Torah at the Thanksgiving Table — Chayei Sarah

This week in America, we anticipate Thanksgiving – a time that has been a favorite of mine – Thanksgiving is like a Shabbat for the USA, and personally, it is also a time of a few family birthdays – a time that is sweetly cherished in its deliberateness and savored in its preciousness.

And after a lifetime of looking out for others – running to serve them, days after his surgery for circumcision – after doggedly arguing in vain for a bunch of sinners in Sodom and Gemorrah, after dealing with strong regional leaders and balancing competing interests as he seeks to make a home in a strange yet promised land, after appeasing his wife Sarah by expelling Hagar and her son Ishmael – Abraham is tired.

He is asked to take his son Isaac, and to offer him as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah, walking for three days to get to the place that God had shown him – and he seems to be walking in a trance, with his movements slowed down, as if he was underwater – a feeling that I imagine is like the one I often see in the immediate aftermath of those who are processing the death of a beloved relative or friend.  The rest of the world keeps spinning – however in that moment, those so aggrieved seem to be standing still, going through the motions as if covered in heavy syrup.

We seek the breakdown of his family – immediately after the incident at Moriah, he and Isaac separate – Abraham returning to Be’ersheva and Isaac seemingly going to live in Be’er-lahai-ro’I, a place not associated with Abraham, but rather with Hagar – the rejected handmaiden of Abraham who was earlier exiled from his household.  This place seems to be where the estranged members of Abraham’s family collect after disagreement and living together through many years of pain.

Deciding to persevere, even after such rejection and disappointment is admirable.  Living at the center of spiritual casualty and grave uncertainty is not enviable – and yet, at a certain point in our development, what other choice might we have?  The fact that Abraham continued to live is resistance in itself, against the weariness that he must have felt.  He may feel the essential and vital spark that he once felt when he once arrived in the land of Canaan was now absent.

Here he is going through the motions, dutifully burying his wife Sarah in Hebron, and arranging a wife for Isaac, without the intimacy of speaking to God – without a spring in his step – the last word he actually heard from God was on top of the mountain after nearly killing his son – words that seem bitterly ironic after such harrowing experience – a promise of plenty and abundance.  Yet that was so long ago, and like the Book of Esther – in this stage of his life, God is silent and Abraham gets his direction from an unknown, unsubstantiated voice, which propels him forward.

As we look around at our family and friends, especially before Thanksgiving, when we ritually gather around a table in gratitude, we may feel the creeping dread of having to talk about what is going on in our lives – our political opinions, our hopes and our fears, our perceived state of this country that may be so divergent from others with whom we solemnly share our lives in this occasion of holiday.

We can learn from the example of Abraham in this time – to not abandon his responsibilities, to hang in there, taking care of essential tasks while he comes to terms with the promises given to him about his life on one hand, and the circumstances of what is actually transpiring, on the other.  How complicit he is himself in his anguish is a question for another time.  Here, in his estrangement and disenchantment, he presses on.

And what of his idealism and his activism, from before?  The welcoming of guests outside of his tent with gracious hospitality, passionately standing up against injustice in the places that he lives, immersing in the byzantine byways of political process to effect change as he encounters other leaders, staying the course in personal relationships that have profoundly changed after so many years – what would he say to Sarah, or Isaac, or Ishmael if he would ever speak to them again?  Despite everything – all of the water under the bridge – how would he patch up his relationships and find a way – even forming shaky, unstable coalitions – that would enable him to live in fuller relationship?

Abraham shows us that we cannot live in a zero-sum game.  Like our ancestor, we can neither resort to the most catastrophic options of discourse and engagement, every time we are bothered, nor is this a time to be lazy and complacent, thinking that our angst, or those who are angst-ridden, will just disappear.  We are now asked to do our jobs – gingerly yet resolutely attending to the casualty and alarm, all around us.

So let us look forward to Thanksgiving – and let us immerse pragmatically into the world that is coming – addressing all that we need to address with determination and resilience.  We are not about acting in order to change the opinions or mindsets of others – rather in our day-to-day work, we are to model the world that we imagine, even after our mistakes, trying mightily to contribute our sparks of redemption, as we rely unconditionally on the value of an internal holiness and on the enduring justice of a silent God giving witness to the mess that we are now in.

About the Author
Neil Blumofe is senior rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas.
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