Chayye Sara

Death: Peace Or a Coup? -- This Week’s Torah

In “Chayei Sarah,” this week’s Torah and Haftarah readings, there are two deaths and one impending death. The effects of each on the surrounding community are quite different, and we can learn from each of them.

The death of Sarah leads mostly to Abraham’s effort to buy a burial place for her and, it turns out for himself and several others of his family as well. He makes clear that until this moment he has been landless, a “ger toshav,” a “sojourner settled.”

 Is his land purchase a triumph, a peaceful bargain struck in an uncertain context? Most of Jewish tradition treats it that way, but later Torah (Lev. 25: 23) says that all human beings are “gerim toshavim,” sojourners who may settle on Earth but do not own any part of it. Only YHWH, the Breath of Life, owns the Land, the Earth.  We humans only rent it temporarily while we live. 

One might even learn from the story that only the dead get to “own” the land by purchase -– for then our earthy dust returns to the earthy dust whence it came, while our breath returns to the Breath of Life whence it came.

The next death in the story is Abraham’s own.  The main consequence is that his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who seem to have been estranged for decades, come together to bury him. Indeed, this is the only time Torah calls them “Abraham’s  sons.”

We can only tell each other our imagined stories of what their conversation was like at the graveside of their dangerous father. Remember, he sent one of them into the wilderness ill-equipped to survive, and the other he took up the mountain, intending to slaughter him as an offering to God. Yet they joined to bury him and they reconciled with each other, so that Isaac went to live where Ishmael lived: The Wellspring of the Living One Who Sees Me.

For years my life-partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I have urged that this passage (Gen 25: 7-11) should be read on Yom Kippur as the reconciling resolution of the two stories that traditionally we read on Rosh Hashanah, of the near disasters that are visited upon the two brothers. And it deserves being lifted not only then but often as a quintessential teaching of the reconciliation that Torah teaches at its best.

Finally, the Haftarah or prophetic passage (I Kings 1: 1-31) that complements this Torah passage is a story of the very last days of King David, and here the consequence is very different.  David himself has promised the succession to Shlomo, “the peaceful one.” (We know him mostly as Solomon.) But another son has attempted a palace coup, gathering various officials around him and calling himself “king” even while David still lives.

The symbols of legitimacy gather around David. The Prophet Natan and David’s principal wife Batsheva, Solomon’s mother, ask David to say publicly what his choice is. He speaks for Solomon.  The plotters of the coup disperse, and as we know, Solomon becomes king when shortly after, David dies.

We ourselves live at a moment when all the normally legitimate social institutions are prophecying one succession in power.  Yet palace officials are edging close to a coup, and refuse to reconcile with previously estranged communities. Can we learn from Ishmael and Isaac?

Is Burning the World Impeachable?

 Part 2 of "IMPEACHMENT: Constitutional, Moral, or Spiritual?"

[See Part 1 on the right-hand column of this Home Page. --  AW, editor]

For the human species and a million others now imperiled, our present crisis is meta-Constitutional. The present President has taken many actions to subsidize and support the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs that are burning the Earth -- what Pope Francis called our common home. But those actions do not violate any explicit provision of the US Constitution.

But in any sane world, risking the extinction of the human race would be the Highest conceivable of High Crimes and Misdemeanors. Claiming that there is no climate crisis, that it is all a hoax, does not exonerate him – even if he believes It. Claiming that bullets do not kill, that shooting someone dead is not a criminal act because the claim that bullets kill is a hoax, does not exonerate a murderer.

Franz Kafka, the Leopard, & Yom Kippur

There is a wonderful two-line short story by Franz Kafka, more or less like this:

“One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail.

“Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.”

Our task, in every generation, every year, is to let the leopard out of the cage of liturgy.

Scary, and full of life.

For example: How do we treat the Yom Kippur prophetic reading in which Isaiah calls on the crowd not just to fast but to share their bread with the hungry, their homes with the homeless, their clothes with the naked, and then to go one huge and highly political step further and break off the handcuffs put on by wicked power?

On Yom Kippur morning, that Haftarah can be read in any of four ways.

One way is to treat it as part of “the liturgy.”  Someone chants it in a droning Hebrew or reads it in a listless English.

