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Trying

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham had a faithful attendant and steward in Eliezer. Avraham trusted him to the extent that he sent Eliezer to his homeland, with the task of finding a young woman appropriate for our ancestor Yitzchak, his son and heir, sight unseen. 

In the story, Eliezer is anxious and worried the whole way there. He is nervous about completing the job as quickly as possible and prays to God for rapid success, and perhaps even experiences a miraculously short journey. He fervently prays for success, requesting that the intended woman present herself in a specific way instead of him having to search for and select the candidate.

In the end, Rivka presents herself what seems like only minutes after arriving, and the story proceeds. 

Yet Avraham was a well-established figure in the region, renowned as a respected sage, statesman, war hero, and teacher, in addition to his famous generosity, integrity, and considerable wealth. Finding someone willing to join the family would have been a relatively straightforward formality with a reputation like that.

So why was Eliezer so worried about it?

The Shem M’Shmuel teaches that there are times we persevere and refuse to give up, and then sometimes we quit after only some light resistance; people will respond differently to obstacles based on their mental states. Eliezer didn’t doubt Avraham or Yitzchak; he doubted himself. 

At the time of his mission, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Eliezer was Avraham’s trusted steward and undoubtedly raised a fine family following the guidance of his teacher and master Avraham. With his daughter at the back and perhaps front of his mind, every girl he met could very plausibly have been not quite good enough, and he could have returned with nobody – and after all, nobody was good enough! – leaving the door open for his daughter.

Eliezer was nervous and worried because he did not want bias or doubt to dull his determination. As much he did not want to let Avraham down, he knew that doubts could downgrade his effort and cloud his judgment.

R’ Chaim Brown suggests that this helps explain Eliezer’s desire for certainty and sense of urgency – when dismissing potential candidates, he would question his motivation for doing so. Was it because they weren’t good enough for Yitzchak? Or was it because they weren’t as good as his daughter? Eliezer prayed for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and free him from any need to deliberate. 

As one classic fantasy has popularized, do or do not – there is no try. “Trying” is an excuse that admits the possibility of not being able to, when far more often than not, it is within our ability if we dig deep enough.

You don’t try to ride a bike. You learn by starting to pedal, and then you fall, and sometimes not. Fall or not, your intent has to be to ride the bike. By beginning with uncertainty, you increase the chances of failure in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. 

Although we do not control our outcomes, we certainly influence them; you can be sure that half-hearted attempts are less frequently successful than unwavering conviction.

If you do something, lean into it and don’t hesitate. Do not go through the motions, but also do not negate failure. You can still fail, but as long as you did all you could, you can sleep easy knowing it wasn’t your fault.

There’s a famous sports aphorism, to leave it all on the field. It means to commit wholly, holding nothing back, with certainty you had nothing left to give.

Think about it like this; what is the difference between 99% and 100%?

Is it 1%? 

Or is it everything?

Dig Deep

4 minute read
Straightforward

After climbing and surmounting the monumental challenge of the Akeida, Avraham descended with Yitzchak, and we can only begin to imagine how surreal it must have felt, with undoubtedly complex and fraught emotions on coming down from such dizzying heights.

Yet their reprieve was all too brief.

Before they even got home, they received word that the great Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, and Avraham’s wife had died.

It’s all too easy to perceive it as below the belt, a cruel gut punch, and frustratingly unfair. We just read about the Akeida! About circumcision and the covenant! About fighting with God to save innocent lives! About running after weary travelers to have someone to look after! And now that this incredible story is drawing to its close, Avraham has finally made it, sealing his name in the pantheon of greatness for eternity, and his wife dies?!

Can they not get a break? A few moments of peace? Where is the happy ending or even fleeting moment of peace and satisfaction that these great heroes have so surely earned?

If we expect life to be fair or balanced, the question is always far better than the answer because there is no real answer. Even if life is somehow fair or balanced, it certainly doesn’t appear that way, and we would do well to make our peace with that.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humans will never truly understand suffering, but that’s a good thing; because if we could, we would come to accept it. We cannot accept it, we should not accept it, and we must not accept it. Because the question is better than the answer, no answer is good enough.

Although we can’t understand why things happen the way they do, we can learn from Avraham.

Dealt a difficult hand, the Torah says Avraham grieved a little – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – but the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her, and doesn’t record Yitzchak’s grief at all! The Torah gives us detailed information about the negotiations over the site our ancestors rest in, but nearly nothing about the family grief or funeral – as if the negotiation is what matters!

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights that the Torah’s lesson isn’t in the grief – which is all too human and ordinary. The lesson is in the extraordinary greatness of Avraham’s response.

There can be no question that Avraham was emotional and that if he would only let it, sadness and grief would consume and overwhelm him. Avraham grieved; he was not some stoic, unfeeling rock – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. But when it came to it, Avraham could manage his feelings and emotional state enough to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done when the moment required.

