Sarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.
Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!
In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.
Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.
Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!
In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.
Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.
And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.
And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.
But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!
So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”
I wonder if I would have cried out in remonstration or supplication to the god who bid me rise up to Him1 on a flame consuming my own child! I think not. I’d have been in shock. I’d have felt summarily shut out, abandoned by this incomprehensible god who’d issued an impossible directive and then fled to the farthest reaches of an inaccessible kingdom.
I think I’d have sat in stunned silence on that mountaintop, wrestling with what to do and how to be. And it’s in light of my empathy for Abraham’s utter loneliness in the face of this terrible test that I interpret the rest of the story.
By and by, a second godly voice comes to Abraham, not the first imperious voice from On High, but, now, a still, small divine voice that seems to come from inside him, the voice we call “the angel.” This voice suggests he substitute the ram in the thicket, and Abraham offers God a gift more pleasing than blind obedience, he offers thoughtful human response, holy negotiation between creature and creator. With the help of inner divine council, Abraham offers God a loving counter-offer.
Abraham’s god seems to want to draw him near, but rather than raising Abraham to him, God’s ill-conceived invitation opens a chasm between them. Abraham is left staring into that void, terrified, trying to integrate an incomprehensible command. Gradually, as he sits, his stunned silence evolves into a meditative silence and eventually he enters a state of equanimity that allows him to hear past God’s command to the core of God’s yearning to be in relationship.
The angelic voice whispers his name (Avraham… Avraham…) and Abraham reaches out with his own gesture to close the gap between heaven and earth saying something like: “I can’t meet you on the terms you suggest, oh Holy Blessed One, but I, too, wish to be close, so how about this…”
Indeed, our tradition teaches that when God’s words are drawn through a “crucible upon the earth,” they are “purified seven-fold,”2 and that we are the fiery filter through which God’s words can be rendered seven times more precious than they were when God uttered them.3 We interpret God’s commands in our attempt to enact them, refining and enriching what God asks of us by humanizing God’s words so that they can be manifest in earthly, human terms.
What the transcendent god asked was inconceivable to Abraham’s human sensibility, but what Abraham forged by pulling God’s words through the fire of his human heart was a counter-offer that traversed the distance between God and humankind, making continued relationship possible, resuming the two-way flow that delights God.
And God blessed Abraham for offering up joy, tzchok, as in Isaac’s name, Yitzchak.4
The lesson for us is to remember to be “crucibles upon the earth,” drawing Jewish law and custom through our own filters so that we discover how to best carry out God’s Word in our own way and in our own time, refining the possibility divine words contain into do-able actions that raise us up. God’s words are not complete until we enact them, as we are able.5
1 The word for sacrifice in this week’s Torah portion is “olah,” meaning “a raising up” or a vehicle for rising.
2 Psalm 12:7
3Sfat Emet, Parasht Emor, 5634
4 This play on words attributed to Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev
5 S’fat Emet, Ibid.
The minor outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil is fueling our fears and concerns, and its no surprise. So many of the apocalyptic visions in our contemporary popular imagination—from the Andromeda Strain to Planet of the Apes to any number of zombie movies—have to do with the threat to humanity from microscopic organisms, and to see these scenarios play out in real life (an infected nurse on an airplane!) fills us with end-times fear.
The extent to which we should be afraid has been brought into question, though. The risk is isolated, and, as it’s been pointed out, there are many other threats to public health that are more prevalent. Plus, our own fears tend to neglect the fact that this is not a new disease, and that it has been ravaging African populations for some time.
This week’s Torah portion is an early example of this apocalyptic fear: the story of Noah and the Flood. The story goes that in the generations following Adam and Eve and the Garden, God gets upset at the evil that humanity has brought in the world, and so decides to reboot. God commits to destroy the world by flood, but chooses Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family, and be humanity’s surviving remnant (along with all the animal species).
Why Noah? The text says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)—a seemingly positive assessment. Yet later commentators will see this as a back-handed complement. A midrash picks up on the use of the qualifier “in his age:” While Noah was righteous in his age, that doesn’t mean he would have been considered righteous in any age. Sure, he was righteous, but in the sinful generation that prompted God to destroy the world, that isn’t saying much.
