Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
[This commentary was written before the tragic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue where 11 Jews were killed this past Shabbat. I am leaving it unchanged. Although the pain and sorrow are still raw for many of us, these words may resonate now more than ever as we begin to move through our grief towards healing.]
It seems ironic that chayei Sara, literally “the life of Sarah” is really about her death: “And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty-seven years, [these were] the years of Sarah’s life. And Sara died in Kiriat-Arba, which is Hebron in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize and to bewail her.” [Gen. 23:1-2]
It seems ironic, but perhaps the point is not that she died, but that she lived.
The medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi shared a tradition which ascribed meaning to Sarah’s age when she died: that throughout her life she had the wisdom of a one-hundred-year-old, the beauty of a twenty-year-old, and the vitality of a seven-year-old. For this reason, her age was mentioned before her death.
We don’t know what Abraham said, but this is the first mention of a eulogy in the Torah – a tribute to how one lived. Before Abraham can negotiate a burial cave for Sarah, he feels compelled to speak of Sarah’s life.
We Jews have developed a highly structured and emotionally healthy approach to mourning, which may very well have its roots in these two verses. Consider, for example, the mourner’s kaddish – the preeminent Jewish spiritual expression in our times of grief. While the function of the kaddish has been tied to safeguarding the afterlife of the departed, the words themselves offer a different perspective. The kaddish, written mostly in Aramaic (the vernacular of the time) rather than Hebrew, does not mention mourning, death, sorrow, anger, loneliness or any of the feelings we might associate with the passing of a loved one. In fact, it contains a difficult-to-translate doxology, magnifying the supremacy and holiness of the Divine.
It seems to me that the mourner’s kaddish is actually a “thank you” prayer – not for taking our loved ones from us, but for God’s incredible generosity in sharing them with us in the first place. The kaddish teaches us to treasure each moment we have, and each memory that remains, as a precious gift from heaven – for that is true value of our lives.
Chayei Sara may record Sarah’s death, but it is really about life.
Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
In last week’s parasha Abram left the only life he had ever known behind when God called, and in so doing, became the world’s first Jew. This week, God commands Lot and his family to flee the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, specifically telling them not to stop along the way and not to look back lest they be consumed as well.
“And his wife looked back and she became a pillar of salt.” [Gen. 19:26]
There is an old legend which claims that a stone formation near the Dead Sea is actually Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, and that the Dead Sea is all that remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Torah neither proves or disproves this legend, but the next few verses suggest that the meaning is about more than geology:
“And Abraham hastened early in the morning to the place where he had stood in the presence of the Lord. And he looked out over Sodom and Gomorrah and over all the land of the plain, and he saw and, look, smoke was rising like the smoke from a kiln.” [Gen. 19:27-28]
Lot’s wife looked back and turned to salt. Abraham looked out and remained safe. They both saw the same destruction. Perhaps Abraham was safe because he was farther away. But was the distance merely physical or something more?
Lot’s wife did not turn into stone, but into salt – a symbol of bitterness. Looking back she mourned what was, preferring the known past – evil as it was – over an unknown future. Change, especially when it is thrust upon us, can seem terrifying and overwhelming. Yet, if there is one constant in the world, it is change. Lot’s wife wanted to stay in the past, and as a result, she became filled with so much bitterness that she was transformed into a “pillar of salt.” For her, there was no future.
Abraham, however, did not look back. He looked “out.” He was not fleeing, but moving forward.
Jewish spirituality, first and foremost, is a journey. Not that, like Abraham, we should leave everything behind. He already did that for us. Instead, we need to honor, respect, and learn from our past, even as we continue to look forward.
Abraham was open to the challenges and possibilities of a changing world. Lot’s wife was mired in the world as it had been. As a descendent of Abraham, it is strange indeed for me whenever I visit the Dead Sea to think about this story and wonder: what if … ?
Genesis 12:1 – 17:2
“And the Lord said to Abram: Lech lecha, go you forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation …” [Gen. 12:1-2]
Abram followed God’s command, and began a journey which eventually led to his becoming the father not only of Judaism, but of all three monotheistic traditions. I have often wondered what it would take for a 75 year old man to leave everything he knew behind him for a mysterious future. In a world which was not as fluid and mobile as today, Abram had to leave almost everything and everyone he knew: his homeland, his clan, his physical home. At any age, these are the environmental factors which provide us with safety, security and comfort. Where does a man find a reservoir of trust deep enough to take such a risk at the age of 75?
I think that I have struggled with this question because I am 21st Century American Jew. When we consider the long history of our people, only a very few generations have enjoyed the comfort and privilege which my generation takes for granted. We feel so comfortable, so secure, that we cannot imagine giving everything up for the unknown.
Yet, our fortune is also our weakness. Abram did not enjoy our privilege, he may have felt far more vulnerable than we. We certainly know that he did not have any children, and therefore, uncertain hopes for the future. Perhaps Abram was ready to hear God in ways we are not. Perhaps our comfort is like a drug, dulling our senses and our motivation to change and grow.
Lech Lecha is a spiritual example of what personal trainers call the instability principle – the idea that we grow stronger when we introduce instability into our workout routines, forcing our core muscles to compensate. In requiring Abram to leave all that was familiar in his environment behind, God created spiritual instability – which was absolutely necessary if Abram were to develop the spiritual strength necessary to change the world.