The heart has different chambers; we have to compartmentalize. Grieving and in pain, Avraham had to – and was able to – gather himself and live up to his responsibility to deal with what the situation called for. This legendary icon, this hero of heroes, could deal with his anguish enough to do what needed to be done.

We are all in pain. Some more, some less. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it comes at the worst moment and with a bitter and cruel bite. When that day comes, it doesn’t feel fair, and perhaps it really isn’t.

But R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that if you can’t figure out why something bad is happening and what the point is, there is literally no point, and it just wouldn’t happen. We can’t plumb the depths of the global why’s; why me, why now, why like this. We can’t begin to fathom, and anyone who tries is likely to be cruel because the question is better than the answer. But there is always a local why if we spend some time introspecting and soul searching. The local why is a prompt to think about what something means to you and how you need to change course and act differently.

We can’t know the ultimate cause of why bad things happen, but there is always a proximate cause in the outside world and our spiritual realm. We can give meaning to pain, and find a reason that makes sense.

Not everything can be a blessing – some things are truly terrible – but nothing is beyond being our fuel.

It’s true in our personal life when someone gets sick, dies, loses their job, can’t get married, or can’t get pregnant. It’s also true of our national life, whether it’s something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust or something as astonishing as the State of Israel blossoming into existence.

When things like that happen, you need to ask yourself what the duty of the moment is, and who you need to become. If you go about life just the same as before, then you missed it.

When pain comes, as it surely will, we have a chance to distinguish ourselves and live up to Avraham’s legacy. We must take responsibility, identify the duty of the moment, and do what needs to be done. Sure, the pain is real. Don’t ignore it! Experience it, feel it.

But don’t overreact. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, what has to get done? Who will do it for you? Where will it take you?

You can do it, and you have got what it takes.

You always have.

Killing Regret

4 minute read
Straightforward

Our ancestor Avraham was the first iconoclast, a brave pioneer who stood up to a cruel and pagan society and chose to pave a new path of love and kindness.

Late in life, God revealed Himself to Avraham, confirming his intuitions and agreeing to an eternal covenant with the blood bond of the Bris. No sooner than Avraham had been ultimately vindicated that God tests Avraham and asks him to sacrifice his son.

And then, after successfully passing this impossible test, Avraham and Yitzchak arrive home, only to find that the great Sarah is now the late Sarah; she had died, quite possibly from learning what Avraham had set out to do:

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan, and Avraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and cry over her. (23:2)

The Baal Haturim famously notes that the text of the Torah records Avraham’s crying with a little כּ – which denotes that he only cried a little for her – וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

We are talking about the great Avraham, dealing with the loss of the great Sarah, who shared in all he did, who hosted and taught all the women that came from near and far, whom God endorsed as having greater prophecy and wisdom than Avraham himself! Yet Avraham only cried a little – the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her!

Given all they’d been through together, how could he only cry a little? How does such a great man only cry a little on losing such a partner and spouse?

Crying is a natural response to pain that expresses our grief and sorrow. When we lose somebody near and dead, we cry because we miss them and won’t see them again.

We’re all going to die.

Hopefully, in a very long time, but death is the price of life, and we can avoid its clutches for a while, but we can never escape. But death is a gift as well, giving impetus and urgency to everything we do. The clock is ticking, and the time is now. Each tick, and every tock, poses one question of us. What will we do with the time that we have?

Few things are sadder than the death of a young person because of the time they didn’t have, the stolen years brimming with possibility and potential that go unlived and unfulfilled.

But sometimes, death doesn’t come with grief and sorrow. Sometimes, death is not a tragedy, so much as it is peace and celebration. There is nothing sweeter than the culmination of a life well-lived. When a person has lived a full and rich life, their death isn’t a life that’s cut short; it has been stretched and squeezed to its fullest until the time comes to move on.

We are talking about Avraham and Sarah.

Their positive impact touched the lives of many in their day; it continues to influence our lives today. How many tens of billions of the humans who have ever lived count Avraham and Sarah among their icons and role models? Is there a more excellent achievement humanly possible than to live a life that permanently moves people across eternity?

When someone like that dies aged 127, that person’s life must be honored and celebrated. It’s a loss, sure. It’s sad! But it’s only a little sad, and that’s why Avraham only cried a little.

When the Torah’s greats pass on, there is no commotion, struggle, or turmoil. The imagery the Torah uses when Hashem collects the soul of the departed is hauntingly beautiful; they go with a kiss – מיתת נשיקה. There is no anguish or suffering; they just move on naturally, smoothly, peacefully, and perhaps even lovingly.

The Torah’s greats do all they can for as long they are able until it is time to move on. The Zohar says that Avraham died with all his days fully accounted for – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים. Rashi says that every unit of Sarah’s life was brimming with fullness – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

There was no person they should have helped, yet didn’t. There was no move they should have made but had been too afraid. There was no word left unspoken that should have been voiced.

It wasn’t sad for Sarah, and it was only a little sad for Avraham.

