Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hayyei Sarah (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see Archives, below, for November 2005.

“And God blessed Isaac…”

This week’s parasha lies at an interesting crossroads between life and death, between grief and joy, between mourning and marriage. It begins with Sarah’s death and Abraham mourning her, it moves on to Isaac’s marriage followed by Abraham’s second (third?) marriage, and concludes with Abraham’s own death and his burial bringing his children together. In between we find Isaac finding comfort in his wife for his mother’s death (interestingly, Isaac is shown as bereaved for his mother, but not present at the funeral or at the whole scene of Abraham buying her burial plot).

This time I wish to discuss, neither one of the opening verses of the portion nor one dealing with an obviously major issue, as I have done the past few weeks, but rather with a seemingly obscure, almost tangential verse. Toward the end of the parasha we learn of Abraham’s death, and of how his two sons Isaac and Ishmael are reunited on the occasion of his burial. The section is then concluded with the following verse:

25:11: “And after the death of Abraham God blessed Isaac his son, and Isaac dwelt at Be’er la-Hai Ro’i.” Rashi: “And He blessed.” He comforted him with the condolences of mourners [Sotah 14b]. Another thing: Even though the Holy One blessed be He had given the blessings over to Abraham, he was afraid to bless Isaac, because he saw Esau coming out of him. He said: Let the Master of Blessing come and bless he whom He sees fit in His eyes. And the Holy One came and blessed him.

Starting with the second, longer comment, we find that Rashi here picks up on an interesting detail: whereas Isaac and Jacob each bless their sons before they die—indeed, these scenes of death-bed blessing, each one in their own way, are among the most dramatic and poignant of the whole Book of Genesis—nowhere is Abraham shown blessing his son Isaac. Why? Rashi’s second answer is that Abraham made a deliberate choice not to bless Isaac, because he had some sort of prophetic or preternatural vision that he would have a son Esau who would be problematic, to say the least, and did not wish to bless him, even indirectly (foreshadowing the famous scene with Isaac’s deathbed blessing of his two sons, on which more in its place). Hence, he so to speak left the blessing to God.

This question is exacerbated by another detail, mentioned earlier: at Gen 12: 2, Rashi comments that the words “you shall be a blessing” (והיה ברכה) indicate that Abraham will have the power and responsibility of dispensing blessings in the world, a task delegated him by God Himself. Hence, it is even more surprising that Abraham does not bless his own son.

Rashi is consistent with his system: he knows that Abraham is supposed to dispense blessings, but that in this case he did not do so; hence, there must be a reason for it. I find this particularly interesting in terms of the popular image of Rashi. It is interesting to compare Rashi and Rambam, arguably the two greatest teachers of medieval Judaism. The two seem so different: Rambam is systematic, logical, a system builder who takes his readers step by step, explaining each definition and deduction, whether in his philosophical or halakhic works. Rashi by contrast seems much more “folksy”: a comment here, a midrash there, a linguistic observation somewhere else (but only rarely using the formal terminology of the great Spanish grammarians), drawing attention to the Aramaic Targum in a fourth place, and so on. But after you read him for a while, one begins to see that he has his own system, his own internal logic and axioms and assumptions. This is doubly evident in his Talmud commentary which, because it is so often studied as the first explanation of this central legal text, is itself seen as “Rashi’s shitah”—but it is clearly the case even in Humash.

Let us now turn to his first comment: that God’s blessing was really a form of comforting the mourners. This is reminiscent of the classic Rabbinic comment that God’s behavior served as a model for various acts of lovingkindness, from clothing Adam and Eve at the very beginning of the Torah, to seeing personally to Moses’ burial at its very end. The question here then becomes: in what sense is comforting the mourners a form of “blessing”?

We shall precede this by another question: what is mourning about? Does it belong, to quote an oft-articulated idea of Rav Soloveitchik, to that class of mitzvot in which the external act is a kind of shell bearing an inner, spiritual core, similar to prayer, the recitation of Shema, or rejoicing on festivals? Or is it simply a formal, normative act? There are those, such as the Kabbalists, who say that certain ceremonies are for the benefit of the soul in the other world, while there are others who offer a kind of moralistic interpretation: when death strikes a family or community or a particular social circle “all that circle should feel dread” (as if they are next in the line of fire).

I suspect that it is neither: the essence of mourning is not a religious message that needs to be learned, but a very simple, immediate human response. Grief and pain at the loss of a beloved person, perhaps even the one person in the world who made life worth living. And, to be perhaps brutally honest, it is often as much for oneself—for one’s own loss—as it is of empathy for the one who has left this world. The mourner thinks to him/herself: how will I continue my own life without this person? The death of a near one is a crisis in terms of the emotional economy of one’s life—and at times, perhaps also practically, even financially. In this light, the act of nihum aveilim, of comforting and consoling the mourners, is not so much a matter of any words that one may say, but simply of being with the bereaved person in their loss, in the sense of solidarity, of caring, expressed simply be being there, even in silence—in the message that, in some small way, human love is still out there, albeit in different form.

