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As usual, I've collected some snippets from the commentaries that I found though provoking on this week's parsha (weekly Torah reading) ~ Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 to 25:18)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, recently retired from being the chief rabbi of the UK, points out that, in the story of Avraham and Sarah, God had promised them two things: children and a land ~ but that at the beginning of this week's parsha, Sarah has just died, Yitchok is unmarried (and Ishmael isn't in the picture), and Avraham has no land. It's these circumstances that lead to the events related in the parsha.

Rabbi Sacks explains:

God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, “Jewish grandchildren.”

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, He gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the flood, but Noah had to make the ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfils our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God.

That is what leaders understand, and it is what made Abraham the first Jewish leader. Leaders take responsibility for creating the conditions through which God’s purposes can be fulfilled. They are not passive but active – even in old age, like Abraham in this week’s parsha.

Rabbi Neal Loevinger focuses on a different part of the story, Avraham's remarriage ~ to Keturah (who is identified by Rashi and other commentators, based on an older midrash, as the woman previously known as Hagar, the mother of Ishmael and Avraham's former concubine):
It’s easy to miss this short report {of the remarriage} 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....

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?  

Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel in Manhattan (the oldest synagogue in the US, it's Spanish-Portuguese in tradition ~ and well worth a visit of you are in NYC...):
And Abraham was old, well stricken in years” (Bereishith 24:1). The Hebrew phrase for “well stricken in years” is “ba bayamim” which literally means that Abraham came in days. When the Torah describes the elderliness of Abraham and Sarah, it uses similar wording: “And Abraham and Sarah were old, well stricken in years” (ba’im bayamim); literally, this means that Abraham and Sarah came in days. If the Torah informs us that Abraham is old (zaken) and that Abraham and Sarah are old (zekeinim), what is added by the words ba bayamim or ba’im bayamim? What do these words actually mean? How does one “come in days?”
....When Abraham and Sarah are described as zaken/zekeinim, this refers to their chronological ages. But when the Torah adds the words “ba bayamim/ba’im bayamim” it may be teaching us that Abraham and Sarah were living actively, making every day count. They were physiologically, emotionally and psychologically much younger than their chronological ages. They did not live passive lives waiting for their days to pass. Rather, they “came in days,” i.e. they actively greeted each day, they were ready for new challenges and new adventures....
Although the chronological aging process is automatic and beyond human control, the physiological, emotional and psychological aging processes can be influenced by human intervention. Humans can lower their physiological ages by exercising, staying fit, eating healthfully. Humans can lower their psychological/emotional ages by keeping alert mentally, by continuing to learn, by keeping focused on new goals to accomplish.

Abraham and Sara “came in days”—they dealt with each day actively and purposefully. This is an important lesson for all human beings to learn. It’s not just a question of how old you are, but of how you are old!

Rabbi Avi Weiss writes about the trop (melody) used with the actual Torah reading:
The highest and most prolonged trop is called the shalshelet. The word shalshelet is from the word shalosh - three.  The sound of this note curves upward and then down three successive times.  Commentators suggest that when a shalshelet appears, it indicates a feeling of hesitation by a character in the text....{discussion of possible hesitation by Eliezer, indicated by the trop in finding a bride for Yitchok, based on Eliezer's possible self-interest}... The Rambam notes that, in many areas, one who hesitates but in the end does the principled thing is on a higher level than one who acts without hesitation.  Therefore, Yosef's hesitation doesn't mean he's less righteous, but rather, very human.  And certainly, the act of Eliezer falls into this same category.

Most often, when people become involved in an endeavor they ask "what's in it for me?" Eliezer may have asked this most human question, but the message of the shalshelet is clear.  There are times when we are called upon to complete tasks that may not be in our best self interest, but we must do them nonetheless.  In a world of selfishness this musical note teaches each one of us the importance of selflessness.

Interestingly, the shalshelet looks like a crooked line that begins on the ground and reaches upward. It is telling us that personal feelings are real and human.  But it is also teaching us that sometimes we should abandon those natural human inclinations and reach beyond ourselves.  Then we will be able to reach the heavens.

As usual, there's lots more to unpack from the parsha than a quick surface reading would show. What interesting insights have you had or read?

 

Originally posted to Elders of Zion on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 07:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip jar ;-) (10+ / 0-)

    Hope you find something in this that sparks some thought for you....

    Shabbat shalom!

