Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chaye Sarah

The "Two Lives" of Sarah

by Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki

"And Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old; these were the years of the life of Sarah" (Genesis 23, 1)

The beginning of the portion Chaye Sarah ("The life of Sarah") deals, paradoxically, with the death of the matriarch Sarah.

What is the full explanation of the ambiguous Hebrew phrase "Shnay Chaye Sarah"?

The literal meaning tells us that Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old at the time of her death. However, there is another reading which I would like to discuss today.

Perhaps it is possible to understand the ambiguous phrase through interpretation and not only through its literal meaning. Maybe Sarah's life was divided into two periods and that is the interpretation of the phrase "Shnay Chaye Sarah" ("Shnay" in Hebrew also means "Two").

Why consider that Sarah's life was divided into two periods?

There are events that may change our lives completely. The birth of a child, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, an operation, a death of a dear one or a child born in old age, as was the case with Sarah. It is very possible for our lives to have more than one distinct period. We do not live every moment of our lives with the same intensity. We all have something in our lives that changed us, that made us mature, sometimes even through pain and suffering.

Perhaps the first word of the Torah Portion "Vayihyu" ("And these were") can help us to illustrate that idea. The writer of "Mincha Belulah" suggests that the word "Vayihyu" in Gematria (numerology) is thirty seven (37) and if we subtract that from Sarah's 127 years we reach the age of ninety (90) which is when Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

We can say that Sarah had two periods in her life: the first until the age of ninety (90), years of suffering with regard to the son she could only dream about, and the second period of thirty seven years (37), years of happiness with the son who was the fulfillment of her dreams.

There is a tale about a man who walked in a forest and came across a cemetery.
Curiously, he noticed something strange in the headstones which were engraved with the ages of those who were buried there.

He was astounded. It seemed that all those buried there were children, the oldest being seventeen. The strangest thing was that the ages were written in detail: years, months, weeks, days, hours and even minutes and seconds.

How could such a thing be possible? Had there perhaps been an epidemic?
Still shocked, the man came to the neighbouring village, found one of the elders and asked him what tragedy had occurred there.

But there had been no epidemic and no catastrophe.

The old man told him about an ancient custom observed in that village. Each boy reaching bar mitzvah age received a notebook which was hung around his neck and in which he would record all moments of happiness and high points. In one column he recorded the experience and in another how long it had lasted.

If he fell in love for the first time, he would record how long the sublime feeling had lasted. Days? Weeks?

A first pregnancy, a dream trip, a joyful reunion with a brother living abroad...how long had the excitement lasted?

When the person died, they would take the notebook and calculate the time of pleasure.

Those were the ages that appeared on the headstones, for only those moments that are lived intensively are considered as truly living.

"Teach us to number our days" (Psalms 90, 12) is the prayer. May the G-d teach us to number and appreciate our days, to understand the value of each moment.

Even if they seem only a few years compared to ninety, the weight of thirty seven intensive years could be more that ninety indifferent ones.

Those were the "two lives" of Sarah.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lech Lecha

Pursuer of Justice

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

After a long and exhausting war between two coalitions of kings in the area of the Dead Sea, the Torah tells us that our Father Abraham was informed that his brother Lot had been taken prisoner.

The Midrash, as usual, is very sensitive to the written word ("and Abraham heard that his brother had been taken into captivity") and asks in wonderment: "Was he really his brother?".
But, the Midrash answers that even after the quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and the shepherds of Lot, and in spite of it, Abraham still called Lot "his brother" (Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha).

In this incident, our father Abraham begins a tradition of the pursuit of justice that reaches its climax in Parashat Va-Yera in the famous story about the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah when Abraham says "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25).

The nature of Lot and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah did not make the crucial difference. Every time our father Abraham saw pain or injustice he intervened and even "cast words upwards" and knew how to argue with the Lord of the Universe.
The main point is that each man who suffered became "his brother"...

In this case as well, Abraham is the father of our nation. Throughout the generations our father Abraham trained by example many students who knew how to fight in this area: the pursuit of justice at any price.

I would like to bring an example of this very same struggle, Rabbi Israel from Salant, founder of the Musar Movement and social justice in the middle of the 19th century.

Once he was asked to supervise the level of Kashrut in a matzah bakery. He checked the way the work was done and observed the staff at work.

At the end of the inspection the owner of the bakery asked proudly: "And what is the Rabbi's opinion?".

And Rabbi Israel answered: "The Gentiles libel us by saying we use the blood of Christian children to make matzot. They are mistaken. But from what I saw there exists in your bakery a case of forbidden blood. What I mean is that you are mixing the blood of your workers into the matzot. I will not grant any certificate of supervision to this bakery!".

And on another occasion when asked what to be most particular about when baking matzot, he answered: "Not shout at the woman who kneaded the dough".

"Justice, only justice shalt thou pursue, that thou mayst live and inherit the Land" (Deuteronomy 16:20) is one of the most well known verses in the Torah. This verse is so powerful that we sometimes look only at the first part and not at the last one.

The Torah tells us that the pursuit of justice is essential in order to inherit the Land. Without justice we have no share in this Land.

Our existence in the Land and our quality of life as a society, are unequivocally dependent on our level of justice. There is a total dependency between our national future and our willingness to pursue justice because, very simply, if we do not pursue justice, justice will flee from us…

I have the feeling that Abraham already knew this verse in his time and knew very well that the Land that was promised to him would belong neither to him nor to his descendents if he did not take an active uncompromising stand on the pursuit of justice.

And we are talking about human justice, the same justice that builds the future and strengthens society, and also about heavenly justice, even when it is necessary to reproach and criticize the Lord of the Universe so that His mercy will conquer His anger.
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