Thursday, November 13, 2014


This week I learned of the death of a distant family member at the age of 100. Mike had known tragedy—losing his son as a teenager and his wife six month later. He served in World War II and witnessed the liberation of the death camps. Mike remarried later in life and continued to work as an electrician well into his 90s.  He lived to see two of his three grandchildren married and to enjoy three great-grandchildren. Looking at photos of him from his long life, Mike’s smile radiates a deep love of life and contentment with his lot. Having witnessed the best and worst of humanity, Mike remained positive throughout his life and he died at peace, beloved by many.

How we approach the end of life has a lot to do with how we approach the middle. Some people are naturally gifted with a big heart, a warm personality, an optimistic view of life. Others have to work at it, learning to let go of fear and anxiety, discovering the gifts that are hidden in the everyday. We might ask ourselves, what kind of person do I want to be when I reach the end?

In this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, both Abraham and Sarah die. We have the first description of end of life in Torah. While earlier chapters of Torah tell how old people were when they died, from Adam who lived 930 years (Gen.5:5) to Methusaleh who lived 969 years (Gen. 5:27), the names and numbers read like a laundry list. Abraham and Sarah teach us how to age and how to die.

Chayei Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, begins by sharing some of the details: how old she was, where she died, and most importantly, how she was mourned. Sarah is the first person in the Torah to be buried and Abraham is the first to grieve a loss. We learn of the deep emotion that often accompanies grief, as Abraham weeps for her (Gen. 23:2). We read in detail how Abraham negotiates a plot of land in order to bury his beloved.

And then we read:
Abraham was now old, advanced in years,
And YHVH blessed Abraham in all things (bakol). (Gen 24:1)

Here we learn about Abraham’s own end of life process. Having lost Sarah, he plans for his final years and for the future of his son, Isaac. We are told that Abraham was blessed bakol. Did he really have everything? Did he feel that he had everything? 

Abraham had been promised many blessings in his life. He was promised the Land of Canaan and descendants numerous as the stars in the sky. Yet most of these blessings were destined to take root in generations to come, not in Abraham’s lifetime. Could these be the blessings referred to here?

Several commentators speculate what this compact text might mean. Ibn Ezra explains simply that at the end of his life, Abraham had riches, honor and children, fulfilling all human desires. He had everything a person could ever desire.

Rashi suggests that the numerical equivalent of the word bakol (bet-kaf-lamed) is found in the word ben (bet-nun), meaning son. Both words equal 52 in gematria (Jewish numerology). Perhaps Abraham considered his son Isaac his greatest blessing. No matter what greatness we may achieve in our work or pursuit of our passions, talents or causes, our children are often all we could ever want.

Given that the story of seeking a wife for Isaac follows this passage, several commentators connect our verse to Isaac’s future prospects. Rashbam explains that bakol means that all the women in the world desired to marry Isaac, so Abraham had to take great care in helping him find the appropriate spouse. Parents never cease to be concerned for their children’s welfare.

When we count our blessings, we may start by naming the material blessings:  good health, enough food, a safe place to live, children and grandchildren. Beyond that, what else could we ask for? If we have received wealth or honor, contributed to the world or achieved great heights, that is even more of a blessing than we can expect. Counting our blessings enables us to notice what we have. Indeed, the greatest blessing of all is to know that we are blessed.

Rabbi Yechiel Mechel halevi Epstein (1829-1908), the rabbi of Novogrudok, taught, “God blessed Abraham with the quality of “all,” of being content with whatever he had, and never feeling that he was lacking anything. This sounds like Perchik’s song in Fiddler on the Roof, “Now I have Everything.” What Abraham has is gratitude for everything.

Gratitude is an essential component of contentment. Abraham is able to weigh all of life’s tests and trials and still feel grateful. What happens when we feel we have everything? Jewish teaching urges us to bless, to give thanks and to share our bounty.

The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, adds another layer to Abraham’s gratitude. Levi Yitzchak understands this verse as “YHVH blessed Abraham with all (that is, the community) according to his intention and desire. All that Abraham desired was that all be blessed along with him.” In this case, Abraham sought to share his blessings with all, and not to keep them for himself alone.

In this way, Abraham fulfills one of the divine blessings promised to him in the earliest part of the Abraham story: “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Gen.12:3) Abraham’s ability to acknowledge his blessings and his deep desire to share his blessings brings him additional blessing!