    The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit, is to be joyless. (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers)

    by mayim on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 06:50:47 AM PDT

    •  Where was Hagar all these years? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mayim, sfbob

      If Sarah dies and Avraham then remarries Hagar, we could conclude that she never left Avraham's group to begin with. Is there any indication where she and Ishmael went after being cast out? The reason I ask is that these and other texts in the Torah suggest that multiple wives were not uncommon in the patriarchy of the time.

      Clearly, Sarah is Avraham's favorite wife and her son became Avraham's heir. Hagar's son Ishmael, although the first-born, was not equally favored. This outcome would not be unusual in a polygamous society. I wonder because it seems to me that some of the stories seem reworked by later writers.

      Is there any insight into this story provided by earlier or later writings? I'd be very interested in any information you can provide. Whaddaya

      •  There are several different traditions (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        whaddaya, ramara

        I've heard about where Hagar/Keturah went.

        The one that makes the most sense to me is that she was near where Avraham lived (at least most of the time, so he could support her and maybe even occasionally see Ishmael), but far enough away to honor Sarah's wishes. Then, after Sarah died, Avraham could reconcile with Hagar/Keturah.

        The name change (Keturah is derived from the word for sweet/fragrant incense) is supposed to show how she was pious and sweet during the separation.

        The identification of Hagar with Keturah seems a bit strained to me ~ possible (as Avraham hadn't wanted to send Hagar away to begin with) but a stretch, but the tradition that they were the same woman is supposedly quite old....

        The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit, is to be joyless. (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers)

        by mayim on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 10:04:37 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks, mayim (0+ / 0-)

          I keep thinking that poor Hagar keeps being where ever the scribe writing the text wants her to be. First, she gets sent off from Avraham's settlement with her son and little to sustain them. Then, when Ishmael collapses from dehydration, a little spring or other water source miraculously appears, Ishmael and Hagar continue on their way--destination unknown.

          I realize these stories weren't written to be rigorously analyzed, but they are pretty sketchy considering the importance of Avraham and Sarah.  Whaddaya

          •  According to Islamic tradition, (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Navy Vet Terp, mayim

            Hajar and Isma'il (pbuh) remained in Bakkah (now Makkah) after the spring of Zam-Zam had come forth:  

            She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada'. They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, 'This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.' They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water)." The Prophet added, "Ishmael's mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, 'Do you allow us to stay with you?" She replied, 'Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.' They agreed to that." The Prophet further said, "Ishmael's mother was pleased with the whole situation as she used to love to enjoy the company of the people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. Ishmael) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them. (Sahib Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book, 55, #583)
            According to the hadith, Hajar died before Ibrahim (pbuh) returned for the first time to look upon the now grown-up Isma'il (pbuh).

            In front of the northern wall of the Kaaba, there is a semi-circular area surrounded by a low wall, called the hatim.  This space between the Kaaba and the hatim is not entered normally, and may hold the graves of Hajar and Isma'il (pbuh).

            Muslims and tigers and bears, oh my!

            by JDsg on Sat Oct 26, 2013 at 07:19:01 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Deuteronomy 21: 15-17 (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mayim, whaddaya
        If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.  He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength.  The right of the firstborn belongs to him.
        Which had this rule existed in Abraham's time, would have required Abraham to have given a double portion to Ishmael over Isaac.  Commentators consider the "unloved" and "loved" to have been relative - Abraham obviously loved Sarah more.

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

        by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 01:45:02 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Now I really am confused! (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp

          So, even though Deuteronomy is a pretty early text, we have a puritanical admonition that Abraham the great patriarch did the wrong thing when he favored Isacc over Ishmael. Which permits me to give up on today's texts. I just give up for now! Whaddaya :-)

          •  At the beginning of last week's parshah (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mayim, whaddaya

            Abraham ate yogurt and veal together, an absolute no no in rabbinical Judaism.  And worst of all he put Isaac through the worst possible psychological trauma.  The next you hear from his mom is the beginning of this week's parshah, Sarah dies, and there is a midrash that she died from shock when she learned that her husband almost murdered their son.

            Genesis details the lives of six generations of highly dysfunctional families:  To go by their male heads:  Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob's sons.   I think these ancient tales teach us how not to be a dad or mom or sibling.

            "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

            by Navy Vet Terp on Sat Oct 26, 2013 at 03:53:47 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I suspect that "dysfunctional" doesn't touch it! (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Navy Vet Terp

              So, not only does Avraham almost kill Isacc, but also he manages to kill his wife from shock at what he's done. And, then he takes up with Hagar again.