The unfortunate timing of Sarah’s death was Avraham’s last test – could he still live with no regrets? The Bikurei Avraham notes that regret can work before and after the fact; we can worry about the opportunity cost of doing something before the fact, and we can regret doing something after the fact – והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו.

Avraham’s resounding response was that he could live with no regrets, recognizing that his and Sarah’s life together had been worth it, that there wasn’t much to grieve over, and only we know how right he was.

The choices we make all come at a cost. We have to make investments and sacrifices for the lives we want to lead, and it’s hard. But a life well lived is well worth it.

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, relationships we were too afraid to have, and decisions we waited too long to make.

Live your life to the fullest; let there be no excuses, no explanations, and no regrets.

God Needs Partners

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true! Let’s recap.

God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targeted by despotic leaders with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of children and land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

Maybe the question is better than the answer. But the Torah says they were happy and fulfilled because it’s true!

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not and should not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems trivial – it’s about his business ventures, travels, and family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

But suppose our stories were about magical demigods riding flying unicorns wielding miraculous lightning bolts to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil. In that case, they couldn’t be more silly or less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s grand mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our heroic role model because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only R’ Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God could promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God could promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son. God can promise, but humans still have to act.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God but also because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

Avraham had taken those first steps and was satisfied. It was enough for Avraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

Show, Don’t Tell

2 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham sent his trusted steward, Eliezer, to his ancestral home to find a suitable partner for Yitzchak.

Eliezer had key criteria that would be identifying traits of the right candidate; the ideal woman would be kind to him, but also to his camels and entourage as well.

When Eliezer approached Avraham’s hometown, there were many young women drawing water at the local well, one of whom was Rivka. Before exchanging introductions or pleasantries, she drew water for him to drink and then his thirsty camels, satisfying Eliezer’s criteria and correctly distinguishing herself as the person he had been looking for.

Based on a textual anomaly, the Midrash suggests that as Rivka approached the well to draw water, the water rose up to meet her, saving her any effort.

The function of this teaching is to mark Rivka as an extraordinary individual; but taking it at face value, why wouldn’t such a fantastic miracle be sufficient for Eliezer to identify her as the right person?

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz sharply suggests that even if you can perform miracles, miracles don’t speak to your quality as an individual. Miracles don’t make you a good person – good deeds make you a good person.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how Rivka told Eliezer she would get him some water, and only once he had finished did she say that she would help with his camels as well. Rivka did not promise the kind things she would do; she just did them when the moment came; highlighting the key trait of saying a little and doing a lot – אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה.

You are the things you do, not the things you say you’re going to do.

Quite unusually for a Torah story, we also see Rivka’s quality in her blindness to social class. Eliezer was a stranger and servant, yet Rivka treated him with dignity and respect, even referring to him as “my lord.” The story also highlights how Rivka deliberately exerted herself to help as quickly as possible – וַתְּמַהֵר וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל־הַשֹּׁקֶת וַתָּרץ עוֹד אֶל־הַבְּאֵר לִשְׁאֹב וַתִּשְׁאַב לְכל־גְּמַלָּיו׃.

This origin story of our ancestors is not a story of miracles or about vanquishing evil; it’s a story about the gentle and kind heart worthy of being a mother in the house of Avraham.

In this story, we see a bias towards urgent action, not talking. We see kindness towards a stranger, sensitivity to the human dignity of inferior or lower-class individuals, and compassion towards animals.

You probably don’t experience daily miracles. But even in the age of miracles, miracles were never the thing that made humans great.

It’s what you do that can make you great, and that’s always and only been solely up to you.

Together Forever

2 minute read
Straightforward

If you’ve ever paid much attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might have noticed a lot of fuss about the rings, the words the groom has to say, and the witnesses.

It’s not just for show. The formalities essentially make the marriage, so we need to get them right.

The source of the formalities is the Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the model of halachic marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased a burial plot to bury his late wife, Sarah. The marriage formalities echo the steps Avraham took to acquire the title to that small parcel of land.

While the source might be familiar to many, the logic most certainly is not.

In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a substantive level collapses it, because a woman is self-evidently not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of the meaning and significance of the transaction.

The Land of Israel is inextricably intertwined with Jewish history and identity. The Promised Land has been a driving force of our hopes and prayers for thousands of years. Our ancestors might have wished for what we have today, and even today, we recognize that we are only at the beginning at best – רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ. It’s a dream that gets us through hard times; the hope that one day, things could be better.

The dream of a Promised Land is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us, invested as it is with all our aspirations for the future. It’s the embodiment of our idealism, a permanent home, a place of belonging and security, and the national happily ever after that everybody longs for.

When Avraham bought that little cave and adjoining field, it was the very first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land, forging the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that binds the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took; it was never a simple land transaction, it is about preserving permanent commitment.

This idea is mirrored by the imagery of the cave itself; a multi-chambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” According to legend, this unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together.

So sure, Avraham simply bought a parcel of land to bury his wife; but in that trivial action, he kept his family together forever, even into death.

A woman is not like land, but marriage is very much like our bond to the Land of Israel. The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.