Posted on November 13, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
A Message for Shabbat Chayai Sarah and World Kindness Day:
What is the essence of the Torah? For some, like Rashi, the Torah is a book of law – the vessel through which God gave us commandments to guide our lives. He argues that the Torah should have begun with Exodus 13, where we learn the first of the 613 mitzvot.
For others, the Torah is a book of love. A midrash in Tanchuma notes that the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Torah is love. At the beginning, God clothes the naked, making garments for Adam and Eve. In the middle, God comes to visit Abraham when he is ailing . And at the end of the Torah, God lovingly lays Moses to his final rest. To follow in the ways of God, say the rabbis, means that as God performs acts of lovingkindness, so should we. And according to Rabbi Akiva, the greatest mitzvah of the Torah is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, tells us of the death of both Abraham and Sarah. But what looks like a teaching about the end of life is actually a tale of love. Abraham has lived a life of public service. He is the founder of nations, a champion for justice, a man of unfailing faith. But it is only in the final chapter of his story that we fully understand that the driving force of his life is love.
The entire parashah is replete with acts of love. When Sarah dies, Abraham goes to great lengths to secure a burial place, insisting on purchasing the Cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. There he lays her to her final rest and mourns her loss. In so doing, he teaches us how love transcends death.
In faithful devotion to that love, Abraham then seeks a wife for their beloved son, Isaac. He dispatches his servant to identify the right woman through her acts of lovingkindness. She will be the one who provides water for him and also for his camels. And so it was that Rebecca became the love of Isaac’s life.
Next, Abraham himself finds new love, marrying Keturah and having many more children with her. Finally, when Abraham breathes his last, his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, reunite after years of estrangement to bury their father by Sarah’s side in the Cave of Machpelah.
From Chayei Sarah we learn that love is more than an emotion; love is a verb. Love is what love does. And what it does defines a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Love is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the life that God meant for us. It is the means by which our lives and the world will be redeemed, as Megan McKenna reminds us in this beautiful parable.
Once upon a time there was a blacksmith who worked hard at his trade. When the day came for him to die, the angel of death was sent to him, and, much to the angel’s surprise, he refused to go. He pleaded with the angel to make his case before God, that he was the only blacksmith in the area, and it was time for all his neighbors to begin their planting and sowing. He was needed. So the angel pleaded his case before God…. And he was left.
A year or two later the angel came back…. Again, the man had reservations and said: “A neighbor of mine is seriously ill, and it is time for the harvest. A number of us are trying to save his crops so that his family won’t become destitute. Please come back later.” And off went the angel again.
Well, it got to be a pattern. Every time the angel came, the blacksmith had one excuse or another, [telling] the angel where he was needed…. Finally, the blacksmith grew very old, weary, and tired. He decided it was time, and so he prayed: “God, if you’d like to send your angel again, I’d be glad to come home now.” Immediately the angel appeared…. The blacksmith said: “If you still want to take me home, I’m ready to live forever in…[gan eden, in paradise].” The angel laughed and looked at the blacksmith in delight and surprise and said: “Where do you think you’ve been all these years?”
We, too, can turn this earth, this life, into paradise through acts of love and kindness. One deed at a time, we can redeem the world. May love be the beginning, the middle, and the end of life for each of us and for all God’s children.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck