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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Chayei Sara

Bittersweet

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The lives of Abraham and Sarah, loaded with problems, setbacks and yet great achievements, stands as a stark example for Jewish life and general human life as well. Miracles intervene for them but they never quite bring final and lasting security or solutions to the problems of life. Sarah’s miraculous giving birth to Yitzchak is almost eclipsed by his being nearly sacrificed on the altar at Mount Moriah. In fact Midrash attributes her death to the shock caused by her learning of that event. Yishmael remains an issue for Abraham and his descendants throughout human history. The vast amount of "converts" to monotheism created by Abraham and Sarah - Rabbi Menachem Meiri (fourteenth century Provence) counts them as being a majority of the then population of the area! - apparently backslide into paganism once more after the deaths of Abraham and Sarah. Midrash teaches us that Abraham lives to see Esau and Jacob, the twins of Isaac and Rebecca, and already senses that something has gone awry in the genealogical chain of his descendants. In short, we can characterize the lives of the founders of our people and faith as being bittersweet. In fact, any analysis of the lives of any of our biblical fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah will produce a feeling of empathy if not even sadness for the lives they led and the experiences that they endured. People tend to glorify and exaggerate past lives and to build a much more rosy picture of past accomplishments. Not so the Torah in its description of the lives of the founders of Judaism and the Jewish people.

The well known axiom in Jewish tradition is that the lives of our ancestors, the history of the Jewish past serves as the guidepost for all present and future Jewish life as well. Therefore the most that we can apparently expect in the overall scheme of life and events is that it will be bittersweet. This is not a pessimistic observation for Judaism of all faiths is optimistic and forward looking to the core. Yet it is a realistic assessment of human beings and human and national life. There are many distractions and blandishments in life that eventually lead nowhere. Whatever hard won victories and accomplishments that the Jewish people have achieved against all odds akin to the miraculous birth of Isaac are nevertheless constantly endangered. If it isn’t Hitler, it is Stalin, and if it is not Stalin then it is Arafat and Ahminejad. The list is never ending and the dangers are omnipresent. There are people who recoil and even die (Jewishly speaking) at the realization that this is a permanent factor in Jewish national life. They wish to pretend that this is not so and that we can have all the sweet we desire without having to encounter the bitter as well. Would that this be so, but realistically speaking it just is not possible. So the example of our biblical ancestors serves us as a model for perseverance, faith and commitment in the face of all challenges and enemies.

Abraham is recorded in the Torah as having died "filled and satiated with his days." This phrase can be taken in different days. One can look at it with a jaundiced eye and say that Abraham was fed up already. He had had enough troubles and disappointments. In a moment of despair the prophet Jonah tells God that He should take his soul from him for "my death is a better option than my continued life." There have been many who have said that very thing in human and Jewish history and there are many more who have thought it without expressing it verbally. Yet Abraham, according to all traditional commentaries is not pessimistic or despairing at the end of his life. He is confident that God’s promises to him will all prove valid - that the world will be blessed through his progeny and that the Land of Israel will be the home and property of the Jewish nation. He is confident that his descendants will learn to live productively and morally in a world that is at best bittersweet and not succumb to the temptations of pure hedonism and materialism on one hand and also be able to survive and grow amidst crushing poverty and bigotry directed against them. He is satisfied with his days, with what has been accomplished and that a half-filled glass is always better than an empty one. That is the guidepost for life that is his legacy for all of us in our difficult world of today.
Rabbi Dov Berl Wein
The rabbi of the "HANASI" congregation in Yerushalim, head of the Destiny foundation, former head of the OU, Rosh Yeshiva of 'sharai Tora" and rabbi of the "Beit Tora" congregation, Monsey, New York.
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