Friday, November 13, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha

After the climax of the akeida at the end of last week's parsha, Avraham and Sarah quickly disappear from the scene in this week's parsha. Sarah, of course, dies at the very beginning of the parsha, but even Avraham quickly fades into the background. The spotlight moves to Avraham's servant, to Rivka and her family, and then to Yitzchak. While Avraham remarries and sires many children, this appears almost as a footnote, and we read soon thereafter of his death and burial.

Now, we would expect this fading out of Avraham when the story shifts its focus to Yitzchak, as it does in Parshat Toldot (and as Yitzchak fades into the background when Yaakov moves to the foreground in Parshat Vayetze). However, in Chayei Sarah, Yitzchak has not yet moved to center stage, and yet Avraham has already faded into the background. Why is that?

I believe what we are seeing is Avraham's retirement. Avraham has struggled all his life. To call out in the name of God, to battle kings and to save his nephew, to deal with kings who would take his wife, but most of all to have a son who would succeed him. Finally, after much struggle - first in believing in a divine promise that was not materializing, then in believing it to have been fulfilled through Yishmael only to see that possibility rejected by God, then in finally having a son through Sarah only to have it followed by God's incomprehensible command to bring his son as a sacrifice, and then in offering his son up only to be told to take him down - finally, finally, he has the son that he has been promised, and all is well. "Va'Hashem berakh et Avraham b'kol," "And God blessed Avraham with everything" (Breishit 24:1). Avraham has the son that he has always prayed for, and he has achieved the pinnacle of his service to God - "Atah ya'dati ki y'rei E-lohim atah," "Now I know that you are fearing of God," (Breishit 22:12). He has achieved all that he has set out to achieve, and his struggles are over.

But with the end of struggle, also comes the end of challenge, the end of meaning and of purpose. Consider the contrast that we are presented with at the end of Vayera (this was pointed out to me by my dear friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Halberstam. I also understand that Dr. Uriel Simon has made the same point). Avraham comes down from the mountain after almost sacrificing his one son that Sarah bore to him at his advanced age, and what does he hear? That, in the meanwhile, his brother, Nachor, has effortlessly had eight children through his wife, Milkah. And Avraham is the one with the blessing! But such is the case - a blessing means work, a blessing means struggle. Avraham is at the center of history. Every part of Avraham's life is imbued with meaning - for him, and for future generations. Meanwhile, his brother Nachor might be having eight children and living the good life, but he does not exist on the historical scene. His life is not one of significance, not one of meaning.

What then happens to Avraham after he has achieved all that he has struggled for, when he stops struggling? He moves into retirement and off of center stage. He may now have six more children and another wife, but they are nothing more than a footnote, a parentheses. It is his life of struggle that produced Yitzchak, that presented him with ten challenges that he lived up to in his service of God, that is the life worth recording, that is the life of historical meaning.

A similar point was made this week in an Op-Ed piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. He argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred twenty years ago this week, the West and Democracy has ceased to be truly threatened in an existential way. As a result, we have lost our sense of purpose. He states:

And it may be that the only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is. . . Humankind fears judgment, of course. But we depend on it as well. The possibility of dissolution lends a moral shape to history: we want our empires to fall as well as rise, and we expect decadence to be rewarded with destruction. Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility - as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin.

Struggle gives purpose to our lives. More than that, only those things that we struggle for, that we sacrifice for, are the things that we truly hold dear. This point is made in the Jewish context by Yishayahu Leibowitz in "Religious Praxis" (in Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State). There he compares the symbol of Christianity - the cross- with a somewhat analogous Jewish symbol of sacrifice - the akeida. Both speak to the notion of sacrifice, but in profoundly different ways:

[Christianity's] symbol, the cross, represents the sacrifice God brought about for the benefit of mankind. In contrast, the highest symbol of Jewish faith is the stance of Abraham on Mount Moriah, where all human values were annulled an overridden by fear and love of God. . . No doubt a religion of values, an "endowing religion" such as Christianity. . . is capable of gratifying certain psychic needs. Today, "seekers of religion" or "seekers of God" in order "to fill a vacuum in the soul" are legion. Such a religion is likely therefore to attain some popularity. It will never become an educative force. Men like comforting religions which require no effort, but they do not revere them or take them seriously. It is a basic psychological fact that men respect and adore only that which is demanding, which requires sacrifices and imposes duties."

It is in this vein that the midrash teaches that "Three great gifts were given to the Jewish people. . . are acquired only through suffering. . . and they are: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World-to-Come." (Sifrei vaEtchanan). To achieve the things that are most important, we must struggle to achieve them. And though our struggle to achieve them, they become most important to us.

Anything truly worthwhile in our lives, anything worth having, anything that we treasure, is a thing that we have had to work for, a thing that we have had to sacrifice for.

Just as it was with Avraham's struggles on account of his children before and after they were born, just as it was with all our foremothers who were childless and struggled to have children, so it is with all of us and our children. The more we sacrifice, the more with invest in our children, the more we endure tza'ar giddul banim, the pains of child rearing, whether we want to or not, the stronger our bond with them is, the more they mean to us, the more every moment with them is imbued with meaning.

As Devorah and I wrote in our Jewish Week article, it is an ongoing struggle raising children with "invisible disabilities." There has been much tza'ar giddul banim. Sometimes it has felt like more than we could handle. But now the bar mitzvah of our oldest son is coming up, and we look back and see how much he has grown, how much he has matured and accomplished, and how much he has overcome. And it is because of our struggle over the years, and because of his struggle and his endurance, that every accomplishment is so sweet and so meaningful.

For every one of us, we must make sure that we do not move into an early retirement from life, from its struggles and from its accomplishments. Let us make sure never to lose sight of those things that are truly important - God, Torah, the Land of Israel, Klal Yisrael, and of course, our family and our children. Let us always be prepared to endure the struggle that is necessary, necessary because what we struggle for is so important, and necessary because it is through the struggle that they will become ever so important to us.

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