At the end of our lives, what will we treasure most? Our wealth? Our accomplishments? Our wisdom? Our loved ones? How will we cultivate our appreciation so that we, too, can be blessed by all who know us, and be a blessing to them as well?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Madison Bumgarner, Abraham, and the Mid-term Elections

I barely had time to recover from game 7 of the World Series, when my home town team, the Kansas City Royals, lost it all in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and the tying runner just 90 feet from home plate. I’m a loyal Red Sox fan, through and through. But the magic of seeing my first baseball team rise out of obscurity, poverty and perpetually being in the basement, charmed me from the divisional series to the very end.

 There was little time to feel the crushing disappointment, the shock of “almost,” and the sense of “what if.” For a fleeting moment I considered the defeat in terms that Red Sox fans (used to) recognize:  how unjust for one team to dominate so many championships, leaving the small market team of unknowns in the dust.

Within hours it seemed, all attention turned to this week’s elections and baseball faded into the shadows. With the non-stop barrage of coverage of local races, ballot initiatives, and the fate of the Senate, the baseball void was filled with yet another winner-take-all contest. Election Day brought new disappointments. Like the World Series, no matter who or what you voted for, someone on the rival team was either despondent or exultant.

At the end of the day, both events left winners and losers. For the losers, the results lead us to disappointment or even outrage. Political coverage often resembles sports coverage, dividing us into rival teams. Yet the day after an election, while many are already preparing for the next showdown, what is really important is that both winners and losers learn to work together for our common good.

Before we can reach that exalted place of reconciliation, perhaps we can all step back and examine our fears and worries and learn to overcome them.

I’ll start with the Royals. Reading posts from KC friends on Facebook, I was moved by their enthusiastic support for their team, and their graciousness in defeat. I realized quickly that Kansas City had nothing to be ashamed of. After all, it took a pitcher from another planet to beat the Kansas City Royals. Of the four losses, Madison Bumgarner was responsible for three Giants victories. That’s how hard it was for the Giants to claim the crown. That’s how good the Royals were. No shame in saying they lost to the best pitcher of the last century.

As for the winners in the mid-term elections, we might not be so charitably inclined. How many of us would consider that our rivals are of the exceptional quality of Madison Bumgarner?

And yet, perhaps we are missing something.
Jewish tradition relates the story of the two schools of Hillel and Shammai, two “parties” with deeply divided beliefs about Jewish law, practice and values. The Talmud says that they debated for three years, until they were nearly at each others’ throats. At that point, a divine voice or bat kol intervened, saying Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim, “These and also those are the words of the living God…” (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin)

The message is that we may disagree, even to the point of violence, but at some point, it’s important to acknowledge that our adversary’s argument may contain a grain of truth. That our adversary is not evil to the core, but, like us, was created in the divine image. That our divisions are not as black and white as we righteously proclaim.

And yet, one side must prevail. The passage ends with the bat kol’s determination that the halacha (the law) goes according to Hillel. An election is a moment in time, a choice point. But it should not lead us to division and hatred. Once the decision is made, we must continue the conversation (ideally in an environment of civility, understanding and respect).

But what if it’s difficult to imagine the divine goodness in someone we have vilified, feared, or worse, has been the source of abuse and corruption?

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we are reminded of the patriarch Abraham, who is best known in Jewish tradition for the quality of hesed. Usually translated as lovingkindness, hesed combines love and compassion with ongoing concern. Abraham’s nobility came from his ability to welcome anyone into his tent, with genuine hospitality and exceeding generosity. We are called to be like Abraham, to see the goodness in every human being we encounter and to act with hesed.

How can we imagine God working through people we vehemently disagree with?

I found a useful answer in a teaching from the Hasidic master Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl:

And, indeed, the truth is that the blessed Creator is present in each of us, even in the most wicked person, the worst sinner. The proof for this is that thoughts of teshuvah arise in every wicked person, every day.”

We may well see others as wicked. But even the wicked, says our master, contain divine goodness. That goodness dwells in the potential for teshuvah, repentance/inner change. Who knows what our adversaries will do in the future? For this reason, we are obliged to bring compassion and concern and continue to engage with them. Just as we may surprise them with our actions, who knows what surprises are in store for us? The challenge is: once we acknowledge our disappointment, can we open ourselves to the possibility for good? The KC fans rose above their team’s defeat. I pray that our country can overcome our divisions as well.