Or we could read it with passion, even with strong music and powerful graphics.  For my own impassioned translation and a YouTube art-and-music video of “Isaiah Lives!"  click here:


OR –--  On this coming Yom Kippur, we could let the leopard leap from the page, roaring. We could notice that Isaiah disrupted the official Yom Kippur liturgy, that he says people yelled at him and shook their fists when he broke into the pleasant Levite chanting.

Today someone could actually break through Isaiah’s words for the sake of Isaiah’s truth –- perhaps suddenly in the middle of the Haftarah shouting out a headline about a homeless old man found frozen to death on a wintry downtown street; then, a few verses later, another headline about 300 people lining up in hope of a job when the Postal Service announced three vacancies;

Or someone could read a brief paragraph (just after the verse about the handcuffs) describing how an Arizona sheriff  deliberately feeds rotted food  to immigrants he has imprisoned and forces them to work outside in 130-degree heat.  Or a paragraph about how the US government has explicitly refused to put on trial those who ordered the torture of prisoners.

OR – We could break through the cage of words altogether, and actually do what Isaiah tells us that God, the Breath of Life,  demands:

 How? First someone could read aloud these words:

"In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of others -– the largest gathering in US history of Natives from all their many nations, plus many Americans of other communities --  have gathered to protect the sacred ancestral lands of the Sioux and the Missouri River from the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

"Native people have gathered since last Spring to protect both the graves of their forebears from desecration and their water from poisoning, with the call that "Water is Life" -- Mayim Hayim.

"They are protecting our beloved Mother Earth for the sake of all of us, all life and future generations.

 "For the pipeline will mean still more emissions of CO2 and methane to burn our Mother Earth.

 "The encampments are peaceful, drug and alcohol free, where the elders and tribal leaders conduct daily ceremony and prayer.

 "Yet they face soldiers with rifles loaded and pointed at them as they peacefully pray.

 "They have pledged to camp all winter -- to insure that the pipeline does not get built through their tribal lands.  They need donations to purchase winter supplies, food, tipees, and other necessities."

AND THEN --  as God and Isaiah cry out to us, to feed the hungry and clothe those exposed to wintry chill, to help them face with brave nonviolence the weapons aimed at them by domineering power, come to prayer on Yom Kippur ready as the break-fast begins on Tuesday night to write a check made out to  "Standing Rock Sioux Tribe --- Pipeline Protest Donation Fund." Collect the checks and send them that very night to  Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Attention: Donations, PO Box D, Building #1, North Standing Rock Avenue,  Fort Yates, ND 58538


Another leopard we could free: On Rosh Hashanah we read two painful stories –-  one about Abraham’s expulsion of Ishmael his son and Ishmael’s mother Hagar from Abraham’s family, into a wilderness where they were on the point of death from thirst; and the other, about Abraham preparing to put his son Isaac to death at what he thought was God’s command. For both of Abraham’s sons, at the very last moment, God intervenes –-- and both their lives are saved.

Their story does not end with bare survival. Later in the Torah (Gen 25: 7-11), on a Shabbat when many fewer people will be in synagogue to hear, we are told that after twenty years apart, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their dangerous father, and then Isaac went to live at Ishmael’s wellspring.

This Yom Kippur, what about lifting up and reading this passage of tshuvah and slichah, “turning” and “reconciliation”? For Yom Kippu is precisely the festival that is supposed to bring us to tshuvah and slichah.

A Tomb and a Wellspring

In the Torah portion known as "Chayye Sarah," there are two major geographical /symbolic venues: a tomb and a wellspring.  Abraham buys the first because, he explains, he is otherwise merely a ger toshav, a nomad settler, in the land. He wants full ownership over land where he can bury Sarah.The cave he purchases is near Hebron.

Reconciling Ishmael and Isaac for Yom Kippur

In Chayei Sarah (Gen 25: 7-11) not only are Ishmael and Isaac for the first time called “Abraham’s sons” (plural and together) as they come together to bury their dangerous father, but in verse 11 we are told that Isaac settled at Be’er Lachai Ro’i, Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. This is the well that was named by Hagar during her first troubled venture into the wilderness while she is pregnant with Ishmael and then finds the Well again in her travail with the teen-age Ishmael in the wilderness, the well that perhaps was renewed by her tears that “opened her eyes.” (Gen. 16: 9-16 and 21: 15-21)  It surely became Ishmael’s wellspring as well (you might say). So the two brothers do at last come to live together. There is ample evidence back in chapters 16 and 21 that Torah affirms the blessing of God to Ishmael.

