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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5774 — 10/23/2013

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5774 — 10/23/2013

Hear us out, my lord. You are a prince of Gd in our midst. Bury your dead in the choicest of our graves. (23:6)

In the end, Avraham asked the people of Cheis to speak to Ephron, son of Tzochar, to see whether he would relinquish Mearas Hamachpelah, a cave at the end of his field. This matter needs explanation, for the people of Cheis had already told Avraham, “None of us shall withhold his grave from you for burying your dead’ If so, why did Avraham need to ask Ephron!s consent, already having received permission to bury Sarah anywhere he wanted?

   The answer is that Avraham Avinu knew that no matter what field he would choose, its owner would turn him away and tell him to bury Sarah in some other field. From the vague statements, “None of us shall withhold.. . ‘ and “Bury your dead in the choicest of our graves:’  Avraharn did not yet have anything in hand. For this reason, he named a specific field owner, thereby communicating to them, “If you are telling the truth and really want to help me bury my dead, I ask of you, please arrange that I meet with Ephron, son of Tzochar.  I want to negotiate with somebody specific, not with the whole community.  I am not interested in being in the position of one who is told ‘Go here,’ and then rebuffed: ‘Go there,’ and then rebuffed.”  (Chafetz Chaim)

As in Parashat Lech L’cha, the redactors of Chafetz Chaim on the Torah left us just two relatively brief, and apparently very mundane, comments.  It’s a challenge to dig deeper and find more than just the superficial meaning of the Chafetz Chaim’s words.  I think this is the whole point of Scripture and all the literature of our tradition – it trains us to see the hidden spiritual meaning behind the mundane, until we can evaluate everything in terms of its underlying, infinite basis.

Even on the surface, the explanation of Avraham’s behavior makes a lot of sense.  We have all experienced “the runaround,” where no one person will take responsibility for solving a particular problem.  President Harry Truman famously was said to have had a plaque on his desk that says “The Buck Stops Here.”  Perhaps Pres. Truman wasn’t so good at delegating; more likely he knew what it meant to take personal responsibility for his actions.  How different it is when we want to get customer service from some companies for a faulty product.  You need to speak with Joe, but he’s out of town till Monday.  Oh, you need to speak with Jill.  Can I put you through to her voicemail?

Avraham of course had no time to delay, as he had to bury Sarah immediately.  (Traditionally her Yahrzeit is on Rosh haShanah.)  He therefore turned the fuzzy reply of the Hittites into a concrete request of a specific person for a specific piece of property, and is able to consummate the deal immediately by paying cash on the barrelhead.  Rabbinic tradition identifies the “shekel of commerce” that Avraham paid 400 of as 2500 ordinary shekels, so the total was a million shekels for the field and cave!  Since Avraham knew that Adam and Eve were already buried in that cave (and the Hittites did not), he was an extremely motivated buyer and was not put off by the exhorbitant price hinted at by Ephron.  Some things are more important than money.

Generally, where there is external conflict in the Bible, it is reflective of a particular quality of internal conflict.  The battles Israel fights against our enemies are parallel to the battles each one of us must fight against our own baser natures in order to perfect ourselves.  An obvious example is Amalek.  Israel fought battles against Amalek in the days of Moses (Exodus 17), Saul (I Samuel 15) and David.  Amalek is said by the Rabbis to represent the outlook that life is governed by random chance, and that there is no moral law in the universe.  In a superficial sense it is a lot easier to live in such a universe – no pesky deity making demands on you.  Since one of our inherent tendencies is towards laziness, we naturally resent such an intrusion into what we consider our private space.  This can be viewed as a battle between our body, which wants to relax, and our mind, which wants to accomplish spiritually.  Amalek-in-us must be completely destroyed for us to realize our full potential.

I believe our case follows the same principle.  We know that in negotiating “the devil is in the details.”  The concrete details of any agreement have to be hammered out so the relationship can proceed smoothly, without a lot of unforeseen conflicts that have to be negotiated anew every step of the way.  But this same principle is valid as we negotiate our way through life.  If we go through life with only fuzzy plans and ideas, we will never be able to bring them to fruition – our vision of where we want to be is simply not clear enough to get us there (or to recognize that we have already gotten there!).  The basis of effective action is clarity of thought.