The commentators also pick up on the up on the use of the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Another statement of praise until you compare it with the biblical patriarch Abraham who is described as walking before God. (Gen. 17:1) The midrash compares this to two children of a king—one grown and one young. The young child must stay close and walks with the king, the elder takes the lead and walks before him.
So what is the difference between Abraham and Noah? Both are called by God to join in a covenant, and both are given special responsibilities to carry on God’s work on earth. The most striking difference is their reactions to the news from God that a destruction is imminent.
Sometime after the story of the flood, Abraham is told by God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their sinfulness. (See Genesis 18. While God promised not to destroy the entire world by flood, targeted destruction by fire is apparently still permitted.) Abraham immediately protests, and argues with God to spare the city for the sake of the innocent within.
Contrast this to Noah’s reaction when told about the flood earlier: silence. Noah retreats to himself, builds the ark and sets out to save his family. How he feels about those condemned to die is unknown, but in any event, the news does not prompt any action or protest on his part.
Noah is faced with news of destruction and his response is to save himself. Abraham is faced with news of destruction and his response is to seek to save others.
So, we should fear the Ebola virus. It is a deadly disease and we need to take all the measures necessary to prevent its spread. At the same time, let’s fear the Ebola virus for the challenge it presents to us. That we may, in face of a real and potential threat, behave like Noah: concerned solely for our own welfare, indifferent to the suffering of others and silent in the face of devastating risks to humanity.
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“Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “ (in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro, p.3)
There is an old saying, from the Yiddish that asks how should we define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek or tzedakah, literally means one who is righteous and just; it is usually used to describe someone who is wise and highly respected. But the old Yiddish saying defines the tzadik as “one who makes new mistakes.”
It was the great Jewish philosopher and expounder, Maimonides, in the 13th century, who taught that the final stage of teshuvah— repenting for one’s mistakes—is that, would we find ourselves in the same situation again, we would not repeat that mistake. Now, I know that a mistake is not the same as a failure.
Failure can be the lack of a desired outcome, even when we did our very best and didn’t do anything wrong. But the errors we make in life—errors of judgment, lack of effort, poorly chosen words, unethical choices … these are forms of failure. To err is human, but our ability to pull ourselves back from harmful patterns of behavior, to reflect on what has gone wrong, and to choose our response when we are aware of our failures—this is a vital part of life’s journey. And our Torah and traditions teach us that this is an important part of our spiritual journey too, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Take, for example, the story of our first great patriarch—Abraham. His journey from his homeland—the land of his father to a new place that God will show him is not just a physical journey. It represents the spiritual journey that takes him to a faith in one God, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life that is about establishing something that will go on long after his life is over.
Let’s take a look at how that story begins:
(Gen 12) God said to Abram, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Now, receiving a message like that could go to one’s head. All these promises of greatness, and bountiful blessings—you’ve got to be something a bit special to warrant God’s attention in this way. Was Abraham God’s golden boy?
What’s interesting is what happens next in the story. Abram, we are told, leaves just as God has commanded. He stops near Beth El and builds an altar. And then…
(12:10) There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land. As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I realize that you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live. If you would, say that you are my sister. They will be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.”
Barely 4 verses earlier, God was promising Abram greatness and blessings. What must Abram be thinking at this moment… famine, entering a land with customs and practices that put his very life at risk? This is not the only time in Abram’s life that he will experience things not going as planned. The Mishnah, in Avot (5:3) tells us that Abraham experienced 10 testing times in his life. A variety of commentaries offer different lists of what the ten are—some are drawn only from the Biblical text and some also include events from Abraham’s life that we only find in rabbinic midrash.
We see in these stories that, even in the midst of the very start of the spiritual journeys that led to the creation of our people and our faith tradition, failure and struggle are integral to that story.
We may have a sense of mission, or a goal that we think we are aiming toward. We may be infused initially with great enthusiasm about heading toward our goal. But then life takes an unexpected turn. Like the famine that sent Abram to Egypt, we are starved of the means to immediately get to our perceived destination.
