SERMON – Chayei Sarah 2020

Rabbi David Edleson November 13, 2020
Temple Sinai, S. Burlington, Vermont

AL KOL EILEH – for all these…

The rabbis often try to find ways to portray the matriarchs and patriarchs as model humans in model relationships. They are righteous, humble, pious, strong, clever, emotionally intelligent, and just. When it comes to Genesis, “the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

But one of the things I love most deeply about the Torah is how real these people are, how complex, and brave, and cowardly, and messy like we all are. We love these characters because of their imperfection, their humanity; because we can see ourselves in them if we but take off the “Bible Glasses” and see the richness of the characters.

In this week’s portion, called Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, we find that Sarah has died. Remember, Sarah insisted Abraham kick out his son Ishmael, but then Abraham up and snatches Isaac as well, not to kick out but to take to sacrifice. Then Sarah dies. Is it from her sense of helplessness with her only son taken? Is it from sadness that Isaac has been killed? Is it from a sense of betrayal that Isaac left her this way? Is it regret at how she had treated Hagar? Is it from sheer rage at Abraham and life? The Torah is silent. In that situation, what would have been your emotional state?

We all react differently when we are put in times of upheaval, when the things we new and did to keep ourselves steady are washed away, and we find ourselves afloat on tidal waves of uncertainty, loss, and change.

A Buddhist might tell us that our attachment to outcomes, our very expectation of dependability is what is causing our suffering, but in Judaism, we believe in being invested and committed to certain outcomes and values, and so in times of upheaval it is easy to feel lost, out at sea. It reminds me of the story of Jonah, when no matter how hard the sailors row to get back to shore, the storm winds just keep blowing them further out to sea.

I think rowing for the shore in the midst of raging storms and shifting winds is exhausting and demoralizing. I think maybe Sarah was just tired of rowing against the wind. Her fierceness and her laughter is gone.

And her son, Isaac, whose name means “laughter” is also not to be found. After he and Abraham came down the hill from the near sacrifice, he disappears. He is not with his father, Abraham, and who could blame him? He is not with his mother, either. He is alone, lonely, shaken. He wanders and ends up going to where his half-brother Ishmael and Ishmael’s mom, Hagar were living.

I can’t help but hear him thinking:  my parents are crazy and dangerous so I’m going to live with that nanny I really loved and my brother who liked to play with me. But even in this, he is silent. He is absent, and somewhat checked out.

When Abraham decides to get a wife for Isaac and sends his servant back to their homeland to get one, Isaac is nowhere to be found. We next hear about Isaac after his wife is already on her way back, when the text  tells us that :

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening

Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening…

How many walks have you taken since COVID hit? How many of you have taken walks outside toward evening to relax, forget some of the crazy around us, and connect with something beautiful and real and reliable?

The verb in the Hebrew translated as ‘walking’ isn’t really clear. The rabbis and early translations say he was praying or meditating in the field toward evening. That’s how the rabbis justified making our evening services mandatory. “Well, Isaac did it, so shouldn’t we?”

Walking outside is itself a sort of prayer, a sort of connection to things larger, enduring, beautiful, and comforting. We are part of this living crust of the earth, and so when we are walking outside, we are not separate beings walking upon an alien land;  we are connecting and communing with something we are part of:  CREATION.

Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening…

Having lost his brother, his nanny, then his mother, only to be almost killed by his father, Isaac understandably needed some alone time. The rabbis teach us that he took a path where he was sure he wouldn’t run into anyone, he went off-road.

But even then, he looks up “Yis’a Einav” as in prayer and what does he see?

וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

He looks up to see camels coming toward him.

I can imagine he was like, “really?”  but then he sees Rebeccah fall off her camel, and in a great surprise for this silent, sullen loner, who has been saddled with the ironic name of “Laughter” he immediately trusts here and falls in love. He still doesn’t say a word, but he takes her to the tent he grew up in with his mother, and there they make a new home, and laughter returns. We read:

Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah lived in complicated times, made more complex by their displacement, their being immigrants, and by living in an area where civilization had devolved  into battling petty kings. But there, in the midst of loss and trauma, is Isaac walking in the evening, looking up and falling in love.

In the midst of a pandemic that is worsening, in the midst of political tensions that are scary and out of our control mostly, in the midst of aging parents, or suffering children, or unfaithful spouse, or friends who have unfriended you, we can still go out walking in the fields toward evening and find the most exquisite moments of beauty, of meaning, of love, and these are made all the more meaningful by their appearance at times like these.

They are always there, these moments, waiting for us like sparks of holiness, if we can just let ourselves see slow down and see them. Those moments of beauty help us remember that all of this life is a gift, even the hard, messy parts. It is the totality of it that makes our lives, like the characters of the Torah, so rich, and difficult and complex. But also so meaningful. At times like these, it is particularly important to stop, walk, and give thanks for all of it, the bitter and the sweet, and bee and the sting.

Our lives are complex combinations of our best and our worst. Our nation is a complex combination of our best and our worst. Israel is a complex combination of our best and our worst. Of course, we must work for tikkun olam, making the world better, more fair, more just, but along the way, we must stop to give thanks for life in all its messiness, not to only look at the good or only look at the bad, but to hold our lives in their entirety and thank God that we are here.

Many people wonder how Israelis and Palestinians are able to cope with all the craziness of their lives in that part of the world. One of the answers is by seeing all of it as part of life, and by reflecting it in the music. One song I think of is Naomi Shemer’s Al Kol Eileh that expresses exactly this idea, so I want to sing it now with you.

Al kol eileh, al kol eilah
sh’mor na li  Eili hatov
Al ha-d’vash v’al ha-oketz
al-hamar v’hamatok
Al na ta’akor natu’a
al tishkach et haTikvah
Hashiveini  v’ashuvah
el ha-aretz ha-tovah

For the honey and the bee sting,
for the bitter and the sweet,
all the things that join as one
to make our lives complete
For the future of our children,
Our prayers will never cease,
for the hope that with tomorrow comes a world of peace