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“And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham was the father of Isaac.” Rashi comments on the strange opening verse: “this is to show you that even though—in the previous parasha—Sarah was briefly married to Abimelch the King of the Philistines (after Abraham said she was “his sister”), nothing happened between them. Many claimed that Abimelech had impregnated Sarah, but when Isaac was born he looked so much like Abraham that people were compelled to admit ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac’.

I wish to point out two things. First, that this is the verse with which we began our Voices of Torah class three years ago, and look how much we have learned. A little time dedicated to a single pursuit produces rich dividends. Second, there is a much deeper meaning to this verse than the one Rashi asserts that still resonates today.

As a child I remember the painful times I endured when my parents’ friends argued over who I looked like. At times I would be spun around, pulled, told to turn to one side or another, while these excited ex-citizens of Poland loudly pointed out various anatomical features that “corresponded” to those of my parents. I felt like a live mannequin. More telling were the comments: “smooth hands—he will never work a day in his life”, “so short—will he look up to people all his life?”, “why is he so skinny—he wasn’t in a DP camp!”, and other comments that did little to build my ego. Indeed, we are so obsessed with outward appearances.

The Torah acknowledges the power of appearance. We are told that both Joseph and Rachel were “nice to look at”, that baby Moses in his basket was “good”, that Eve noted that the forbidden fruit was “suitable for eating and tempting to look at”. And that the contrasting personalities of Esau and Jacob were foreshadowed by their very contrary appearances: Esau was very ruddy and Jacob was so comparatively bland in appearance that the Torah doesn’t even describe him. Perhaps he was as bland in appearance as he was in personality.

But, as we know, appearances are deceptive, though perhaps our society values them even more than ever. Our studies in Torah have confirmed the importance of personality over appearances, and of the spiritual over the physical. On Shabbat, a day reflecting the spiritual side of things, we need to pause and step away from the physical world and find time for a personal and spiritual break. Often we are so busy worrying how we look, that we forget how we feel. So take a break and find your quiet zone on Shabbat. Read, pray, talk with loved ones, and stop worrying about how you look to others.

 
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Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks weekly comment is worthy of reproduction for it touches on some fundamental issues. It is worth the slightly increased length.

 

Our parsha contains the most serene description of old age and dying anywhere in the Torah: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25: 8). There is an earlier verse, no less moving: “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24: 1).

Nor was this serenity the gift of Abraham alone. Rashi was puzzled by the description of Sarah – “Sarah lived to be 127 years old: [These were] the years of Sarah's life” (23: 1). The last phrase seems completely superfluous. Why not just tell us that Sarah lived to the age of 127? What is added by saying that “these were the years of Sarah’s life”? Rashi is forced to the conclusion that the first half of the verse talks about the quantity of her life, how long she lived, while the second tells us about the quality of her life. “They – the years she lived – were all equal in goodness.”

Yet how is any of this conceivable? Abraham and Sarah were commanded by God to leave everything that was familiar: their land, their home, their family, and travel to an unknown land. No sooner had they arrived than they were forced to leave because of famine. Twice, Abraham’s life was at risk when, driven into exile, he worried that he would be killed so that the local ruler could take Sarah into his harem. Sarah herself had to say that she was Abraham’s sister, and had to suffer the indignity of being taken into a stranger’s household.

Then there was the long wait for a child, made even more painful by the repeated Divine promise that they would have as many children as the stars of the sky or the dust of the earth. Then came the drama of the birth of Ishmael to Sarah’s servant Hagar. This aggravated the relation between the two women, and eventually Abraham had to send Hagar and Ishmael away. One way or another, this was a source of pain to all four people involved.

Then there was the agony of the binding of Isaac. Abraham was faced with the prospect of losing the person most precious to him, the child he had waited for so long. One way or another, neither Abraham nor Sarah had an easy life. Theirs were lives of trial, in which their faith was tested at many points. How can Rashi say that all of Sarah’s years were equal in goodness? How can the Torah say that Abraham had been blessed with everything?

