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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Hayyei Sarah
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
November 9, 1996     27 Heshvan 5756

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Our parasha opens with the death of Sarah at the age of 127. Later in the parasha, when Abraham will breathe his last "at a good ripe age, old and contented (Genesis 25:8)," he will have celebrated 175 birthdays. Sarah's demise has the earmarks of a sudden event: Abraham is not by her side. She dies in "Kiriath-arba - now Hebron," and Abraham comes from Beersheba, to which he had returned after "the binding of Isaac," in order "to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her (Genesis 22:2)."

Several midrashim sieze on the narrative flow from the binding of Isaac to the death of his mother to stress the unnatural character of her passing. The Rabbis often use the proximity of two texts to contextualize our understanding of the latter. In this instance, they imagine that Sarah died when she heard of the fate that Abraham had intended for the son of their old age. Neither consulted by Abraham beforehand nor informed by him afterwards, Sarah learns of his zealotry from a third party and is traumatized by the terrifying thought that the labor of a lifetime could have been nullifed by one irrational act of piety. And would Isaac ever recover? The 100 blasts of the shofar that we blow in the synagogue on Rosh Hashana are meant to remind us of the 100 sighs of anguish which Sarah uttered before she expired.

Like the sounds of the shofar, these midrashim shatter the silence. In the Torah, Sarah has no voice. Whatever God's design, "the binding of Isaac" is a matter solely between God and Abraham. Yet Sarah is hardly a marionette. Strong-willed and full of passion, she imposes Hagar, her maidservant, on Abraham to end their childlessness (Genesis 16:3). And after the birth of her own son, Isaac, Sarah forces Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household (Genesis 21:9-21). In attributing Sarah's death to the prospect of losing her only son, the rabbis portray her as a mother and not as a saint.

They also give voice to their own reservations about the propriety of God's demand. The stance of these midrashim is critical: How many tests must one endure to give adequate proof of one's faith? A single misstep in this grisly choreography would have ended a child's life and aborted a universal mission. In general, the Rabbis are not shy about challenging the justice or wisdom of God's conduct. Their candor is a privilege that comes with intimacy. Sarah's apoplexy conveys their own discomfort in the face of religious extremism.

Having just returned from a week-long trip to Israel, I am once again absorbed by the subject of religious extremism. The meaning we impute to a text is very much determined by the experiences that shape our consciousness. Till now, I had not felt the gentle protest against fanaticism which inheres in these midrashim.

And Israel is awash today in expressions of religious intensity that are palpably messianic. On Shabbat Lekh L'kha I attended a minyan in Jerusalem identified with the most zealous group of religious nationalists, the Bloc of the Faithful (Gush Emunim). Before the reading of the Torah, a tall, clean-cut young man with a slightly English-accented Hebrew gave an extended lesson on aspects of the sacrificial system in the Temple. As he spoke, congregants offered comments of refinement and correction. I sat bemused: his talk had nothing to do with the contents of the sidra. Toward the end he effected a semblance of linkage. When Abraham asks God for a sign that he will indeed someday inherit the land of Canaan, God says to him: "Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird (Genesis 15:9)." Having justified his odd choice of subject matter, the speaker then intoned the ancient prayer that "the Temple may be speedily rebuilt in our day" and sat down.

I had witnessed a fascinating instance of deep Torah learning as a mask for political extremism. The point of his talk was in its final line. This group of Western Ashkenazi Jews was fixed on the imminent rebuilding of the Temple. In the messianic hothouse of contemporary Israel, to quote Faulkner, "the past is never dead. It is not even past." While for Conservative (and Reform) Jews the sacrificial system of the ancient Temple is a long-transcended stage in the evolution of Judaism, for many Orthodox nationalists it is an object of literal restoration brought closer by the victory of Mr. Netanyahu. To pore over talmudic discussion of the Temple cult in this climate threatens to confound all prudential constraints.

Events elsewhere in Israel during my stay only add to my consternation. The Yahrzeit of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, for example, received only the most muted commemorations among the Orthodox, who increasingly tend to regard the murder by Yigal Amir as providential. In an act of deliberate provocation, a number of settlers tried to enter the site of an ancient synagogue in Jericho to hold services. When obstructed, they took over an Arab restaurant. The tactic mirrored the manner in which Rabbi Moshe Levinger came to Hebron for the purpose of conducting a Seder in the Park Hotel in 1968. After the Seder, he and his friends refused to leave, and were relocated by the army to nearby Kiriath-arba. In 1979 he used pregnant women and children to defy the opposition of the army and Menahem Begin to gain a permanent Jewish presence in the middle of Hebron.

This past week Rabbi Levinger was quoted by the Israeli media as having warned that "if it comes to a confrontation between him and the Palestinians, he will open fire and make short shrift of them." Still more ominous, a settler this week in Hebron threw a cup of hot tea in the face of Knesset member Yael Dayan, when she and several of her colleagues came for an official visit.

Put bluntly, the State of Israel is held hostage at the moment by 450 religious zealots in Hebron, who should have been removed once and for all by the Rabin government after the carnage by Baruch Goldstein in March, 1994. But the country is deeply divided politically and religiously along the same fault line. For Mr. Rabin, Hebron was an Arab city; for Mr. Netanyahu, it is the city of our ancestors. When Mr. Rabin had to decide whether to open the tunnel along the west side of the Temple Mount, he is purported to have said, "It was closed for 2000 years; it can stay closed a little longer." The mind set of Mr. Netanyahu, well stocked with the history of antisemitism, is different. After the bloodbath which followed his decision to open it, he avowed, "The tunnel touches the foundation rock of our existence."

We have no historical evidence that messianists have ever exercised responsible political leadership. They always go for broke in a world that can be sustained only through compromise. Even Abraham eventually lowered the intensity which induced him to believe that God expected the sacrifice of his only remaining son. After the death of Sarah, the Torah reports, he married a woman by the name of Ketura, whom a midrash sensitively identifies as Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. In his need, he sought not a new consort, but reconciliation with an old one, repairing a cruel breach that could have been prevented.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Hayyei Sarah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.