Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How DO You Measure a Life?

[Editor's Note: There WAS a two-week hiatus on printed sermons -- for a full explanation of why, please catch up with my guest blog in Jim Schwartz' corner of the Weis Man blogosphere, and with my next entry here -- let me simply say that it is good to be back to (almost) full strength...]

How Do You Measure A Life?
Sermon for Chayei Sarah – October 29, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie, MD

In our portion on this Shabbat, Abraham returns home after the attempt to sacrifice Isaac, and we learn immediately of the death of Sarah. The tradition links those 2 statements into one, usually claiming that the reason for Sarah’s death was shock and heartbreak at how close Abraham came to actually sacrificing Isaac. Indeed, the traditional view that Isaac was 37 years old, and not a young lad himself, when this life-changing event occurred on the mountain, stems from this nexus of events.

Abraham, our role model and first Jewish ancestor, confronts the reality of his beloved life-partner’s death as any of us would – by making arrangements for her to have a proper burial in a proper burial site. These efforts lead to an almost comical negotiation for the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, which becomes the family tomb in which all of the patriarchs and matriarchs except Rachel (but including Joseph) find their eventual resting place.

With those details taken care of, Abraham, again acting to maintain the strength of his family members, recognizes that the loss of Sarah will be a huge loss for Isaac, even moreso for whatever damage has been irreparably done to HIS relationship with his son. And so, he arranges for his servant to travel back to Haran to find a bride there for Isaac, so he will be looked after as well. That journey brings Rebekah into the family.

Lost in that traditional swimming against the stream when it comes to Isaac’s age at the time of the sacrifice, lost in the other aspects of the portion that are usually stressed, are two powerful truths. The first of those truths is that this portion, uniquely, is driven almost from beginning to end by WOMEN. Sarah’s death is the catalyst for all of Abraham’s actions in this chapter. Rebekah’s arrival on the scene establishes her rather remarkable place in the family structure and dynamic as the lead character of her generation.

But even more than that, from start to finish, this portion is about a concept that we have been looking closely at this year already – legacy. Although the word that I translate as legacy – toldot – does not appear here (it IS the name of next week’s portion, however!), it is clear that what we should be focused on throughout out recap of Sarah’s life, is its impact on others.

Sarah’s death leads Abraham, who, up until now, has been a wanderer rather than a landowner, to purchase a plot of land for her burial. In so doing, he becomes a landowner in what becomes Israel, and establishes a legacy for his family that reaches down to us still today. Our claim on Israel as the Jewish homeland stems, originally, from Abraham’s purchase of Machpelah – a powerful legacy indeed.

Sarah’s death leads Abraham to make sure Isaac is cared for, and brings Rebekah into the family. Rebekah – mother of twins. Rebekah -- who CLEARLY ran the household, and was the lead character, not Isaac, in that generation. Rebekah – with whom God spoke directly, and without whom, left to his own devices, Isaac might very well have passed the family legacy on to Esau and NOT Jacob!

But go back and look at Sarah’s role IN LIFE. She is there from the original lech l’cha – the original call to go forth. She is equally credited, along with Abraham, for bringing many followers of their theological revolution into the fold. It was Sarah who decided that Abraham needed a son – an heir, a legacy – that she apparently could not give him, and so offered her handmaid, Hagar, to him for that purpose.

It was Sarah who laughed when she overheard that she would, indeed, provide that legacy for her husband in their old age. It was Sarah who, after Isaac was born, worried about Ishmael’s presence and its impact on Abraham’s legacy, her son, and insisted that Ishmael and Hagar be sent packing.

And finally, it is Sarah’s presence as Isaac’s mother which Abraham avoids on the way out to follow God’s call. We usually look at Abraham’s early awakening in the morning, his punctilious personal attention to every detail of this sacrifice, as indicative of his worthiness before God. Last Shabbat, we recast it as an attempt to shift focus from the big picture to the small details – a desperate stalling tactic.

But tonight, what if the real truth, whether deliberate, or unintended consequence, is that Abraham’s early departure cut Sarah out of the loop, and prevented her from having any impact on his efforts to follow his perception of God’s command?! Could this TOO be part of Sarah’s legacy?! Might Abraham’s early departure have been deliberate, out of fear that if Sarah knew what was going on, she would try to stop it? ! That if he had to answer her questions as vaguely as he did with Isaac, she would not be nearly as accepting of his avoidances?!

