(Here's my dvar torah from last Friday evening, 10/29/10)
Thoughts on Chayei Sarah (2010/5711)
(Gen. 23:1 – 25:18)
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”) ironically, opens with an account of Sarah’s death, and of Abraham’s purchase of a burial site for her at the cave of Machpela in the city of Hebron. Once that real estate transaction has been accomplished, and Abraham has buried Sarah we reach the following verse (Gen. 24:1):
וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן, בָּא בַּיָּמִים; וַיהוָה בֵּרַךְ אֶת-אַבְרָהָם, בַּכֹּל.
Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and the Eternal had blessed Abraham with everything.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in the Etz Hayim torah commentary notes that this is the first time that anyone in the Torah is described as being “old” (“zaken”). He cites a couple of wonderful classical midrashim on the subject. His first example comes from the midrash collection Bereshit Rabbah, where it is taught that the word “zaken” is an shorthand for “zeh kanah chochmah”/ “this one has acquired wisdom”.
But another classic commentary, Midrash Tanchumah, takes a different view. According to that midrash, the placement of this verse right after the account of Sarah’s burial teaches that Abraham only began to feel “old” when Sarah died.
I guess that’s true of so much in life --- that our experiences are filled with both satisfying and troubling aspects. Abraham gains wisdom, but loses his life partner. The same verse concludes with the statement that God blessed Abraham “bakol”/ “with everything” (or as the JPS translation in the Plaut Torah commentary translates it – “the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way”.
The idea that God blessed Abraham “bakol”/ “with everything”/”in every way” is immortalized in the Birkat Hamazon/Grace after Meals
(in the complete version anyway), when we ask “Harachaman”/”The All Merciful One” to bless:
אוֹתָנוּ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָנוּ, כְּמוֹ שֶׁנִּתְבָּרְכוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב "בַּכֹּל"-"מִכֹּל"-"כֹּל" – כֵּן יְבָרֵךְ אוֹתָנוּ כֻּלָּנוּ יַחַד בִּבְרָכָה שְׁלֵמָה. וְנֹאמַר: "אָמֵן".
“us and all that is ours, just as our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were blessed “bakol”, “mikol”, “kol” (with everything, from everything, all).
May God likewise bless all of us together with a full blessing and let us say amen.”
According to traditional commentaries, in that line from the Birkat Hamazon, “Bakol” refers to Abraham in the verse we’ve been citing “Ve-Avraham zaken, ba bayim, vadonai beyrakh et Avraham bakol” (Gen. 24:1).
“Mikol” refers to a later quote about Isaac and “kol” a subsequent quote about Jacob. And contemporary egalitarian versions of the Birkat Hamazon add references to Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel v’Leah – each with appropriate shorthand references to Torah verses about the four matriarchs.
However, for now, let’s stick with the reference from Parshat Chayei Sarah about Abraham being blessed “bakol” (in everything).
How can we say this, how can we believe this, about a man who has just buried his wife? And how can we say this about a man who has torn his own family apart --- following God’s command yet – by sending Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness and by tying up his son Isaac to be slaughtered as a sacrifice to God. True, God has Abraham substitute a ram, but the clear implication is that the family is torn up all the same. In Genesis 22, Abraham and Isaac had twice been described as “vayelchu sheneyhem yachdav” (“the two of them walking together”) . But afterwards, even though Isaac doesn’t die atop Mt. Moriah, the text speaks only of Abraham returning to his servants, with no further mention of Isaac. And there is no indication of Isaac ever again communicating with his father.
But still, Torah insists, Abraham is blessed by God “bakol” (“in everything”).
There’s a lesson here for us: Jewish tradition invites us to see our own lives as filled with blessing – even in life’s pain, hurt, sadness, and fear that share time and space with the pleasure, happiness and exultation of life’s happier moments.
But how can that possibly be? I guess one possible answer is that the difficult times give us an opportunity to experience God’s faithfulness or God’s “emunah” all the more – that God is with us, as it were, to stand with us in our trials and tribulations. Just as midrash speaks of God’s shechinah (indwelling presence) keeping faith with the Israelites during the years of slavery in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness.
Just as in the psalm for the Sabbath Day, where the psalmist declares “tov lehodot Ladonai…baboker chasdekha, ve’emunatekha baleylot”/ “It’s good to give thanks to the Eternal …for your kindness at daybreak and for your faithfulness each night” (Ps. 92: 2-3) --- which Rashi interprets as referring to the daybreak when redemption comes as well as the nighttime of exile – in other words – in both good times and bad.
And the idea is implicit in the prayer that follows the barchu (call to prayer) during the morning service – We describe God there as “Yotzer Or u’voreh chosekh, oseh shalom u’vorey et hakol”/ “the One who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates “Hakol”/ Everything.” --- But hameyvin meyvin – those who are in the know recognize that this is a paraphrase of Isaiah who says “Yotzer or ovorey chosekh, oseh shalom uvorey ra – ani Adonai oseh chawl eyleh” / “the One who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates evil - I the Eternal do all these things….” (Isaiah 45:7)
What is faith? It’s not about doctrine, or the details of divinity or the specifics of the inner workings of the universe. Rather, faith is about trust. In Hebrew these two English concepts are expressed with the same single Hebrew word “EMUNAH”.
Because Abraham had “emunah” he could see himself as blessed “bakol” in everything. Maybe for us, it’s more difficult.
What “maybe?” – Certainly, it’s more difficult for us…
But what is the alternative? – As it says in Psalm 27 --- “Luley he’emanti lirot b’tuv Adonai be’eretz chayim”/ “had I not had faith that I would see the goodness of the Eternal in the land of the living”. Rather – Chazak v’Ya’ametz Libekha, vkavey el Adonai” – Hope in the Eternal, be strong and of good courage, hope in the Eternal. (Ps. 27:14).
And in all of our journeys through life may we find God’s blessings “bakol” / “in everything”