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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776 — 11/04/2015

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776 — 11/04/2015

Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

Rabbi Steinsaltz continues last week’s theme of contrasting transcendence to quotidien activity into this week’s Parashah. In fact, he contrasts Chayei Sarah with Vayera along just these lines:

Parashat Vayera is full of exciting events, which surely made headlines in those days…. The parashah is replete with angels and lofty matters, and it takes place entirely on a plane of great tension between momentous ascents and descents. …

By contrast, Parashat Chayei Sarah is very tranquil. It deals with Sarah’s burial in Ma’arat HaMakhpela, the courtship of Isaac and Rebecca, and the latter part of Abraham’s life.

He continues, applying this to the life of the individual:

Every person’s life consists of two different modes. One mode is characterized by ascents and descents, while the other is characterized by calm and tranquility, without major events or great excitement. …

In every person, there is a sort of inner debate as to whether he would prefer great excitement or calm and tranquility. There is a side, even in one’s spiritual life, that despises the sense that nothing is happening, feeling bored and unstimulated. But the opposite side also exists, the aspect of “Jacob wished to live in tranquility” (Bereishit Rabba 84:3)

This situation accurately reflects the structure of existence. At the basis of existence is the transcendental field of Pure Existence, which is infinite and unchanging. It is beyond all the hurly-burly of life, just as the depths of the ocean are unaffected by the activity of the waves on the surface of the ocean. Yet on the surface of life, there are all kinds of waves of activity, all kinds of drama, life and death, the greatest spiritual ascents and the lowest moral degradation. Where do we want to station ourselves. I think the answer is, in the famous words of Deion Sanders, “Both!”

In a word, life really should be lived grounded in the unchanging, while it is lived in the world of change. What does this mean? Our bodies are obviously always changing; they are made up of physical stuff – organs, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms, etc. All these parts are in constant motion, constantly changing position and relationship to one another. Our souls, on the other hand, are “a piece of the Divine from Above.” It is essentially infinite already; the only reason we don’t perceive it to be so is due to the fact that our physical body occludes our perceptions. Our body stores an impression of every action we have done that is not in accord with Gd’s Will, and it is these impressions, which interfere with the proper functioning of the body, that allow it to block our perception of who we really are.

If we want to live life established in the unchanging, what we need to do is to clear away the obstructions that have accumulated through our wrong actions. This process of clearing away the dreck inside us is called t’shuvah, literally, return. The process of t’shuvah has several components. There is verbal confession, where we clearly enunciate what we did wrong (this can be done in private, but it must be done aloud, not just in thought). The second step is regretting our action. This can be because we regret the negative consequences of our action, or we regret the fact that we’ve estranged outselves from Gd, or both. Finally, we must resolve not to repeat the negative action. This involves actively seeking ways to keep ourselves from giving in to the urges that made us stray in the first place. All of this focuses our awareness on our errors, and hopefully gives us the tools to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

I think we all understand from hard experience that all the breast-beating and all the regret and all the good intentions in the world do not always lead us to make substantial changes in our lives. How many of us have come out of the exaltation of Yom Kippur, and the first time we are presented with a familiar challenge, react in exactly the same way we’ve been crying about an hour before. I know it’s happened to me, often.

It seems to me that the issue is that we’re dealing only with the surface value of the problem, and not really addressing the way of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. I should hasten to add that most commentators regard the above procedure of “doing t’shuvah” (based on Rambam) as, ideally, leading to a greater awareness of sin and its effects, particularly the deleterious spiritual effects, so that one’s personality actually does change. And sometimes it does change. Perhaps if we were on a higher spiritual level, the procedure would be more effective, but we can only act from our current level, and I think it is the common experience is that something more is needed.

If the problem is on the surface, active value – that is, we often react, unthinkingly to challenging situations, and that reaction is generally wrong and hurtful, then I believe the solution is on the silent, transcendental level, the level of infinite stability and infinite patience. What we need to do is to bring our mind into contact with that level, repeatedly, so that its qualities become infused in our mind. This is truly return – return to who we really are, return to our own inner Divine nature. From this level we can respond to anything from a settled state of awareness, an infinitely broad state of awareness, one that is in tune with the Divine and virtually incapable of sin. We act while established in the state of infinite, non-active Being. We can have as much drama as we want, but inside, we are living pure tranquility!

Haftarah, I Kings 1:1 – 31

Ostensibly the connection between the parashah and the Haftarah is over the issue of succession. Avraham sends to Haran to find a wife for Yitzchak, and King David has to reaffirm his commitment to having Solomon assume the monarchy after him, in the face of a rebellion by his son Adonijah. In terms of the intrigue in the haftarah though, one would think that it belongs better either with Vayera and the banishing of Ishmael from the succession, or with Toledot, and Ya’akov’s “stealing” the paternal blessing from Esau.

Perhaps we can follow R. Steinsaltz’ line of thinking here. He identified as a fundamental principle in life the alternation between action and tranquility, which we equated to the world of activity and the underlying level of silence. In the personages of Kings David and Solomon we find the same alternation. King David was a warrior, a man of action. His life reads like an action novel, with war, rebellion, loyalty, betrayal, sin and redemption. King Solomon, on the other hand, was a man of peace, as his name (Shlomo in Hebrew, from shalom, peace, or more to the point, wholeness) suggests. In one sense, Solomon represents the pure existence, transcendental level of reality, while David represents the active aspect of reality. But in truth, we see from David’s Psalms that he was deeply rooted in the transcendent, in his relationship with Gd – he never would have been able to sustain himself, let alone succeed the way he did, without it. And Solomon was successful in the realm of activity – he built the Temple and brought Israel to its highest status ever. Both exemplified life established in Pure Existence, and simultaneously infinitely dynamic on the surface.