If this is even remotely possible, then it seems to me that the ultimate result, as expressed in this week’s portion and amplified in the Midrash, that Sarah died AS A DIRECT result of hearing what had almost happened upon Abraham’s return, is even MORE likely to be at least somewhat accurate. If this is even remotely true then, in a real sense, Sarah’s death becomes part of the legacy of her life, triggered, in part, by her surprise at hearing the news that Abraham had deliberately withheld from her in advance, out of fear that she might succeed in blocking his efforts to follow God’s wishes! A first example of karma in the Torah!

But also, fittingly, a re-affirmation of Sarah’s strength and standing as an actor ON HER OWN. If Abraham had no reason to fear her intervention, no expectation that her desires might trump his own, then he would have had no reason, stemming from Sarah, to leave so early and avoid telling her until afterwards! No reason save the reason many of us in the same circumstance would still have done as he did – to spare the woman he loved from any unnecessary worry and fear for her son’s welfare, unless or until it became necessary to tell her that God really DID want Isaac as a sacrifice!

In other words, either Sarah’s character was clearly formidable in her own right, or else she was the reflection of Abraham’s true faith that God would, as occurred, relent at the last minute to spare Isaac. Either way, her legacy, and theirs as a couple, is profound indeed!

But let us change our focus for a second – and look to ourselves. What is our legacy to be? What are we leaving behind – individually and collectively – as more than mere evidence that we once existed here? What imprint are we making that will outlive us, and keep our memories and values alive? And what are the values that we want to leave behind for others?
We talked of this at the High Holy Days, as we identified the desire to establish a meaningful legacy as one of the ways of answering our need for survival. We talked of this when we dedicated our new Memorial Boards. We talked of it at the recent tragic death of Ben Toulotte.

For myself, between planning for David’s Bar Mitzvah, and the influx of responses to our invitations; and dealing with my own aging and mortality as I rehab my knee; and in the aftermath of last weekend’s remarkable celebration of OUR first 10 years together, this has also been a focus of late. In celebrating our 10 years together, in looking back and being able to see what we have accomplished, it is easy to see such an imprint that we are leaving for those who will follow us.

None of that happened as easily as the benefit of hindsight makes it appear. But, at the same time, none of it happened from waking up one morning and declaring “Let’s create some legacy!” and then bulldozing forward to make it happen! Most of the speakers last Saturday night were way too kind in crediting my role in much of what was discussed. For, in truth, much of what we have accomplished over these last 10 years has been a byproduct of being in the right place at the right time to make a suggestion, to know who to call for answers, advice, and help. The real effort here was in establishing and maintaining the contacts, of getting and staying involved in the life of the community, and being open to the possibilities and willing to risk failure when they presented themselves! I see THAT as my living legacy, even more than the outcomes it helped and still helps to create!

In preparing for my son’s celebration with our community and our family, it is easy to be proud of all that he has accomplished and to see him – and his sister – as a legacy of which I can be proud. For all of us blessed to have children, clearly, they are a large part of our legacy. This truth, is, in part, why Ben Toulotte’s passing felt even more tragic – how do you comfort a grieving grandparent? A piece of what we all felt would be his legacy was now gone…

But, as any parent will tell you, our children do NOT always reflect what we would necessarily like our legacy to be! How we raise them to be the good people we hope they will be, to live by the values that we would emphasize as our legacy, these are critical components in our success in creating children who ARE more than just our physical legacy.

And in dealing appropriately with our own aging, human frailties, and weaknesses – here too we have a chance to create a lasting legacy. By showing those who will follow how we deal with our frustrations, our shortcomings, our slowing down – hopefully with wisdom and grace – we give ourselves one more opportunity to be role models, one more chance to leave behind something of value and worth to others.

This is the message with which Mitch Albom first touched our hearts in “Tuesday’s with Morrie.” This can and should be a guiding principle for each of us as we age gracefully, and seek to continue to develop programs dealing with the changed demographics of the Jewish community in general, and the uniqueness that is our own Solel family as we move towards our 50th birthday together, and more of our members reach life milestones that our grandparents could only marvel at achieving.

Who better to create our communal legacy than those who are living their lives at these various moments within them? Who better to teach us about the joys and challenges of older age than those who are enjoying it, and those who are troubled by its downside? Who better to create programming and resources for active Jewish grandparenting and great-grandparenting, empty-nesting, or the true meaning of retirement than those who are living that reality that others of us will, God-willing, soon get to enjoy and be challenged by!

THIS is how, individually and collectively, we can learn the lessons of Chayei Sarah, how we can keep alive the legacy of her powerful life, every bit as much as her more recognized husband’s legacy, in our own lives as Jews. And if there is no place in our legacy for embrace of Abraham AND Sarah, then I have to wonder how we recognize ourselves as Jews! Just sayin’! KYR