Today, we have more physical luxury than any generation in the history of our planet: through supermarkets we have access to a wide range of food beyond the reach even of monarchs only a few generations ago; our homes are heated and most have air conditioning; we travel in ease by land, sea and air; we have the world at our fingertips through the internet. Yet, with all of this, we are also more and more spiritually disconnected, and we are losing our moral compasses. We live in echo-chambers where we only hear opinions we agree with, and we dehumanize those with whom we disagree. We are polarized, outraged, afraid – and hanging on to everything that seems safe and familiar.
Those who stayed in Abram’s homeland were left behind, and each year with this week’s parasha, God calls again: lech lecha. Perhaps we could all do with a little more spiritual instability, and the will to use it for a higher purpose.
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
As introductions go, Noah’s was rather impressive. At the opening of this weeks parasha he is described as a “righteous man in his generation …[who] walked with God.” [Gen. 6:9] The rabbis have a great deal of praise for Noah, or rather, some do and some do not. The great medieval commentator Rashi describes the debate. He notes that some rabbis teach that Noah was righteous even in his generation; that if he had lived in a more righteous generation then he would have been even more righteous because of his innate goodness. However, Rashi also directs our attention the Talmud, which teaches that Noah was only righteous in comparison with the evil people of his own generation. Had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been nobody special (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108a).
This may seem a little harsh, but the Talmudic rabbis are not creating this idea from thin air. They ask us to compare Noah with Abraham. Of Abraham, the Torah says that he was righteous, but does not add the phrase “in his generation.” The Talmudic rabbis consider that a purposeful omission: Abraham’s righteousness would stand out in any generation, whereas Noah’s only stood out in relation to his own generation. The rabbis also look to another detail in the text. According to the text, Abraham did not walk with God like Noah, but instead, walked before God [Gen. 17:1 and 24:40]. What is the difference? Noah needed extra support from God for his righteousness, like a toddler needing to hold his parent’s hand for support. Abraham had enough strength to walk on his own in righteousness, like an older child walking in front of his parent.
While this may seem like an academic argument, the difference can clearly be seen in their actions. When God approaches Noah, describing the imminent destruction of the world, Noah does exactly what God commands: he builds an ark. The rabbis consider that a righteous act indeed, not to mention incredibly difficult to execute. But, when God told Abraham about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham tries to talk God out of it. What courage! He directly challenged God, asking if the innocent should die with the guilty, and eventually talks God down to the point where if ten innocents could be found, then the entire city would be spared. Amazingly, God does not punish Abraham for insolence but instead agrees with Abraham’s arguments.
Here we arrive at one of the most fundamental truths of our tradition: blind faith is not true righteousness. True righteousness means living with such a commitment to the values and teachings of Torah that we are willing to challenge any authority, even God, when they seem contrary to what we know to be right.
If Noah had challenged God the way Abraham did, would there still have been a flood? We will never know. However, in today’s world, which in some ways seems just as filled with violence and hate as in Noah’s day, we have a choice. Who will we choose to emulate, Noah or Abraham?
Genesis 1:1 – 6:
There is more to Torah than meets the eye! By design, the Torah is written in such a way that it cannot be understood by simply reading it as a book. It requires us to look more deeply, to question and challenge both the text and ourselves as we seek its deeper wisdom and meaning. The rabbis teach that every letter of every word has a purpose, that even the tiniest detail can change our understanding of the Divine message.
Take for example the very first word in the Torah, bereshit:
Usually, we translate this word as “In the beginning,” but the truth is we are not sure of the precise meaning of the word. Our problem is that the very first word in the Torah is a grammatical oddity – which is to say, that from the very beginning the text is challenging our basic assumptions and even the structure of language.
Every word in Hebrew has a basic two or three root structure upon which it is built, and every word that shares a root, shares some sort of connected meaning. For example, in modern Hebrew the words “betach” (definitely), “bitachon” (security) and “bituach” (insurance) all share the three-letter root: bet-taf-chet. They are all related to each other in meaning. The word ‘definitely’ offers a sense of guarantee, which is also the idea behind both security and insurance. In English, there are no root connections between these three words, but this is part of the unique character of the Hebrew language.
The root structure of bereshit, however, is a challenge – and without knowing the root, how can we understand the word? And how can we understand Torah if we can’t even get past the first word? Without getting too far into the intricacies of biblical grammar, most people consider the root to be reish-aleph-shin, which means “head” or “beginning.” The letter bet before the root, in this case would mean “in” – hence, “in the beginning.”
The problem is the last two letters. They don’t make sense with this structure, yet according to the rabbis – every letter in the Torah has a purpose.
I have a theory, which is to say, a question. What if there is more than one root in bereshit? What if the word is so unique and rich with meaning that it transcends the normal limitations of human language?
To be clear, adding anything else to the mix violates the basic structure of spoken Hebrew, but let’s just take a quick look. The first three letters bereshit are the exact same spelling as the second word in the Torah: barah (bet-reish-aleph). The verb barah means “created” – but that particular verb can only be used when God creates. We use a totally different word for human creation. It is impossible to look at the Torah scroll and not see the repetition:
So now it seems that the word contains the meaning of both “beginning” and “divine creation.” But, wait there is more. A third complete word is buried within bereshit: eish, which means “fire.”
Was fire involved with creation? There is no direct mention in Torah, but it makes me wonder about the Big Bang. What if this is an oblique nod to the methods of Divine creativity?
In the end, we are left with more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the point. After all, we are just at the beginning, and there is more to Torah than meets the eye.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras