On this last Shabbat I learned of the passing of one of the greatest sages of our time, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks was the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, an author of dozens of books and followers the whole globe over. At the core of all of his teachings is the central idea that the Torah is a living document that speaks to us today as much as it has for thousands of years and that through thoughtful learning and discussion we can come to know God’s ways.
This week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, was one of his favorites, not because of its shining simplicity or poetic language, of which there is little, but because it begins with a conundrum of Abraham’s life. The Torah writes, “And now Abraham was old in his days and the LORD blessed him in all things.” (Genesis 24:1) Abraham was indeed a senior; he was 137 years old. But this passage comes on the tail of the estrangement and death of two of Abraham’s most beloved people. The first being his son Isaac who, just chapters earlier was taken to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed to God in the akedah. That narrative closes with Abraham returning to the homestead in Beersheva (Genesis 22:19) and Isaac departing to live with his half brother, Ishmael, in Be’er Lehai Ro’ee (Genesis 24:62). Never again do father and son directly speak to each other.
The second of these dark times is the death of his partner Sarah. They traveled the world, changed their names, and built a life together. And yet, Sarah, who lived to be 127 years old, died alone without her son or husband. The Rabbis of the midrash teach that her death was one of emotional distress upon learning what Abraham was doing on his trip to Mt. Moriah with her son. (Midrash Aggadah) Imagine the sorrow and betrayal in her heart. Imagine the shame in Abraham’s after coming home from the very trial of his life when he was expected to take the life of his own child only to find that instead it is his beloved partner that has died.
Such is the vortex of this moment: a man, promised by God to have love, children and a place to call home, and now he seems, after all this time, to have none of it. Yet, the Torah has the audacity to say that the LORD “blessed him in all things.”
For Rabbi Sacks, z”l, this is exactly what the Torah wants us to feel. It is no pollyannaish book telling us all we need is keep up a smile even when our heart is broken. When Abraham’s mourning period ended, Rabbi Sacks points out that he “rose from grief” and commenced a flurry of activity including purchasing a field and a cave as a family burial plot, and asks Eliezer, his servant, to help find a wife for his son. The blessings of Abraham’s life are not found in the happiest moments, but in his choices in the face of great uncertainty and tragedy. Rabbi Sacks writes:
Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, He gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the flood, but Noah had to make the ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfils our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God. (Commentary on Chayei Sarah)
The profundity of this statement cannot be underscored enough. God’s promises to Abraham and to us are no guarantee in life. God’s intentions are absolute, but our actions never are. What God promises is a grounding, a blueprint and a setting of expectations upon which we act. God blessed Abraham in ‘all things,’ even the sad and tragic days when everything feels broken. To be a Jew is to live in paradoxical moments where we feel broken and blessed at the same time, but to then stand up out of those moments and act. Perhaps more profoundly, God’s greatest blessing to Abraham was to be an agent of blessing himself. (Genesis 12:2) The midrash goes on to explain that the agency of blessing until Abraham’s ascension was only God’s purview, but now in his old age, Abraham himself supplants God’s power to be the father of nations and source of blessing. (Midrash Tanchuma Chaye Sara 1:1) Abraham became God’s partner, not because he waited around for God to fulfill his destiny, but because he got up from tragedy time and time again and chose to create his own legacy.
The greatest legacy Rabbi Sacks has shared with the world is that we are God’s partner in creation, redemption, and salvation. We must build our future in holy and sacred partnership.
May his memory be for a blessing.