I see some of this in another Rashi, which I’ve noted in previous years, but on which I want to note one particular point:

24:67: “And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebekka and she became his wife, and he loved here, and Isaac was comforted after his mother.” Rashi: “After his mother.” So long as a man’s mother is alive he is close to her; once she dies, he takes comfort in his wife.

We have noted in previous years the Oedipal side of this verse, and Rashi’s comment: that the bond of son to mother is so powerful—call it emotional, call it erotic, call it dependence, call it sublimated sexuality—that it serves as the model for all future relationships with women, including that with his own wife. Rashi says that, but adding an interesting turn: that Yitzhak was comforted in Rivkah for Sarah’s death. The role of the wife in a man’s emotional economy, so to speak, comes about particularly strongly after his mother’s death. (Note all the jokes about Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law, and at times their barely concealed hostility to the women their son’s married. And note: the idyllic closeness between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in the Book of Ruth only occurred after the son/husband was dead and out of the way as an object of rivalry.) Today, marriage tends to be seen in terms of sexual or emotional connection, “meeting my needs” (ich!) or ”relationships”—all the coy words that sophisticated modern people use to conceal their essential self-centeredness.

Here, the wife seems to take over the mother’s role as nurturer. The interesting thing is that the trigger for marriage, the need comes about, neither through romantic love nor through the sense of responsibility to the next generation, that “it’s time to find someone with whom to start a family.” Rather, it as a substitute for the mother’s love. The poles of life and death, joy and sadness, grief and marriage, are tied together in an almost Gordian knot. We have here a melancholy, almost lachrymose approach, to the love between man and woman.

I wish to return to the subject of death from another angle, one that also hearkens back to the Akedah, where Abraham, and later Yitzhak together with him, are described as facing the dreadful act with a sense of “joy and willingness.” Regarding the readiness to die with almost a sense of joy: recently, an old friend of mine, Ruth Saposnick, died of cancer after a long struggle, with many ups and downs. We had been participants in the Young Judaea Year Course in Israel when we were teenagers, spent three months together on kibbutz and, forty years later, after email became ubiquitous, the group reestablished contact, locating every last member, held a reunion here in Israel, and thereafter continued to write one another regularly.

Ruth was ill for a long time, and many of us followed her struggle with the disease from afar through the periodic group emails sent out by various people. Already at the reunion, I was struck by a certain sense of inner peace radiated by Ruth, of calm, of what might be called life-wisdom, rare at any age and in any condition. Towards the end, when the doctors had given up hope and she was already in a terminal hospice, I heard from a mutual friend that she was joyous, almost ecstatic in mood.

I wanted to write her, but found it hard to know exactly what to say to a person who is dying—particularly since we hadn’t been particularly close, apart from one lengthy and rather moving conversation at the reunion. Should I write her a message of spiritual preparation for this greatest of all life transitions, of how to “cross the river,” à la Ma’avar Yabbok or Tibetan Book of the Dead? She wasn’t that kind of believer, and it would just sound silly. And, truth be told, I felt that at this point she didn’t really need any of our blabberings: if anything, she was probably far wiser, deeper, than any of us.

All of which prompted the following reflection: that most people (myself included) are afraid of death, but more important, on a certain level we don’t really believe in our own death. How can we? We experience life through our consciousness—our sense perceptions, our thoughts, and the inner dialogue we constantly conduct with ourselves. Death means the cessation of all that: either completely (for the non–believer, or should I say: for the non-believer in the survival of the soul), or the soul being transmuted to another plane, totally inconceivable to us in this earthly sphere. Either way, our present consciousness is not there. We won’t be lying on a slab in a morgue or wherever thinking and observing what’s going on. How can such a thing even be imagined?

Yet Ruthie, and people like her—typically, those who have suffered long, drawn-out disease and had a long time to prepare and think about it—have somehow become reconciled with death in their own lifetime, and have somehow learned to accept their own mortality. That they—we—are not the center (something, again, that we all say, but by and large don’t really believe). Whether the person defines him/herself as religious or not, what they know is essentially a deeply religious insight: that man is transient, while God is eternal, transcendent. Life after death is not the real issue, but God’s eternity and being around before and after us. That, I think, is the meaning of Ruthie’s joy. May her memory, and the experience of having known her, be a blessing for all of us.


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