A word of Torah.
This week’s Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah – “the life of Sarah” – but the phrase comes from the first few words of the portion where we learn of Sarah’s death.
Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Gen. 23:1-2)
It’s an abrupt announcement. No mention of “ripe old age” or being “gathered to one’s kin.” In fact, the lengthy negotiation to purchase a burial plot that follows seems to suggest that Abraham hadn’t made any plans or preparations for this moment; that he hadn’t seen it coming. The text, in its cryptic way, gives the sense that something sudden, perhaps tragic, happened to cause Sarah’s death. But what? There’s no indication in the verses that follow, so commentators have suggested we look to the verses before this brief summation of Sarah’s life. And what happened there, in the last chapter of last week’s Torah portion, the chapter immediately preceding this one?
God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Gen. 22:1-2)
And Abraham did as God had instructed.
Perhaps the shock of God’s instruction was enough to do Sarah in. Or the mere thought of life without Isaac was enough to put her under. Or she hadn’t gotten word that No, no – God didn’t actually make him go through with it.
Or, perhaps, Sarah understood, even better than we do, the true nature of God’s test – and she didn’t like the result.
Generally, when we read the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, we read it as a test of faith – one which Abraham would either pass or fail. Did he have enough courage to follow God’s instruction; enough confidence to see it through; enough trust to know that, whatever God had in mind, it would be for the best?
But what if it wasn’t a pass/fail exam? What if there were no right and wrong answers? What if the Akeidah was more like a Myers Briggs test, if you will – something designed to learn about Abraham’s personality and character? After all, to this point there has been conflicting data.
The first time God called to Abraham (then Abram) – saying, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” – Abraham didn’t say a word. He just packed up and went. A man of incredible faith.
But a later time, when God told Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham did speak up. “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” he asked. “What if there should be 50 innocents within the city… 45… 40… 30… 20… 10? Will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent who are in it?” Then Abraham seemed to be an advocate, a man of principled, courageous action.
So God devises a test – again, not pass or fail. He simply creates a scenario, using the most dire of circumstances, to see how Abraham will respond and reveal the truth of his character. Is he a rule follower, an abiding believer, a devout optimist? Or is he a man of action, a principled protector, a moral resister? And, when push comes to shove, at Abraham’s core, we learn – as God does – that he more strongly personifies the former, a man of strong and unwavering faith.
The majority of the rabbis of our tradition – in ancient, medieval and even modern times – celebrated Abraham for his response; put him on a pedestal for it. Sarah, some might say, despaired because of it, and it sent her to her grave.
We do best to remember that both are legitimate responses – God would have upheld the covenant with Abraham either way. God would have loved him no matter what.
Like Abraham, we face dire and alarming circumstances today. White supremacism has been given space and a platform in a federal building. Incidents of antisemitism are more numerous than they’ve been at any time since the 1930s. Individuals who have championed discrimination against the LGBT community are moving into positions of increasing power. The science that tells us we have a closing window to tend to our planet is being undermined and dismissed. There is actual talk of registries, lock ups and deportations.
No matter your ideology, no matter your party, no matter your vote in this or any election – these are the facts on the ground. And let’s be clear: This is a test – not the handiwork of God, the result of our own democracy. Don’t we feel like we’re being tested? If we lived in Abraham’s time, we might be hearing: “Americans, take your country, the one for whom you’ve fought and labored, the land that you love, and let its ideals of freedom and equality commingle with discrimination and intolerance.”
How do we respond?
There are those who are proving themselves, like Abraham, to be individuals of faith – in this case in the institutions and checks and balances of democracy. Though they may be as alarmed as Abraham must have been, their attitude is a similar “wait and see,” putting one foot in front of the other, all the while holding abiding trust that their worst fears can’t possibly be realized. Some of these individuals are leading voices of our times – leaders of government, the faith community, the media. They are trying to calm our fears, while also reminding us that participation in democracy is not a once-every-four-years proposition. They are endeavoring, where possible, to work with new leadership “from the inside;” to influence platform and policy in quiet, traditional ways. Theirs is a legitimate response.
Others feel called to action. Perhaps they see Sarah as their spiritual ancestor – or Abraham, in his Sodom and Gomorrah days. They hear the Talmud’s instruction (in Shabbat 54b):
If one can protest the misdeeds of his or her household, yet does not, the person becomes guilty with them. If a person can protest the misdeeds of one’s townspeople and does not, the person is guilty with them. If one can protest the misdeeds of the entire world and does not, that person is guilty with them.
These individuals follow the banner of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, whose director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, declared:
In the face of polarization, we will build bridges. We will be a religious movement of resistance – not against a party or administration, but for the enduring values that guide us: inclusivity, justice and compassion. We will resist the hatred against women, minorities, Muslims and Jews that this election has exposed. And we will resist the politics of division, bigotry and hate.
This too is a valid response and those who are proving themselves to be individuals of principled action and resistance must feel empowered to pursue their core strengths, as well.