This can be about life in general, but much more frequently it is about the specifics of our lives. It might be about a new venture at work, or the implementation of a new strategy. We may have some clarity of vision but, just a short while into the project, we come up against challenges—personnel, resources, bureaucracy… and we have to take a detour, or reassess. Sometimes we can’t get to where we thought we were headed… at least, not at first.
What happens when we fail? What would keep us on this path of striving to live by such high ideals and ethics when we don’t always receive the reward of success and a life without challenge? Don’t we sometimes have days, or years, when we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about, when we see others around us, who don’t appear to be better than us, succeeding where we are failing? Don’t we get tempted, like the school child who isn’t willing to accept the lessons of failure, to cheat?
‘Look!’, we are told by the Rabbis of old, “at our spiritual ancestor, Abraham.” Not just one bad day, or one bad year, but 10 tests! Our spiritual life journey, even if we were the founding patriarch, does not teach us that a life of faith is a life of success. It teaches us that a life of faith is a life of resilience. A life in which we realize that we can gain wisdom from the downs as well as the ups of life.
Perhaps the key to success is failure. If by “success” we mean how much we progress up the career ladder, how much money we earn, how big a house we have, what exotic places we went on vacation, then I don’t think this is a lesson we want or need.
But if, instead, by success we mean how we respond in times of challenge and need to each other, whether we reflect on our failures or mistakes with humility and self-awareness, whether we continue to strive to be a mensch even when life is getting us down, and whether we aspire to be what some of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors defined as the tzadik—one who makes new mistakes … if that is what success in this life looks like then, yes indeed, the key may lie in our failures, and the lessons and the resilience that arises from them.
What if God took note of every mistake you made and considered it a glorious seed for a profoundly better future? God, it seems, is often counter-cultural. Whereas our society, often despite knowing better, constantly rewards achievement and success, God has an interesting track record of recognizing positive effort even when we are surrounded by failures of our own doing.
Take for example the Biblical character of Lot. Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham, father of our people, looked after Lot when his father died. When Lot grew, in age and in wealth, Abraham gave his the choice of land – and where did Lot choose? He chose to live first near the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and then he moved into Sodom, a city which would soon-after be known for its perversion of humanity and its disdain for God’s expectations for mankind (Gen. 13:12). Why would Lot choose to live among such people? Why, after being taken captive and rescued by his uncle, Abraham, did Lot choose to stay with them (Gen. 19:1)? Certainly, Lot is a flawed character – trying to appease a crowd that has gathered at your door to molest your guest by offering your two daughters is, even by Biblical standards, flawed (Gen. 19:8).
Juxtaposed with his uncle Abraham, Lot certainly seems to come up short, but is that not true for the rest of us? While Abraham might be the ideal, the rightful patriarch of ethical monotheism, Lot, who chooses to live with and among the flawed, the non-believers, and the sinners represents the rest of us. Lot, it seems, loves the townspeople of Sodom. He marries two of his daughters to them, and perhaps he even marries a woman from one of these sin ridden towns. Why else did she turn back to see their destruction (resulting in being turned to salt), and why else would he choose to live close by, still in view of those towns, even after God rescues him and two of his daughters (Gen 19:15-22)? It turn out, a lot of us are like Lot. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we cast out lot with the flawed and those whom we know are acting badly.
And here’s the real kicker with Lot: As misguided as Lot is, God sees fit to rescue him. God rescues Lot even after he repeatedly made the choice to live among the wicked and depraved people of Sodom and Gemorah. Clearly, his two daughters that were rescued with him had been raised in a culture where morality was “less evolved”. Believing they had no other choice, they got Lot drunk and raped him in an attempt to repopulate the tribe (Gen. 19:30-38). How perverse! How shocking! And yet… And yet, despite all the depravity, it will be Lot’s offspring that produces the redeeming figure of Ruth, whose linage would lead to the heroic figure of King David, and by extension the messiah!