              You know, when I went to Sunday school way back then, they left out all the good stuff. Ya know, this story would make a great film--by DeMille with Charlton Heston no less. Whaddaya ;-)

  •  the great part of judaism (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Fishtroller01

    is the simplicity--considering one god completely irrelevant is so much easier and simpler than a trinity, a pantheon, etc.

    'hear oh israel, you're talking to yourselves...'

    •  Not only talking to themselves but...doing! (0+ / 0-)

      According to Rabbi Sacks, god has plans for people, but they have to do it all themselves in order to fulfill those plans.  Why not cut out the middle man (god) and just do things for ourselves?  Oh wait! That's exactly what happens!   WE are the captains of our fates. WE are the ones who make this world what it is. WE are the ones who design the goals and work to fulfill them. They are OUR goals, not some deity's.  Gods don't give us strength, we give that to ourselves and each other. We find our love, compassion and bravery to face the world from within ourselves and with the help of other people.  When is this world going to see that gods are crutches, excuses, imaginary best friends and all kinds of other things, but they are NOT what makes us human or what sustains our species.  Isn't it time we take the full credit where credit is due, and stop hitching our actions to some concocted being?

      So yes to this diariest, what Rabbi Sacks said in explanation for the nature of human actions and choices did provoke my thoughts. And what I think about his analysis is that it is sheer nonsense.

  •  Thanks as always mayim (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mayim, Navy Vet Terp

    The reason I haven't thought to offer myself to participate in this series is that I would have no idea how to go about doing the sort interpretation that seems to be required.

    The interesting thing here for me:

    First:

    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?  
    It's always a challenge to remember that the people we're most prone to dismiss may have something very important to teach us; we simply assume that isn't the case.

    Second:

    The Rambam notes that, in many areas, one who hesitates but in the end does the principled thing is on a higher level than one who acts without hesitation.  Therefore, Yosef's hesitation doesn't mean he's less righteous, but rather, very human.  And certainly, the act of Eliezer falls into this same category.

    Most often, when people become involved in an endeavor they ask "what's in it for me?" Eliezer may have asked this most human question, but the message of the shalshelet is clear.  There are times when we are called upon to complete tasks that may not be in our best self interest, but we must do them nonetheless.  In a world of selfishness this musical note teaches each one of us the importance of selflessness.

    Nothing wrong with hesitation, nothing wrong with being human and asking questions that on their face one might view as unseemly...but they're human.

    And somewhat off-topic: I have heard great things about Shearith Israel in Manhattan. San Francisco most interestingly has a Shearith Israel of its own: the second oldest synagogue in the city and one formed as a result of a split in the membership of Temple Emmanuel, San Francisco's original synagogue. Both are Reform synagogues. Also even more off-topic but sort of cool (I think) is that I'm reasonably certain Rabbi Marc Angel is related to the rabbi of my synagogue, Rabbi Camille Shira Angel. I do know that "our" Rabbi Angel comes from a long line of rabbis and grew up in New York. Needless to say she is the first woman in that line and the first out lesbian.

    •  One reason my diaries tend to mostly be (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sfbob, Navy Vet Terp

      excerpts from various dvrei Torah I read ~ so thought provoking that they push my own limited musings out of contention for diary space :-(

      Interesting about the various Rabbis Angel. One reason I'm liking the synagogue in Portland ~ excellent young rabbi, one of the few Orthodox ones willing to publicly support marriage equality. The Jewish ethics class I've been taking with him is great ;-)

      The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit, is to be joyless. (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers)

      by mayim on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 10:09:46 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's awesome an Orthodox synagogue (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mayim

        supports marriage equality.  I heard the rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox black hat shul around the corner from me condemn it and condemn it hard.  Our rabbi, however, wrote the Conservative responsum sanctioning it.

        One side question:  I looked at all the black hats lined up on shelves in the lobby - there must have been over a hundred.  And they all looked alike.  How do they tell which is theirs?

        Thanks Mayim and Shabbat Shalom.

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

        by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 01:49:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Hats... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp

          Same place each week ;-) And/or names inside.

          Lots of black raincoats as well.

          And occasional mix-ups ~ every month or so, the listserv for the Philadelphia area community I lived in had a post about 'someone took my coat/hat by mistake ~ please check that you actually picked up your own' ;-)

          The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit, is to be joyless. (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers)

          by mayim on Fri Oct 25, 2013 at 01:57:29 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  HaGar - the stranger. thnx, Mayim. shavua tov n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Batya the Toon
  •  Late to the party (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp

    as I was away for the weekend, but just wanted to pop in and say thanks for this dvar.  Well done.  :)

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