The answer is given by the parsha itself, and it is very unexpected. Seven times Abraham had been promised the land. Here is just one of those occasions:

 

The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Raise your eyes, and, from the place where you are now [standing], look to the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. . . . Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you” (Gen13:14-17).

Yet by the time Sarah dies, Abraham has no land at all, and he is forced to prostrate himself before the local Hittites and beg for permission to acquire even a single field with a cave in which to bury his wife. Even then he has to pay what is clearly a massively inflated price: four hundred silver shekels. This does not sound like the fulfilment of the promise of “all the land, north, south, east and west.”

 

Continued in Part 2.....

 

 
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Continued....

 

Then, in relation to children, Abraham is promised four times: “I will make you into a great nation” (12: 2). “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth” (13: 16). God “took [Abram] outside and said, 'Look at the sky and count the stars. See if you can count them.' [God] then said to him, 'That is how [numerous] your descendants will be.'” (15: 5). “No longer shall you be called Abram. Your name shall become Abraham, for I have set you up as the father of many nations” (17: 5).

Yet he had to wait so long for even a single son by Sarah that when God insisted that she would indeed have a son, both Abraham (17: 17) and Sarah (18: 12) laughed. (The sages differentiated between these two episodes, saying that Abraham laughed with joy, Sarah with disbelief. In general, in Genesis, the verb tz-ch-k, to laugh, is fraught with ambiguity).

One way or another, whether we think of children or the land – the two key Divine promises to Abraham and Sarah – the reality fell far short of what they might have felt entitled to expect.

That, however, is precisely the meaning and message of Chayei Sarah. In it Abraham does two things: he buys the first plot in the land of Canaan, and he arranges for the marriage of Isaac. One field and a cave was, for Abraham, enough for the text to say that “God had blessed Abraham with everything.” One child, Isaac, by then married and with children (Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born; Isaac was sixty when the twins, Jacob and Esau, were born; and Abraham was 175 when he died) was enough for Abraham to die in peace.

Lao-Tzu, the Chinese sage, said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. To that Judaism adds, “It is not for you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2: 16). God himself said of Abraham, “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18: 19).

The meaning of this is clear. If you ensure that your children will continue to live for what you have lived for, then you can have faith that they will continue your journey until eventually they reach the destination. Abraham did not need to see all the land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish people become numerous. He had taken the first step. He had begun the task, and he knew that his descendants would continue it. He was able to die serenely because he had faith in God and faith that others would complete what he had begun. The same was surely true of Sarah.

To place your life in God’s hands, to have faith that whatever happens to you happens for a reason, to know that you are part of a larger narrative, and to believe that others will continue what you began, is to achieve a satisfaction in life that cannot be destroyed by circumstance. Abraham and Sarah had that faith, and they were able to die with a sense of fulfillment.

To be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised. It means, simply, to have done what you were called on to do, to have made a beginning, and then to have passed on the baton to the next generation. “The righteous, even in death, are regarded as though they were still alive” (Berakhot 18a) because the righteous leave a living trace in those who come after them.

 
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This week’s parasha features the quintessential portrait of our ancestor Avraham performing the mitzva he is most associated with: hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Even though he was still sore from his own brit milah, Avraham welcomed the three strangers who came to him, going so far as to run—despite his pain—to slaughter fresh meat for them. Indeed, there is a well known midrash that says that Avraham’s tent had four large openings, one for each direction, so that guests could feel free to enter from anywhere.

But there is a contrasting midrash about Avraham’s hospitality. Its tells of an old tired man who found his way to Avraham’s tent. After a meal and rest, the invigorated elder tried to thank his host. “Don’t thank me”, he was told “thank my G-d, who guided you here.” The old man replied: “I do not know your god. It was my wonderful god who brought me here, and if you do not wish me to thank you—then I will thank my God. He proceeded to pull a small, ugly idol from his sack and fervently said: “I thank you for your kindness in bringing me to this generous stranger.” Enraged, Avraham smashed the idol and ordered the old man to leave.