It’s nice to have heroes like Abraham. But what if we could never be as singularly brave, kind, or devout as Abraham? What about us who, when we are tested continually fail? What about those of us who are drawn to “the wrong kind” or are ourselves “the wrong kind”? God seems to love us also. After all, the future of Abraham’s descendants is inextricably tied to the future of the descendants of his bumbling nephew Lot. Maybe, being “too good” is not God’s liking anyway. Our sages say we should love God with our positive side and our negative side. Does that not presuppose an acceptance of our darker inclinations? Perhaps too much order, too many rules, too much reason and goodness was not God’s intention for us? The story of Lot suggests that Nietzsche was correct in saying, “You must must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
God extends love not only to the near perfect in the world, such as Abraham. God loves the rest of us, just as He loves Lot even though he ties himself to the Bible’s most despicable townspeople. God’s love is a challenge to us. Can we love those who represent what we find to be most distasteful? Can we love ourselves when we know that we’re really screwed up? God can. God does.
At this time of Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, the question of social justice is certainly prominent. In this week’s Torah portion, God chooses Abraham precisely because his commitment to teaching social justice or righteousness and justice to his descendants.
The question can then be raised what exactly is the ‘social justice’ that Abraham practiced and which his descendants are to emulate. A midrash gives us one somewhat startling and playful response:
“For I have known him, to the end that hey may command his children and his household after him that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).
“R. Aha said in R. Alexandri’s name: This righteousness (zedakah) refers to his welcoming of guests. R. ‘Azariah said in R. Judah’s name: First righteousness (zedakah) and then justice (mishpat): how is this to be understood? Abraham used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, ‘Now recite Grace.’ ‘What shall we say?” they asked. ‘Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have partaken,’ Abraham replied. If one consented to recite grace, he would [be allowed to] eat, drink, and depart. But if one refused, Abraham would demand, ‘Pay me what you owe me.’ ‘Why, what do I owe you?’ the guest would reply. ‘One xestes’ of wine costs ten follera, a pound of meat costs ten follera; a round of bread costs ten follera. Who will give you wine in the wilderness; who will give you meat in the wilderness; who will give you bread in the wilderness? ‘ Seeing himself thus driven into a corner, the guest would say, ‘ Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have eaten.’ Hence righteousness is written first and then justice.”
Although initially responding to a linguistic concern of the use of both righteousness and justice, the portrayal of Abraham here can raise some eyebrows. If his guests fail to bless, Abraham would turn around and charge them as customers!
The midrash places Abraham’s commitment to righteousness in the center of his tent. Abraham is the paradigm of the one who welcomes guests and this is directly related to his understanding of God. Ethics and theology here are inseparable. Abraham’s recognition of God, his awareness he does not really own what he possesses and must be shared with others emerges out of this recognition of God as ultimate Master of the cosmos.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick extends this idea one step further. Welcoming guests goes beyond merely being civil and polite. Indeed we have probably all experienced guests who challenged our patience and graciousness and gave us pause as to why we had welcomed them into our home in the first place! However, it is precisely in being patient with those who are difficult is how we can emulate God who in the Torah’s eyes is also patient with us and our shortcomings.
However, in this midrash, Abraham requires his guests, after experiencing his generosity, to bless and thank God. While this may seem as an inappropriate imposition to our eyes, one Hasidic commentator has an interesting observation.
Abraham only asked his guests to bless after they ate and not before partaking of the food. They first experienced his generosity, and had allowed Abraham to fulfill a commandment as it were, of welcoming guests. While Abraham provided them material benefit, their receiving of it gave theological/spiritual meaning to Abraham. It was not their eating that allowed them to bless God, but rather their graciousness in receiving Abraham’s hospitality. Their receiving was a transformative act that opened them up to new spiritual possibilities. Lacking that graciousness, and the ability to receive Abraham’s hospitality, they would see Abraham simply as an innkeeper where they would have to pay for what they ate.
To be a proper guest is then being able to receive the gifts of others. To be a guest in the world in the model of Abraham is to share what we have received with our fellow guests of the world. The Abraham vision of social justice that emerges from this Midrash is one rooted in a theology that we are not the ultimate masters of our tents. We are all guests. We must both give and receive with graciousness and blessing. If we lose sight of being guests, we must still give, but it loses spiritual/theological meaning and only becomes another bill to be paid.