Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. – Kierkegaard
This week’s Torah reading (Genesis 23:1-25:18) starts with the death of Sarah and ends with the deaths of Abraham and his son Ishmael, clearing the stage for the next generations where the Blessing of Abraham is curated by Isaac, stress-tested by Jacob, and finally sent forth into the broad world through Jacob’s twelve sons and their descendants.
“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years: the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba; this is Hebron in the land of Canaan…” (Gen. 23:1-2). Sarah is, as far as I know, the only woman in the Torah whose age at death is mentioned. This is a critical textual marker. The passages of “the begats,” chapters 5 and 10 of Genesis, list male offspring together with the lifespans of their fathers. For example (Gen. 11:10 ff) “These are the descendants of Shem: Shem was one hundred years old when he fathered Arpachshad, two years after the flood. And Shem lived after he begot Arpachshad for five hundred years, and he fathered sons and daughters.” (Shem, from whose name we get “Semite,” is Abraham’s direct ancestor.) The father’s age marks the birth of the designated heir. The other children are an afterthought.
Last week (Gen. 21:1-5) we read “Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born.” As with the previous generations, the text records Abraham’s age at Isaac’s birth. Now it records Sarah’s age at passing. By stating her age, the text makes Sarah Abraham’s equal in the genealogy.
Uniquely in this narrative, both parents are tied to the birth of Isaac. Sarah is as important as Abraham to the transmission of the Covenant and its blessings. This is hinted at (Gen. 24:67) Isaac “… married Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her, and Isaac was consoled regarding his mother.” Isaac grew up with a distant, fanatical father. But his mother, Sarah, was fiercely protective of him, setting everything aside for her son. It was likely Sarah’s love that sustained Isaac at the moment his own father held the knife to his throat.
It takes two to tango. And it especially takes two to reproduce. Yet the mere act of procreation is not enough. Abraham has a covenantal relationship with God, but the Covenant and its attendant blessings can only be sustained by being passed on to future generations. And that means Abraham must have children, and the children must be educated, must be formed morally and spiritually. The text recognizes Sarah as the matriarch; Abraham didn’t do all this on his own. Still, as the text indicates, Abraham and Sarah are living separately. How did they become estranged?
It’s easy to lose sight of other people. Not even those closest to us; especially those closest to us. It is often the people we most rely on in our lives whom we most overlook. Like the furniture in our home, because they are always there, it’s easy to forget the people we are closest to. We don’t like to think of ourselves as ignoring our loved ones. But it’s a short step from coming to rely on someone, to taking them for granted.
This kind of forgetting travels upwards. It is difficult for parents to put their children out of their minds. Even when our children are grown, we long to speak with them, to see them. We think of our children when they are far away and we wish them well. But those on whom we rely, often those to whom we owe a significant measure of our own achievement – our parents, our spouses – it is easy for us to forget the contribution they have made to our success. We often congratulate ourselves and discount what others have done for us. What God has done for us. Paradoxically it is in this world, where the soul is placed into our hands for safekeeping, that we are frequently most unaware of God.
The relationship between Sarah and Abraham also symbolizes the relationship of the body (Sarah) to the soul (Abraham.) Hasidic teachings emphasize the importance of the body: without it the soul can never attain its purpose. We are sent into this world for a reason; God’s purpose for us is here. In our brief time in this world are expected to accomplish something unique that only we can accomplish. There is some once-in-cosmic-history achievement waiting to be brought about during your soul’s brief sojourn in your particular body. It’s a great challenge – but what a blessing, to know that God entrusted each one of us with a unique task.
Since our lives happen in this world, looking for an ultimate reward is a dangerous distraction. We keep “eyes on the prize,” at the expense of paying attention to the task at hand. There’s a fine line between vision and illusion. The immortal soul is not imprisoned in the temporary body. Rather, through living in this world, the soul is refined. Our job is to participate knowingly, consciously, actively in educating the soul entrusted to our care.
As the body houses the soul, so our personal relationships house us. Like a pattern of fractals, our life radiates out in ever-widening circles. We must tend to the parts closest in. Only then can we effectively face the wide world into which we are cast. By the same token, we must fully bond with the people with whom we share our lives. It is only in a fully realized Outside / Inside partnership that we can complete God’s assignment.
The Torah emphasizes stewardship. Adam is put into the garden “to serve the garden and to protect it” (Gen. 2:15) and God gives him Eve as a “help” who is “meet” to be Adam’s full and intimate partner. We must learn to integrate our spiritual with our physical sides.
This concept of the soul inhabiting the body, precisely in order to perfect the soul, is also expressed in Christian teachings which see the embodiment of God in Jesus as God’s desire to experience what it means to be human. This concretizes the message: the capacity to dwell within another’s mind, another’s heart, is so difficult that even God must come down to our level in order to learn empathy. How challenging must it be, then, for us to maintain relationships in our lives?
True compassion and the ability to change the world come from empathy, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s place. To see the world from within another person’s mind and heart. And learning empathy is also the path for self-discovery. It is easy to reject people with whom we disagree as “ignorant” or “stupid,” or even “evil” We should not delude ourselves. Because no one consciously wants to do evil. Anger and frustration and feeling trapped, these feelings often express themselves in rage. But being enraged is actually allowing ourselves to become a victim. This is not at all the same as being evil, though it looks the same. If we fail to acknowledge our own capacity for being completely out of control, we lose touch with our own humanity. How then are we to see the humanity of other people?
After the creation of Eve (Gen. 2:24) we read, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” “Becoming one flesh” doesn’t refer only to reproduction. All animals reproduce. Beyond the biological function, what is unique to humans is our ability to forge a union of souls, a relationship in which both partners draw so close together that they are no longer distinguishable as separate entities. In an ideal marriage – in any properly functioning relationship – we do not surrender our identity; we offer it up in service of a third, new and greater entity, which is the relationship itself, and all that it can accomplish.
Sarah was Abraham’s kindred soul. And yet Abraham forgot, because he was busy with his task in the world. We all face the challenge of balancing our work with the people in our lives. In a true loving relationship, each party must want for the other that thing which the other most wants. That, and not some vision of the future, is the prize on which we must focus. Or rather, focus on both. On the work, and on those for whom we work – and who truly want our happiness and success, even if they can not find it in themselves to express it. True teammates focus on winning the game, not on who gets to score. Business partners focus on advancing the firm’s interest, not on How big is my bonus? Husband and wife support one another’s ambitions.
For all his greatness, there is a missing piece in Abraham, who is able to sustain the Covenant with God, yet who fails his own wife. We so often see this in public figures who are devoted to changing the world, but their family life suffers. It doesn’t have to be so. As with so much else in life, it begins with awareness.
It is a rare blessing to find one’s true soul-mate, someone who will enthusiastically embrace and support and share our dreams and ambitions; someone whom we respect deeply, and whose ambitions inspire us as well. For those of us still seeking that soul-mate, we should take on the challenge of drawing closer to those already in our lives. We can work on our relationships with family, friends and business partners. With all the people to whom we are tied – and with whom we experience unavoidable conflict.
In every problematic relationship, those who take it upon themselves to make the relationship work not only gain power in the relationship, but also spiritual healing for themselves. And once we are healed ourselves, then we can offer healing to others. It’s hard to remember that when other people are being difficult, it’s generally because they know no other way to behave. Compassion, not anger, is the path to resolving conflict. The Torah shows us that even God struggles with the consequences of God’s own creation. How much more necessary must it be for us to go through the same exercise over and over?
None of this is easy. Yet know that the harder you work, the more will come to you.
Yours for a better world.