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Parshat Chayei Sarah: When Survival Trumps All


Rabbi David Hartman expresses his definition of a religious ideal:

“Become a religious person who can live with ambiguity, who can feel religious conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty.

Framed in this mode, Avraham can be regarded as the paradigm Jew. He heard the voice of God that told him take his son up to Har HaMoriah and likewise he heard the voice of the angel telling him not to raise the knife to his son.

He envisioned his son as the sacrifice, but he was also open to other options which allowed him to notice the ram in the thicket that would replace his son’s place as the sacrifice. He handled multiple perspectives simultaneously - his tent was open on all sides. But this was only possible because his wife Sarah could not - more importantly WOULD NOT - live with ambiguity. Where he was compassionate, she was pragmatic; where he was indecisive, she was decisive; where he displayed ambivalence, she was unequivocal. His tent could be open on all sides because she acted as the sentinel through which all outsiders must pass.

She set the goals, she pursued the mission. Uncompromising and intolerant, she knew that with a covenantal destiny and divine mission comes harsh realities and survival instincts entailing sacrifice of self-interest and, at times even one’s own ethical compass.

The life of counter-possibilities is the one with which Avraham has learnt to live. However, the life of rigid structure is the only way that Sarah can live. Sarah’s death, according to Rashi who quotes the midrash, was because she heard of Yitzchak’s ‘almost’ death at the hands of his father - וכמעט שלא נשחט. Her death was a result of an impossible existence of - כמעט almost. The ambivalence of life ‘after’ the event, the enigma of the ‘almost’ death, the uncertainty of what lies ahead, if and when it will re-occur infiltrated every part of her existence, making living impossible. The entangled mode of existence that permeates Avraham’s actions at the Akeida leads ultimately to Sarah’s demise.

Our Parsha, Chayei Sarah, is named for Sarah’s life rather than her death, for in it Avraham emulates her legacy. He understands that he must now play both the role of Avraham and that of Sarah. He must balance compassion and pragmatism, ideology and realism. He must claim a stake in the land not by bequest but by right and might. He must keep his eyes on the goal - have more children, become the father of many nations but must send them away from Yitzchak to prevent them becoming a threat to the Abrahamic covenant. In other words, he must live the clarity of Sarah’s perspective through the framework of his own compassionate vision. It is an almost impossible feat. To have the passion, strength of belief and determination of a youngster balanced with the understanding, nuanced and wisdom-seeking outlook of an elder.

Maybe that is why Sarah’s death is described in the following way:

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה “

“Sarah’s lifetime --the span of Sarah’s life - one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”

Sarah’s death was as her life: compartmentalized, each part existing as a separate unit. There was no integration, but total clarity and unequivocal boundaries. When she was hundred, she was as if she was twenty and when she was twenty as if she was seven.

Sarah never lost the passion of youth. She remained married to her ideologic goals and pursued the divine covenantal mission until her dying day. It is what made her so admirable, so compelling. She was willing to sacrifice everything (her dignity in Egypt and Gerar, her motherhood through Yishmael, her relationship with her husband through Hagar). But ultimately this was not enough to contain the nuance of the Akeida. The moment of כמעט ולא cannot be applied to all people at all times. It was not for the Jews living in Galut or the Jews at the time of the Greeks. Rabbi Hartman’s description is profound, and to my mind a religious ideal, but there are moments in our history that demand we adopt the model of Sarah rather than Avraham.

Today we stand in fear and trepidation, questioning our behaviour - if we have been too benevolent, too understanding, too naive in our perception of the world, of our enemies, of human nature. For many of us, what was shattered on Simchat Torah 7th October, was not just the belief in ourselves, our strength, security and military prowess, but perhaps more hauntingly, our belief in the goodness of humanity; in the Avraham persona; in the legacy of the tent open on all sides. It was a call for us to return to the legacy of Sarah and listen to her voice (שמע בקולה). The legacy that says in unequivocal terms to our Avraham tendencies that prefer compassion and empathy - גרש האמה הזאת, ואת-בנה – cast out this woman and her son. The legacy of Sarah willing to sacrifice herself at the hands of kings for the sake of the covenantal survival, the legacy that sees reality in the binary categories of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white, that has little patience for apologetics or liberal gymnastics.

This is not the time to find 10 righteous men in Sodom, nor is it the time to argue about whether a specific action is righteous or not. It is the time to fight for our survival, to know that the future of our people depends on us making ruthless decisions that may compromise our established ethical proclivities. It is the time to return to the days of our youth and adopt the uncompromising ideology of the Zionist dream, the secret of our 3000-year survival that united us in the past and must unite us today. To close ranks, huddle tight together and remind ourselves again and again - in the words of Golda Meir “we have nowhere else to go”. We need to mirror Avraham’s actions in this week’s parsha - grieve, eulogize and bury our loved ones, re-possess our land, knowing that we have acquired it not through favors, sympathy or the benevolence of a foreign body, but through fair and equal terms. We need to do everything to ensure that ‘never again’ will truly once and for all be ‘never again’, so that at some time in the future we may return to the legacy of Avraham that refuses to only live in survival mode, shut off from its wider and more comprehensive religious and national mission. One day we will return to a perspective that is able to house ambiguity and nurture compassion, promote peace with strangers and foster a deep and powerful religious humanism. In the meantime, the legacy of Sarah lives on.


(Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

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