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Chaye Sarah 5781 ~ Nov. 13, 2020

This past Shabbat our Jewish world lost a gadol hador, one of the great teachers of our generation. In memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Z’L (zichrono livracha), may his memory be a blessing, I’ve chosen this week to share a selection from his final lessons of Torah.  It appears to be written knowing that his life was in its twilight.  I truly believe that these words are reflective not only of the end of his days, but also with a true understanding of this particular moment in world history.

I wonder: Rabbi Sacks Z”L passed away on the Shabbat of “Vayera,” which is translated as “He appeared,” as in God appeared to Abraham. We might understand the word “Vayera” in many different ways. God appeared to this grand teacher at the end of his days to escort him to Gan Eden. Perhaps it might be understood that God shared with Rabbi Sacks a great vision, which although he had already penned, are words that provide meanings on this week. 

Our Torah reading of this past week spoke of the final test of Abraham, which concluded with not only the story of the Binding of Isaac, but of the blowing of the shofar by our Patriarch.  Might it be that Rabbi Sacks and Hashem, planned his final moments of breath to have us pause and reflect upon the meaning of the vivid sound and portrait of Abraham blowing the shofar, heralding the teaching of a new dawn and understanding of life? Or perhaps the moment followed the end of the Torah reading so that we might reflect upon the opening words of our Torah reading for this Shabbat.  The reading begins with the words “vayehiyu chayei Sarah,” which may be translated as these are “the days of the lifetime of Sarah.” Commentaries through the years suggest that these words are reflective of the many different realities in her life, both the celebratory moments and the challenges, since the word is plural in form --“chayei,” implying different aspects of her life. As our Jewish world pays homage to our teacher, perhaps we must read not only the words, but the spaces in between them.  The message then is quite clear and accurate, not only for this Shabbat, but for our present and for our future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi K

                                      From the Teaching of RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS Z"L

Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God promises them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you,” Gen. 13:17) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation” (Gen. 12:22), as many as “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16), and “the stars in the sky” (Gen. 15:5); he will be the father not of one nation but of many (Gen. 17:5).

Despite this, when Sarah dies, Abraham has not a single inch of land that he can call his own, and he has only one child who will continue the covenant, Isaac, who is currently unmarried. Neither promise has been fulfilled. Hence the extraordinary detail of the two main stories in Chayei Sarah: the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. There is a moral here, and the Torah slows down the speed of the narrative as it speeds up the action, so that we will not miss the point.

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, God 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. Indeed, in the chapter immediately following the story of finding a wife for Isaac, to our surprise, we read that Abraham remarries and has eight more children. Whatever else this tells us - and there are many interpretations (the most likely being that it explains how Abraham became “the father of many nations”) - it certainly conveys the point that Abraham stayed young the way Moses stayed young, “His eyes were undimmed and his natural energy unabated” (Deut. 34:7). Though action takes energy, it gives us energy. The contrast between Noah in old age and Abraham in old age could not be greater.

Perhaps, though, the most important point of this parsha is that large promises – a land, countless children – become real through small beginnings. Leaders begin with an envisioned future, but they also know that there is a long journey between here and there; we can only reach it one act at a time, one day at a time. There is no miraculous shortcut - and if there were, it would not help. The use of a shortcut would culminate in an achievement like Jonah’s gourd, which grew overnight, then died overnight. Abraham acquired only a single field and had just one son who would continue the covenant. Yet he did not complain, and he died serene and satisfied. Because he had begun. Because he had left future generations something on which to build. All great change is the work of more than one generation, and none of us will live to see the full fruit of our endeavours.

Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782