Calm in the face of life: A reflection from Jewish ethical tradition

The parsha entitled Chaye Sarah, the Life of Sarah, begins with Sarah’s death at the age of 127.  Abraham purchases a burial site for his wife, the cave of Machpelah, from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred shekels of silver and buries her there.

Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to Charan to find a wife for Isaac. At the village well, Eliezer asks Gd for a sign so that he can determine which young woman is the one for Isaac.  He decides that when the maidens come to the well, he will ask for some water to drink; the woman who offers to give his camels a drink as well shall be the one destined to wed his master’s son.

Hope Honeyman LCSW

Hope Honeyman LCSW

Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel, appears at the well and immediately offers Eliezer and his camels water.  Eliezer is invited to her home, where he shares the day’s eventswith her family. Rebecca returns with Eliezer to the land of Canaan, where they encounter Isaac praying in the field. Isaac marries Rebecca, loves her, and is comforted from the loss of his mother.

Abraham marries Hagar and fathers six more sons, but Isaac is designated as his only heir. Abraham dies at age 175 and is buried beside Sarah by his two eldest sons, Isaac and Ishmael.

This week’s middah, Menuchat hanefesh, which means calmness of the soul in Hebrew, is about achieving an inner equilibrium that is not upset by the ups and downs that are a part of daily life. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin speaks about this concept and encourages “rising above events that are inconsequential – both good and bad – for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.”

Mussar scholar Alan Morinis teaches that we cannot insulate ourselves from life’s trials, but we can prepare for them, and fostering a calm soul readies us to be the kind of people who can and will pass their life tests.  Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness meditation teacher says, “There will always be waves.  The trick is to learn how to surf. “

In this week’s parsha, there are many examples of equanimity exhibited on the parts of Abraham, Sarah, Eliezer, Isaac, and Ishmael.

The beginning of this parsha finds Abraham with a legacy of trauma…in the prior parsha, he has banished his eldest son to the desert and to possible death and he has led his other son up a mountain to be sacrificed.  While both sons survive their ordeals, the family is shattered.  No one ever speaks again…neither Abraham and Sarah, nor Abraham and either of his children.  When Abraham journeys home from Moriah, he returns to find his wife dead.

Most of us, under these circumstances, would find it hard to maintain our composure when challenged.  But when Eliezer questions Abraham about his plan to find Isaac a bride asking, “what if the woman does not consent to follow me to this land…?”  Abraham answers his servant without getting ruffled, explaining his plan at which point Eliezer swears to do his master’s bidding.

Rabbi Stone teaches that menuchat hanefesh must be cultivated in anticipation of future events.  “The very nature of G-d is expressed as futurity.” While Eliezer is busy praying to G-d to find a wife for Isaac and to establish a sign that this is she, Rebecca appears at the well before Eliezer has barely finished his prayer.

Isaac, too, evidences equanimity as he meditates in the fields, perhaps preparing himself for marriage, even at the moment that his bride arrives at his home.

And let us not forget Sarah.  A midrash says that we hear of Sarah’s death in connection with her lifetime because her years were truly filled with life and that this is one of the reasons why the Hebrew text expresses her lifespan of 127 years in an unusually extended fashion as 100 years and 20 years and 7 years.  Rashi says “the word years is repeated and without number to indicate that they were all equally good.  But there must be differences, variations, and changes during the years of a person’s lifetime.  There are special times during a person’s youth and special times during a person’s old age.  But the ones who are truly righteous find fulfillment in all their days.” One can surmise that Sarah practiced equanimity in order to rise above events that are inconsequential.

Furthermore, Sarah is silent throughout most of the Torah.  In fact, she only speaks 8 lines in the entire Torah.  Is it possible that she is practicing equanimity to uphold and support G-d’s wishes and Abrahams’s destiny?

Although not in this parsha, it is worth mentioning that even righteous women are human and evidence disequilibrium.  When G-d promised Sarah that she would become pregnant with Isaac, she laughed…in this case, an example of losing one’s equanimity upon experiencing good news.

The final and ultimate example of equanimity in this parsha is evidenced by Isaac and Ishmael at Abraham’s death when the two brothers come together, despite being torn apart by childhood trauma, to bury their father.  Rabbi Adam Greenwald says, “What has been lost to them – love, innocence, a sense of security — will never be fully restored.  Yet, in this moment, we bear witness to their placing the past in the ground” rising above the past in order to do what is right by their father.  “We can imagine them walking away from the gravesite, perhaps with tears in their eyes, but also perhaps with a great sense of liberation.”

It is this last act of letting go that the two brothers come together not only to bury their father, but in this one moment, to bury the past.  It is only through equanimity and through this letting go that we can open up to new ways of being with each other.

Rabbi Greenwald reminds us that through this parsha, “we are called to have the courage of Ishmael and Isaac, who were able to do the painful and powerful work of putting their past behind them.  We are taught, gently but persistently, of the value of setting down our burdens and embracing a new future.  We are offered the capacity to walk toward a tomorrow that is undefined, but in which we are completely free.”

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