The Gift of Shabbat

Posted on November 10, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

Last week, my colleague Rabbi Joanna Samuels, the Director of the JCC of Manhattan, urged her community to take a break from the stress and anxiety of these troubling times by accepting the gift of Shabbat. One way to do this, she suggested, is to take a break from social media and doom scrolling through the news. “Just take a break,” she wrote. “It will all be there when you get back, I promise. Let this be a Shabbat of rest from the algorithm.”

We would do well to heed her advice and hit the pause button for 24 hours. Join us for song and prayer at temple or have a nice meal with family or friends at home. Most of all, allow yourself to breathe and renew your spirit. We all need it.

In this spirit, I am sharing with you a reflection on this week’s Torah portion that reminds us of our most precious values as Jews and as human beings. I hope you receive it as nourishment for your soul.

The Essence of the Torah is Love (1)

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.(2)

For others, the Torah is a book of love. A midrash in Tanchuma (3) 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.(4) In the middle, God comes to visit Abraham when he is ailing.(5) And at the end of the Torah, God lovingly lays Moses to his final rest.(6) To follow in the ways of God, say the rabbis, means that as God performs acts of lovingkindness,(7) so should we. And according to Rabbi Akiva, the greatest mitzvah of the Torah is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”(8)

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 in 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.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck