Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Valuing Life

Last week I was given the honor of giving a D'var Torah at Shabbat morning services. The Parshah was Chayei Sarah. The first half of what I wrote has been percolating for a long time. I am convinced Abraham failed the Akedah. The second half has been a long time coming. Midge vVas Nunes was already a matriarch of our community when we arrived in 1995. She became a very important person to me and my family. Life was hard as she entered triple digits, as her mind and body both began to let her down. We celebrated her life this past weekend. I am honored to share a bit of it.



Shabbat shalom.


Our parshah this week Chayei Sarah – begins with the death of Sarah. Some commentators speculated that her death, coming right on the heels of the binding of Isaac, was a direct result of her waking up and discovering Abraham and Isaac had departed. They suggest she knew that Isaac was to be sacrificed and it broke her heart.


I want to suggest that her heart was broken. Not because she believed that her husband was about to kill her only child. I am pretty sure that she expected that God’s promise that her son would be the beginning of a great nation would come true. I think she was heartbroken by Abraham’s failure.


Yes, I said failure. Last week the Torah told us that the Akedah was a test. When I went to Hebrew school, we were taught that Abraham passed the test. He was prepared to offer his son, proving his loyalty to God. The angel came and stopped the killing, saying “for now I know you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” Personally, I think the angel was offering the consolation prize, basically saying “thanks for playing.”


You see, only a chapter earlier, Abraham argued – ARGUED – with God to save the lives of a city full of strangers. Most of whom had been judged wicked by God. Abraham had demonstrated that he understood that God valued life more than anything else. It is what distinguishes Torah from all previous legal codes. But as soon as God “tests” Abraham, out comes the knife. Seriously.


And then what happens?


One.

Abraham comes down the mountain to return home with the servants. Where is Isaac? I assume anywhere far from his father and his knife. Some commentators say he went to study at the academy of Shem and Eber – Noah’s son and great grandson, somehow still alive after 8 generations – near Tzvat for three years and the end of chapter 23.


Medieval commentators, writing at the bloody time of the crusades suggest that Isaac actually died on the mountain top and went to heaven. Later, in mercy, God restores Isaac to life – reflecting the fears and reality of those writers.


Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, in Woodstock, NY, suggests that Isaac went to visit his brother Ishmael. He suggests that the brothers were very close, until Sarah forced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Isaac couldn’t go home with his seemingly homicidal father, so he went to his brother.


Two.

Sarah dies. She must have heard about the debate over Sodom and Gomorah. She understood that their God was a God of life, not death. The Torah doesn’t say whether Abraham told Sarah what God had asked him the night before he set off with Isaac. It also doesn’t say he kept it a secret. Abraham and Sarah were together a long time. I am certain – based on my experience – that marriages built on keeping secrets don’t last that long.


God has been talking to Abraham for as long as Sarah has known him. The story of the Akedah is the tenth conversation. Previous conversations caused them to leave their homeland. I have trouble seeing Sarah just going without some kind of explanation. (Of course I am layering my own 21st century values on them. But that is what we do with interpretation – we put ourselves in the text. And God does include Sarah in at least one of those conversations – when her coming pregnancy is announced. So I think she gets what God is talking about.

When she gets up in the morning and sees they have left, she must have shried “Gevalt!” because she realized then that Abraham had missed the point of the lesson. If God is willing to spare an entire city of deviants if there are ten righteous people among them, certainly God has no intention of killing the young man whom God had given them to live out the promise of more descendants than stars in the sky. She knew that Abraham’s identity was completely interwoven in his relationship with God. And she now knew Abraham had failed the test. And it broke her heart, because she knew this would break the man she loved. Why?

Because Three.
  • God never speaks to Abraham again. Ever.
  • After that, Abraham seems to just be going through the motions of life.
  • Our portion today begins with Abraham in mourning.
  • He rises up from shiva and negotiates the purchase of a field with a cave to create a cemetery.
  • He sends his servant Eliezer back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac once he returns.
  • He takes a new wife, Keturah and has children with her. We hear nothing of his or their lives, just that they existed.
  • He leaves almost everything he has to Isaac and then dies.

I think his heart must have broken when he realized how completely he had failed. And I suspect God was also bereft, at least until he turned to Isaac to continue the covenant.

Finally.
Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” Later in the parshah, after his return, Isaac moves into Sarah’s tent and mourns her as well. By all accounts Sarah lived a very full life. She lived and loved and was loved. And she gave birth to the Jewish people. And we miss her.

Midge vas Nunes lived to be 104 years old…and tomorrow we will bury her remains as Abraham did Sarah’s. And we will mourn.

When I first came to Bridgeport, among of the first people I got to know were Manny and Midge. Midge always described their story as one of the great eternal loves, like Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet – although with far less drama. She described Manny as Sephardic royalty and was proud that their wedding was conducted by the great Rabbi David de Sola Pool, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. They were blessed with a long and rich marriage.

Midge often regaled me with stories of her family and B’nai Israel.

She has seemed to me to have many of Sarah’s qualities. She will be missed by many, whether they know it or not. I will leave you with my favorite story, one she delighted to tell and retell.

Her grandfather was a dry goods merchant on Golden Hill in the 1850’s and one of the founding members of B’nai Israel. She said he was no taller than her. He told her that he had been entrusted with acquiring our first Torah scroll just before the civil war.

It was purchased through a broker from a family in Europe and arrived by ship in the port of Bridgeport – the name is not a coincidence. When he came to collect it from the customs agents, he realized it was too heavy for him to carry back up the hill by himself. So he left it with the agents, walked to his shop, and returned with his stock boy. He was not a boy but a man, an African American, free man. She said her grandfather described as a shtarker – a big, strong man. And she giggled with delight describing this hakafah – a Torah procession of two: a short, stout Ashkenazi Jew leading a tall, muscular black man carrying a Torah scroll as they climbed Golden Hill. And she would often ask me to take that scroll out of the ark for her to touch.

Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” As we read from Chayei Sarah, I invite you to remember the life of Midge vas Nunes.

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