No sooner had the man passed over the horizon, when G-d said to Avraham: “Who are you to treat the man in this way? I have watched him walk the earth for 90 years and he has not yet discovered Me, yet I do not punish him. Not everyone who worships idols is able, as you did, to find me. Why do you have less patience than I when you should have more? Go and find the man, apologize, let him sit at your tent, and commission him a new idol.”

A powerful story, interesting that the G-d, who would later permit Avraham to say “does the Judge of the World not act righteously”, was angry about the treatment of an idol worshipper. The reason is simple: this man was a decent person, and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked. But perhaps the midrash has another point. It would seem that Avraham used his hospitality as a conversion opportunity, much as Aish uses its social affairs. Abraham wanted to “showcase” Judaism. But that did not involve using superiority or bullying. The midrash teaches that the path to finding G-d is a difficult one, and it is not for humans to “play G-d”. This is certainly a useful caution to religious zealots.

Let us pray that our actions will always attract praise in the eyes of all kind and moral people of whatever persuasion we meet on our road through life. In that way we will fulfill the verse: “and you shall be a light to the nations.”

 
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“And there was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt to live temporarily because the famine was very severe in the land.” (Bereishit 12:10) The Mikra Meforash comments: “Why does the Torah mention that the “famine was very severe” when the verse already informed us that there is a famine? To tell us that the Torah justifies Avram’s leaving the land of Canaan to go to Egypt because the Land of Canaan is a land ‘upon which the eyes of G-d always gaze’ in order to grant it many blessings. So when the famine began, Avram realized that this was a sign of G-d’s anger and thus “hiding G-d’s face” for the famine was worse in Canaan than anywhere else. So it was a signal to leave until the Divine anger dissipated.”

But Nachmanides famously wrote: “Know that our forefather Avram unwittingly committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife [Sarai] by disguising her identity in a manner that could have resulted in her death. … And because of this, the Egyptian Exile was decreed upon his descendants.”

Avram’s decision to stay or depart from the land he had travelled so far to reach resonates during Holocaust Education Week. Tens of thousands of German Jews didn’t know whether to leave or stay between the 1933 ascent to power and the events of Kristallnacht, whose 73rd anniversary we will commemorate this week. Many had lived in Germany far longer than Avram. The speed and thoroughness with which the Nazis excised Jews from Germany’s economic, social, intellectual and political life induced some to think “it will all pass soon”, and others to believe that Germany would change forever. It seemed folly to stay, but leaving and uprooting lives seemed even more absurd before Kristallnacht. And where could they go? Few places wanted them.

In contrast, the text records that Avram left the land almost immediately after he had followed G-d’s command and travelled an arduous distance to reach it. The Torah consistently informs us that Avram lived nomadically by citing geography and continually using the verb v’yagar (he sojourned) instead of v’yashav (he settled). Is it any wonder that he left for Egypt? The text does not report him speaking to G-d, or possibly complaining about the land he had come to. This is to his credit. None of the Divine blessings bestowed at the outset of the parasha were agricultural; the “land of milk and honey” would come much later. In short, Avram’s roots were not deep and there was no reason for him to stay.

But what of Nachmanides’ famous opinion? It seems to be based on the commentator’s biography. Nachmanides spent his last years in the Land of Israel, taking the risky sea voyage there late in life after his disputation with Pablo Christiani in 1263. There he completed his Torah commentary and learned about the flora and fauna of the Middle East—using these details in his commentary. His desire to leave his very civilized and prosperous homeland and go to Israel, which at that time a was a desolate land weakened by centuries of fighting contrasted with Avram’s decision to leave the land. Is it really surprising that Nachmanides wondered at Avram’s behaviour?

It is so challenging to leave a homeland and its associated layers of memory. As we contemplate the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, we need to pay tribute to their tenacity and their desire to build a new life far from homelands that—however much they were sullied by anti-Semitism—were still “home where the heart is.”

 

 

 
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