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11/13/2020 01:43:44 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Living In Three Time Zones

11/13/2020 09:58:27 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

In memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Have you ever asked yourself what it means to live an outstanding or uncommon life?

Many of us have role models who we look to for inspiration. We read biographies of great people that provide insights into their life and motivate us to emulate them as best we can.

While not a full biography, this week’s parsha offers  us insight into Sarah’s life and an appreciation of one way to live an extraordinary life. 

Avraham survives Sarah by thirty- eight years and this week’s Parsha records a eulogy of sorts for Sara. It is not a eulogy delivered by Avraham. Rather, the Torah itself shares with us its thoughts about Sarah.

We learn that Avraham goes to great lengths to make sure Yitzchak finds a wife. So central was Sarah to Avraham’s covenantal mission, that as Avraham grows old, he must make sure that Yitzchak, his heir, has a partner by his side. 

As Rabbi David Kimchi notes when explaining what it means that God had blessed Avraham with everything - וה’ ברך את אברהם בכל

לא חסר דבר ולא היה לו דבר צורך בעולם הזה אלא להשיא אשה לבנו יצחק הראוי לו:

He lacked nothing, and did not need anything in this life except to see his son well married.

Avraham had everything, save for the one thing he really wanted....a guarantee that his legacy would live on.

What was so special about Sarah? 

The truth is that while she was alive we do not hear much about her in terms of her participation in the mission that God gave to Avrham. Besides the record of her banishing Hagar and Yishmael because… (Gen. 21:10)

כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק

the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac, the Torah is silent on her actions. 

That is, until she dies. 

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

The span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.

The midrashim pick up on the strange linguistic formulation. Instead of saying that Sara lived one hundred and twenty-seven year, the word years interrupts each span.

Why is that? 

שכל אחד נדרש לעצמו

Rashi quoting the Midrash says that each unit must be understood independently.

Here is how the Yalkut Shimoni explains Sarah’s life. (תהלים רמז תשל)

בת ק' כבת כ' לנוי, בת עשרים כבת שבע לחטא

“At one hundred she was as beautiful as a girl of twenty; at twenty she was, as regards sin, as innocent as a child of seven.”

Each time the word Shannah or Shanim appears in the pasuk it represents a time period or a stage in a person’s life. 

Based on this understanding Rabbi Soloveitchik says that “Sarah lived three lives: the life of a child, the life of a young woman and the life of a mature and old woman.”

There is a difference between biology and spirituality. In the world of biology, there is no way to retain elements of youth in a middle aged person. Our bodies age and there is nothing we can do about that. 

However, in the realm of the spirit, Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that “it is possible to see youth and ripe age - or even childhood and youth as simultaneous experiences. 

When I think about this possibility, I think of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory in two ways.

Whenever I heard him speak or read his works, I perceived a  palpable almost childlike enthusiasm for the material.  There are these great videos of him singing with choirs and the smile on his face was more representative of a kid then a mature Chief Rabbi.

On a personal level, there were so many times when I read an idea in one of his books that I felt a newborn excitement for the messages of Judaism. 

And yet, as Chief Rabbi and after his tenure, he took on the role of mature statesman, grappling with some of the worlds greatest and most challenging issues - anti semitism, civil society, morality and leadership.

Rabbi Sacks combined a youthful excitement and exuberance about Torah with a cultivated and cultured mastery of the issues of our day.

This is what the Torah is telling us about Sarah.

Rabbi Soloveitchik turns to Peter Pan as a foil against who to measure Sarah.

“...Peter Pan was a boy who refused to grow up and assume responsibility. However, Sarah st twenty was mature and fully developed both intellectually and emotionally; she was energetic, bold and daring. Yet as an adult Sarah did not destroy the child. Maturarity did not do away with childhood...She acted like a mature, wise, experienced rich old woman, but in times of need and crisis the young, bold, courageous girl came to the fore and took over.  

Rabbi Sacks, as well as Rabbi Soloveitchik extend this analysis to Avraham as well. 

Here are Rabbi Sacks’ words:

“A while back, a British newspaper, The Times, interviewed a prominent member of the Jewish community – let’s call him Lord X – on his 92nd birthday. The interviewer said, “Most people, when they reach their 92nd birthday, start thinking about slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?”

Lord X’s reply was this: “When you get to 92, you start seeing the door begin to close, and I have so much to do before the door closes that the older I get, the harder I have to work.”

Something like that is the impression we get of Abraham in this week’s parsha. Sarah, his constant companion throughout their journeys, has died. He is 137 years old. We see him mourn Sarah's death, and then he moves into action.”...

He engages in an elaborate negotiation to buy a plot of land in which to bury her....

Immediately after the story of land purchase, we read, “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything.” Again this sounds like the end of a life, not a preface to a new course of action, and again our expectation is confounded. Abraham launches into a new initiative, this time to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac…”

Our challenge is to be both young and old. “We must be ready to assume the identity of either a child or of an adult.” The Gemara is Massecheht Bava Kamma (97b) says that in Avraham and Sara’s time there was a coin “that had the images of an old man and an old woman on one side and the images of a young boy and girl on the other side. Sarah and Avraham merged together, they were old and young at the same time.” (Abraham’s Journey pg. 191)

There are aspects of our life that call for a childlike approach. In our enthusiasm for Torah study we must illustrate a child like curiosity - thirsting for Torah knowledge, approaching each opportunity with excitement and joy. 

Sometimes events wear us down and turn us cynical and we lose the energy we once had to work for the community or another cause. When that happens, it is time to drink from the fountain of youth and not allow experience to degenerate into cynicism.

Rabbi David Forman in his wonderful new book on Sefer Bereisht, fleshes out how such a life looks.

“...You’re seven , wide eyed and innocent. And soon enough, you’re growing up. But as the years pass and you approach twenty, you don’t exchange that innocence for independence. You don’t say Exuberance, innocenceThat’s kid’s stuff...No. You keep the innocence..and curiosity...and you build on it...and merge it somehow into your new teenage self.

So you're an adult and you pay your bills on time; you’ve been around the block...But you’re able to pause sometimes as you eat lunch outdoors, to examine a ladybug perched on a blade of grass and to be overcome with childlike wonder. You put your kids to bed on time..But occasionally, you get swept up in a wild pillow fight with your children, and...forget...that it’s way past their bedtime.

I guess we can call this living life in multiple time zones - lifecycle time zones and this is the key to understanding Sarah’s importance. Her life is a testimony to the capacity to live such a life. 

This approach to life is very important as a model for our children. Do they see us as locked into one mode of living life? Wouldn't it be wonderful if our kids saw us seriously contemplating, discussing and acting on important issues in our community and world with level headedness and maturity and, at the same time, exhibiting a childlike excitement and exuberance about energizing our commitments?

Our kids should see us engaged in serious, thoughtful Torah study only attainable adults with the enthusiasm of a kid.

Shouldn’t we teach our children not to allow the accumulation of frustrating experiences  to dampen our commitment to important causes and to maintain the simple untainted enthusiasm of youth? 

The best life combination is the experience of adulthood mixed with the strength and idealism of youth. That is how you live an extraordinary life. 

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781