Because here’s what can’t happen: We can’t, like Sarah, allow ourselves to despair over the different responses of others. We must remember that there is no right or wrong answer to the test. For the truth is, in order to ensure that America lives up to its highest ideals – that the voices of bigotry don’t drown out the voices of brotherhood, that the hatred that has lived on the fringes of our country doesn’t find a home in its mainstream – in order to do that we will need all of our strengths and all of our approaches mobilized as one.
I don’t think it’s any great secret that I count myself in Sarah’s activist camp. As we heard in the statement by Rabbi Pesner, this is generally where the Reform Movement as a whole tends to be. I am a product of this movement and our congregation is an historic and leading member. So I want to take a few minutes to share some basic ways in which those of you who may feel similarly inclined can take active steps to engage in resistance to that which threatens the enduring values we believe are at the core of both faith and our country.
First, find organizational voices you can trust. For me, these have been the Religious Action Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Anti-Defamation League, among others. Listen to their voices; pay attention when they sound an alarm; follow their instructions when an email or phone call or participation in a rally can make a difference. With the Religious Action Center (the RAC), for instance, you can sign up for weekly summaries or legislative alerts around specific issues about which you care the most, from the Environment to Civil Rights & Liberties to Economic Justice. The ADL and SPLC provide excellent guidelines for responding to specific incidents and concerns as they arise.
Organizations like these help to give us confidence and strength, knowing that, by joining a national effort, our voice for inclusivity and justice is being amplified and directed toward where it can have the most impact. So consider financially supporting the organizations whose work represents the kind of effort and progress you want to see in our country, as well. I’m not usually in the habit of making gift suggestions, but I can tell you that in our family this year, we’ve decided to forgo traditional Hanukkah gifts for the adults in favor of donations to the organizations to whom we’re turning for guidance and empowerment. It’s a small act, but a meaningful one.
Second, be judicious about the amount of time you spend on social media, but I would encourage you not to turn away from it completely. Yes, there are enough news articles, videos and updates to sink your spirit each and every day. But this is also where stories of hope and encouragement await, as well. For instance, last week, a Georgia lawmaker withdrew a pre-filed bill in that state’s House of Representatives that would have restricted certain types of religious headwear to be worn when driving or posing for a driver’s license photo. Why the withdrawal? Because of letters and phone calls and organized public outcry. Yes, social media reminds us – each and every time we consult it these days – of the tremendous amount of work to be done. But it also strengthens and encourages us – like with the stories exchanged on Pantsuit Nation and elsewhere – of the incredible commitment and resolve that exists in our country to roll up our sleeves and get to it.
So listen to your spirit. Are you losing your focus as to what values are being threatened, what policies need to be resisted? Then read those voices you’ve come to trust that can explain the dangers and point you toward action. Are you despairing of ways to make a difference, searching for rays of hope? Then seek out the stories that shine a light on success. Learn from their example and set yourself to following in their footsteps.
So non-profit organizations and social media can provide some guidance in these difficult times. But so can your gut. My third piece of advice? Listen to it. Remember the lessons of this week’s Torah portion and last week’s – there is no right or wrong response to this test; we’re learning about ourselves as we go.
If you hear of a petition or letter writing campaign that speaks to you, that affirmatively makes a statement you want to make, sign it. If you learn of a rally or protest whose message resonates with you, participate in it. Don’t worry about those who say it won’t make a difference or there are better ways of getting your point across. We aren’t dealing with either/or tactics. Unlike the election, you’ll have more than one chance to use your voice.
For my part, as one of the rabbis of this congregation, I am committed to following the recommendations and guidance of the Reform movement – namely the lay and professional leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism, Commission on Social Action, and the Religious Action Center. When they issue statements and encourage us to reach out to our elected officials, I will share their communications on Facebook. When they vouch for the messaging of marches and protests – as they did with America’s Journey for Justice two summers ago – I will work with our congregation’s leadership to coordinate our participation. The majority of our congregation may decline to participate; it may be only a handful of members who do take an active role. But, increasingly, members of our congregation – and the community at large – are looking to KKBE for ways in which they can engage in moral resistance and activism. I am committed to helping those individuals connect their civic engagement with their religious engagement, and, in doing so, strengthen their relationships with fellow members of their community, as well.
The Torah teaches: “God put Abraham to the test.” Many generations – and perhaps Abraham himself – thought the test was a pass/fail. Sarah understood there could be multiple responses, but felt one was morally superior to another. We understand that there are multiple responses, and that all are legitimate and needed. And though we may differ in our actions, we are united in our values and wishes.
In the words of our siddur:
O Guardian of life and liberty,
may our nation always merit Your protection.
Teach us to give thanks for what we have
by sharing it with those who are in need.
Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,
and alert to the care of the earth.
May we never be lazy in the work of peace;
may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals.
Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance;
may they govern with justice and compassion.
Help us all to appreciate one another,
and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.
May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,
and our country be sound in body and spirit.
And let us say: Amen.