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Chayei Sarah 2021

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

We find our patriarch Abraham’s life described in three different parshiot. And these parshiot tell us not only about Abraham, but also about God.

Two weeks ago, in parashah Lech L’cha, we meet Abraham, then called Abram. God calls to him, tells him to leave his home, the land of his birth, his father’s house – a place described in three different ways – and to follow this new God to a land that God will show him. I call this God a new God because this God is new to Abraham. In the pagan world from which he came, this God stands out. A person did not have a personal relationship with a god. The gods were distant, impersonal – responsible for weather and natural phenomenon. Gods did not call to you, give you direction in your life, promise you land and offspring, have you mark your body to symbolize a covenant, or change your name. Gods didn’t know you. But this God does.

Last week, how different this God is continues to be demonstrated in parashah Vayeira. This God appears as three angels in human form when Abraham is sitting at his tent. This God asks Abraham for advice before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah – and allows Abraham to enter into debate as to why this God should not destroy the cities if righteous people are found. This God remembers Sarah, who at the age of 90 has a son, Isaac. When Sarah insists that Abraham toss out Hagar and his other son Ishmael, this God assures Abraham that from Ishmael, too, will come a nation. And this God provides sustenance for them in the hot wilderness. Abraham expresses his concern for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah; he worried about his son Ishmael. This God is personal, loving and protective.

And yet, at the end of last week’s portion, Abraham seems unable to recognize how different this God is from the pagan gods of his childhood.

When this God tells him to take Isaac – his favorite son – up the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice, Abraham seemed ready to comply. Suddenly, this God with whom he had argued, with whom he had celebrated, with whom he was so close – something we the reader can see – turns into a pagan god in Abraham’s mind. Pagan gods asked for human sacrifice. With all that Abraham had experienced with this God, how could he not see the difference? And so when this God demands the unthinkable, and Abraham complies to the point of tying Isaac and lifting the knife, this God has to show Abraham just how different this God is. “Avraham, Avraham, do not lay your hand on the lad,” this God calls out. In this way this God is saying, “Avraham, Avraham, do you not understand? No more human sacrifice. All we have been through together – can you not see that I am a God of compassion? Why did you not get just how different I am from your father’s gods? Go now, Abraham. Learn from this.

And so we come to this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah. We are told that this God has blessed Abraham in every way. But otherwise, this God is absent from the portion. Sarah dies, Abraham negotiates to buy her burial cave, Abraham sends his servant Eliezar to find a wife for Isaac, and Isaac returns with Rebecca. Abraham remarries – the Rabbis say it is Hagar even though her name is Katurah – and with her he has several more children. While Isaac will inherit virtually all that is Abraham’s, and most importantly, will continue the covenant, Abraham does give gifts to all of his other children. And at the end of the portion, Abraham dies, with Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury him.

What are we to make of God’s absence in this portion?

  • Is God angry with Abraham for his apparent willingness to sacrifice Isaac? Or perhaps God is sad or disappointed?
  • Does God feel abandoned by Abraham?
  • Or has Abraham learned? Is he now the compassionate one – lovingly finding a burial place for Sarah, finding a wife for his son Isaac, and making good with Hagar so many years later?

And what could be the lesson for us? Perhaps we are no different from Abraham. In our younger days, we want to believe, have faith, and follow the voice we hear talking to us and directing us. We are seeking a God who will protect us, care for us, and show us the way.

As we mature, we realize it is not always so easy. We sometimes find ourselves arguing with God. No, God, do not destroy Sodom if you can find righteous people living there. It is not like You to destroy the innocent with the evil; remember Your promise to Noah, never to destroy the earth again.

And when we are too tired, warn down from life, prone to misunderstand, then maybe we mishear God or the voice within. Sometimes we do things we regret; we fall short of our own expectations for ourselves.

And then hopefully, the day comes that we get it. We understand that as God is caring and compassionate, so are we to be caring and compassionate. The Aleinu prayer is about the partnership between humans and God – we come together to perfect the world. Just like in business, one partner is often called “the silent partner.” I would suggest that for most of us, that is God’s role today.

God is absent in Chayei Sarah, this week’s portion, only if we are convinced that our actions of caring and healing are completely devoid of God. If we understand them, however, as “guided by a sacred Covenant drawn from human and divine meeting,” then God’s imprint is all over our portion – and our lives. Shabbat shalom.

Tue, December 7 2021 3 Tevet 5782