deals with the
death of Sarah and Avraham’s subsequent efforts to find a wife for his
son Yitzhak. In the haftarah, another patriarch, King David, also has
to make arrangements for the orderly transition of generations- but he
does so in reaction to a palace plot by one of his sons to take the
kingship from another.

You can read the details of how the plot is foiled in the second link,
below, but what is interesting to me is the prologue to the whole
story- which is actually the prologue to the entire Book of Kings,
since our haftarah starts with chapter 1, verse 1. In this prologue to
the palace intrigue, the elderly King David is cold and weak, and his
advisers call for a young girl to lay with him to warm him:

“King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered
him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. His courtiers said to him,
‘Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your
Majesty and be his attendant; and let her lie in your bosom, and my
lord the king will be warm.’ So they looked for a beautiful girl
throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite
and brought her to the king. The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She
became the king’s attendant and waited upon him; but the king was not
intimate with her.” (1 Kings 1:1-4)

What strikes me is not so much the contrast between this image of
David and early stories of his military and physical powers, but the
contrast between one’s expectations regarding how a family might care
for an elderly patriarch and the lonely man portrayed in these opening
verses. King David had wives, children, and grandchildren- surely one
of them could have stayed by his side to keep him warm? Where is
David’s family when the stranger is called in to lie down with him?
The scene recalls David’s taking of Bathsheva, in that a beautiful
woman is regarded as little more than an object for the King’s
service, yet in this case, it’s not about sex- it’s about an intimate
act of caregiving, now given to strangers.

I read this short passage as emotional background for what follows: a
family divided over power, legacy, and privilege. Perhaps the prologue
shows us that a man who has lived his life exercising power over
others has little hope of being cared for by his loved ones when his
efficacy wanes. David’s power was in his body, his courage, his
cunning, his charisma, his daring, and his strength. Yet when power
fades, love remains, but only if it is planted by countless small acts
over a lifetime.

It seems to me that David’s family, squabbling over the succession,
is doing what their father taught them to do by his example, rather
than doing what he most needs at the end of his life. Thus our
haftarah poses not only a contrast with Avraham, but a challenge to
the rest of us: how shall we live such that peace follows our passing?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Chayei Sarah: Blessing and Consolation

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

Greetings from the Mid-Hudson Valley, where your humble correspondent
and only a select few other people are celebrating the valorous Red
Sox. . . . .but I digress, and we haven’t even started yet. Baseball
is on hiatus till next spring, but Torah study is a year-round
endeavor. This week’s portion is Chayei Sarah, which begins with the
death of Sarah and ends, more or less, with the death of Avraham.
After Avraham’s death, his son, Yitzhak, is blessed by God:

“After the death of Avraham, God blessed his son Yitzhak. And Yitzhak
settled near Beer-lahai-roi.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:11)

Now, perhaps the simple meaning of this verse is to show that Yitzhak
is inheriting the blessing of his father’s covenant, but many
commentators (including our friend Rashi and our Conservative Etz
Hayim commentary) see God’s “blessing” of Yitzhak as directly
connected to his status as a mourner for his father. That is, the
“blessing” was really the comforting and consolation extended toward a
mourner. The Talmud (Sotah 14a) links God’s “comforting” of Yitzhak
with the example of visiting the sick that we discussed last week,
deriving both from a verse in D’varim/Deuteronomy:

“You shall go in the ways of the Lord your God, and revere the Holy
One and the Holy One’s commandments. . . (D’varim 13:5, my translation.)

Again, as we discussed last week, the idea of “walking in God’s ways”
means to emulate or manifest in our lives the compassionate ways of
being that we understand as holy. The mitzvah of “nichum avelim,” or
comforting the mourners, is not a separate mitzvah in itself but is
part of the general command to be compassionate and generous as we
believe God to be- which is to say, to the extent that we are
compassionate, generous and caring, we are true to the Image of God
within each of us.

However, although the mitzvah to “go in God’s ways” is a general one,
there are practical guidelines for the specific ways we practice it.
In the case of nichum avelim, this would include the way we greet
mourners (or, more precisely, allow them to greet us), the way we
conduct ourselves in their presence, what we bring if it’s a visit at
home, how we address their pain, and so on.

An excellent set of guidelines on how to comfort mourners can be found
below, but if I had to sum up Jewish wisdom on the topic in just a few
words, I might say: when it comes to offering consolations, less can
be more. That is, one’s presence is usually the greatest consolation;
many words or big piles of food or gifts are sometimes incongruous
with the mourner’s more stark and introspective state. To paraphrase
Woody Allen, perhaps 80% of the mitzvah is just showing up.

After the death of Avraham, God blessed Yitzhak- it is, in fact, a
blessing to be consoled by friends and community when life brings
loss, as it inevitably will. Judaism doesn’t pretend that life never
hurts; rather, Judaism gives us the mitzvah to bring the blessing of
love and companionship where there is pain and grief. The Holy One
blessed Yitzhak; it’s up to us to bless each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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