How do we develop this clarity?  I’d like to offer two thoughts.  We know when we are well rested, our minds are clearer and we are better able to focus.  We rest better when our bodies are in a routine, and our tradition actually makes our day fairly highly routinized – thrice-daily prayer, dress codes, etc.  Following our tradition, and putting some thought into the meaning behind our tradition, is a good way to culture the mind.  That is one reason I write these weekly drashes.

On perhaps a deeper level, consider the evolution of a thought.  We all experience that thoughts seem to well up inside us, and sometimes we can catch a fleeting thought in a very faint, subtle stage of its development, before we even become fully conscious of it.  Mozart described the experience of coming home alone one night from a concert in a carriage, when it suddenly became very silent all around him, and deep inside himself he perceived an entire concert as if rolled up into a point.  He noted that when he got home, all he had to do was write down what he had already perceived in seed form inside his mind.  Obviously, such experiences of thinking on very subtle and powerful levels are humanly possible, and possibly not even that rare.

I believe that our tradition offers a number of practices that allow us to cultivate the ability to think on deeper levels.  Prayer is one example – we recite the same words every day (sometimes several times a day).  Yet prayer requires kavvannah – intention and attention.  As we take the opportunity to consider these inherently profound thoughts over and over again, our minds are able, at least some of the time, to get past the surface meanings and associations of the words, and grasp deeper and deeper insights into their meaning and relevance for our lives.  Likewise Torah study challenges us to penetrate beyond the surface meaning of the verses of Scripture, or the rules of Mishnah and Gemara, and perceive the deeper, underlying structures of both the physical and moral universes in which we live.

Now fuzzy thinking has a great attraction for us – it’s easy.  Thinking clearly and precisely is hard work.  We have to penetrate layer after layer of obfuscation, whether it be due to our material natures and their desire for “creature comforts” or if they be hidden agendas of other people (“follow the money”).  Thus the Hittites, who didn’t really want to deal with Avraham, tried to put him off with generalities.  Avraham was on a much higher level; he was able to penetrate the surface layer of the Hittites’ words, because he was thinking at a much deeper level himself.  His clarity of mind was able to overcome the Hittites’ inertia and allowed him to accomplish the goal he had set for himself.

While it’s a stretch to think that any of us will achieve the level of spiritual attainment of Avraham Avinu, there is no reason why we should remain stuck at whatever level we currently find ourselves.  The tradition we have in our hand can help us grow and overcome our internal enemies; all we have to do is use it.

Shemoneh Esrei

You are holy, Your Name is holy, and holy ones every day proclaim your praise.  Blessed are You, Hashem, the Holy Gd.

The root of the word holy is kadosh, which has to connotation of separateness.  Gd, Who is Infinite, is completely separate from and transcendental to the world.  Now the question is, who are the “holy ones” who sing Gd’s praises?  There are two opinions – one camp holds that they are the angels in heaven, and our liturgy bears this out.  The other camp holds that the “holy ones” are the people of Israel.  This is a bit harder to understand.  We are all imperfect, all of us bound to a finite body, not transcendental at all.  And we all have a pretty good idea where we stand in the scale of holiness.  Nevertheless, where we might fall short as individuals, we find strength as a group, a people dedicated to serving Gd.  Together we can attain a level of holiness that might be inaccessible to us each individually.

This b’rachah is the third of the opening three b’rachot, which are the same in every Shemoneh Esrei, be it Shabbat, Yom Tov, Yom Kippur or just our daily prayers.  It seems to correspond to the sefirah Da’at and to the Patriarch Ya’akov, both of which represent syntheses of the two prior levels.  In this case, the flow of the infinite represented by Chochmah and Avraham Avinu combines with the boundaries of Binah and Yitzchak Avinu to give something that is more than either of the two.  The melding of the qualities of flow and boundaries into ever-evolving structures that can re-integrate with their Source gives rise to a level of wholeness which is vastly greater than the parts together.  This wholeness is the ultimate in holiness.