 For decades, Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I have always, whenever we had the responsibility to lead Torah reading on Yom Kippur, have made sure that the passage of Genesis 25: 7-11 is read from the Torah as a crowning story for the two readings on Rosh Hashanah – making a tikkun and a tshuvah of the earlier stories, as the Torah Herself does the work of tshuvah that we are taught to do during the Ten Days that are fulfilled by Yom Kippur.  We believe that failing to lift this reading in  the same way as the expulsion of Ishmael and the Binding of Isaac are lifted from their regular places for Rosh Hashanah is a failure in our own duty of Tshuvah, and we believe that raising the Genesis 25 passage to special Yom Kippur consciousness could help lead us to a new approach to peacemaking between Muslims and Jews, Palestine and Israel. 

I commend that Yom Kippur practice to others, as well as the practice at the original Elat Chayyim and for decades now at Congr Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia of ending Kaddish always with --  “Oseh shalom ... alenu v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol Yishmael v’al kol yoshvei tevel.”   

9/11 and Rosh Hashanah: Reconciling Abraham's Families, Celebrating American Diversity

Dear friends,

Before I share with you some thoughts about the intersection this year of 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah, I want to remind you: I am one of four rabbis who will be leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur retreats at Elat Chayyim/ Isabella Freedman, the lovely spiritual center in Connecticut.

The Shalom Center co-sponsors those retreats, and our community is entitled to 20% reductions in the cost of room & board. Just enter SCRH10 as the discount code when you register here.

This year especially, I urge us to plan to include in Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur Torah readings the passage on reconciliation of the two families of Abraham -- Gen. 25: 7-11, when Ishmael & Isaac come together to bury their father and then after long estrangement decide to live together at Ishmael's wellspring. This reading could then open up a discussion of what it means about our intimate families and our larger family, in this generation when the children of Abraham through Hagar & Ishmael and the children of Abraham through Sarah and Isaac are so often at each other’s throats.

Here's why to do this especially this year:

This year, the ninth anniversary of 9/11 falls on Shabbat Shuvah, just after the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The day will be used for a demonstration in New York City denouncing Park51/ Cordoba House (the Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan) by several right-wing political figures, including Geert Wilders, an ultra-right-wing Dutch politician who is on trial there for anti-Muslim hate speech.

They will be trying to inflame hatred of all Islam, including the peace-seeking Sufis of Park51/ Cordoba House, as if all Muslims were responsible for the 9/11 mass murders.

It seems to me that one of the factors (not the only one) in the wave of opposition to Park51 from many conservative, Tea Party, and other right-wing politicians is the hope of using it as a wedge issue to split voting constituencies and communities that generally vote progressive. The obvious target here is the American Jewish community, and it behooves us to take great care not to let anti-Muslim bigotry sweep away the Jewish voting community.

Of course different Jews have many issues to consider, and many different perspectives from which to do so, in choosing whom to support in the November elections and beyond — our varied economic views, our varied outlooks on US foreign policy, our concern about terrorism, our concern for religious freedom and civil liberties. But hatred of Islam, as if all Muslims and their religion were our enemy, should not be one of them. And given the attempts to inflame Jews to feel this way, we need to take special care to oppose such abuses.

How then can we address this question, especially in the light of the confluence of 9/11 and Rosh Hashanah?

The Tomb and the Well: Owning & Sitting

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow 11/21/2005

The story of Abraham's death ascribes power to two places, a tomb and a well:

Now these are the days and the years of Avraham, which he lived:
A hundred years and seventy years and five years, then he expired.
Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Makhpelah (Doubling) in the field that Abraham had acquired.
There were buried Abraham and Sarah his wife.
Now it was after Abraham's death, that God blessed Isaac his son.
And Isaac sat by the Well of the Living-One Who-Sees-Me.
(Gen. 25: 7-8a, 9-11.)

Death and Reconciliation

"Avraham died . . . and Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him." "Isaac and Ishmael his sons"? This is the only time in the great saga of our founding families that the Torah speaks of them together, calling them both Abraham's sons (Gen. 25: 9). Until this moment the Torah has never allowed us to see them together, in a direct relationship. Always before they have been described separately:

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