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Are You Afraid to Live?

The Courage to Touch the Pulse of Life

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    3972 views
  • November 9, 2017
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  • 20 Cheshvan 5778
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Class Summary:

In Genesis, the Torah states that "Abraham and Sarah were old, they came in days; the manner of women had ceased to be with Sarah." The verse describes Abraham and Sarah at the ages of 99 and 89, respectively, one year before their son Isaac was born. Their description as two elderly people seems fair.

Yet, a few chapters later, the Torah states: "Abraham was old, he came in days”—describes Abraham living 41 years later, after the death of his wife Sarah at the age of 127 and right before the marriage of his son Isaac, who married at the age of 40. Why would the Torah suddenly now state that "Abraham was old" again, 41 years later?

Dedicated in the loving memory of Chaim ben Reb Asher Anshel Hakohen hy"d Weiss

Last Wishes

A woman in Brooklyn decided to prepare her will and make her final plans. She told her rabbi she had two final requests.

First, she wanted to be cremated, and second, she wanted her ashes scattered all over the shopping mall.

"Why the shopping mall?" asked the rabbi.

"That way I'll be sure my daughters will visit me twice a week," the mother responded.

Two Ways to Live

Attack life, it's going to kill you anyway.—Steven Coallier

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.—Albert Einstein

An Enigmatic Verse

A moving verse in this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, reads:[1] "Abraham was old, he came in days, and G-d had blessed Abraham with everything."

What is the meaning of this expression that Abraham "came in days?" Most biblical commentators[2] explain it simply that Abraham had advanced in years; that he had grown much older.

Yet, if this is accurate, the verse is redundant. Once the Torah stated "Abraham was old," there is no need to say that he was advanced in years.[3] This would be inconsistent with the meticulousness of every verse, word, and even letter of the Torah.

How Many Times Do You Get Old?

Another difficulty arises when carefully studying Genesis. Several chapters earlier, the Torah states[4] that "Abraham and Sarah were old, they came in days; the manner of women had ceased to be with Sarah."

This verse describes Abraham and Sarah at the ages of 99 and 89, respectively, one year before their son Isaac was born. Their description as two elderly people seems fair.

Our verse however—“Abraham was old, he came in days”—describes Abraham living 41 years later, after the death of his wife Sarah at the age of 127 and right before the marriage of his son Isaac, who married at the age of 40. Why would the Torah suddenly now state that "Abraham was old" again, 41 years later?[5]

If you write about an 80-year-old man that "he is old," would you write again 40 years later, "he is an old man?" Isn't it quite obvious that he is still an old man? Would anyone think that he has become younger over these forty years? 

And in the earlier verse as well, the Torah uses this  redundant expression: "Abraham and Sarah were old, they came in days." Once you have stated that Abraham and Sarah were old, you have already stated that they had advanced in their years?

Allowing Life to Touch You

The Hebrew expression used for "they came in days" is "baeim bayamim." A literal translation would read, "They came into the days."

Perhaps, then, we ought to interpret the words "they came into the days" in the simplest way possible: that Abraham and Sarah entered inside their days, allowing the days and its experiences to encompass them completely and touch the texture of their very being.

Abraham and Sarah lived an immersive life; they were fully immersed in each and every day.

Many of us are frightened to enter into our lives and live it fully, with the complete presence of mind, heart, and body, with unbridled passion and zest. We do not trust life enough to let it possess us. Perhaps part of our limbic brain is frozen and we cannot fully show up to life, it is too scary. Life holds too much pain, too many disappointments, so much shame, anger, and guilt; we would rather let our days pass by us from a distance so that we remain safe. We observe our days moving along, but we remain emotionally distant; are too timid to become one with them, to be fully engulfed by them.

Yet, Abraham and Sarah, the Torah says, personified a different model: "They came into the days;" they fully entered into their days. They allowed themselves to be wrapped by life. All their days were explored, actualized, and lived to the fullest. They valued, celebrated, and maximized every day.

Abraham and Sarah had been through quite a life together! They enjoyed tremendous blessings and victories, as well as profound pain and disappointment. Sarah and Abraham waited for most of their life for a child; Sarah was abducted twice by powerful monarchs; Abraham and Sarah journeyed alone on a journey that required them to stand up to a Pagan world. Yet throughout all of it -- the positive as well as the challenging, the joyous as well as the painful -- they allowed themselves to experience the pulse of life in its totality. They were present throughout and did not retreat into the cocoon of safe detachment. They "entered" inside each day and stared at its existence with an unwavering gaze and mighty courage.[6]

Sure, it is safer to enter into your life halfway, to create a border between yourself and your experiences. No sorrow, no pain, no tears. But that may come at the cost of LIVING, and deprives you of a life filled with exuberance, laughter, passion, and wholesomeness. Abraham and Sarah, in a sense, retained the innocence of children. Did you ever observe children? They dislike fragmentation. They enter into something completely -- with their entire sense of curiosity, trust, presence of mind, and emotional vulnerability.

It has been said that there are three types of people: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen, and those whom you have to tell that something happened...

People who live an immersive life never experience two similar days. Every day brings up a new awareness, a new challenge, a new opportunity, a new task, a new layer of reality. When I show up fully to live, every day is a new journey, a calling to take on the unique mission of this day, which may be very different than my task yesterday. 

When Life Became Rough

Now we will understand why, 41 years later, the Torah finds it necessary to repeat the exact same description about the first Jew: "Abraham was old, he came into the days."

No doubt during this period of time, Abraham experienced the most profound and most turbulent moments of his entire life. After waiting for decades, he was finally blessed with a child, Isaac, who would carry on the monotheistic revolution he had begun.

And during this period, Abraham watched himself about to slaughter his son. It was only at the last moment that G-d told him to take his hands off the lad and let him live. What does such an event do to a father?

Finally, during these years, the person who was there with him through thick and thin, his life's partner, passed away. Sarah has walked along with Abraham for close to a century, their lives merged into perfect oneness. Her death must have been an unimaginable loss to  Abraham. [7] One would think that at this point Abraham would have developed some detachment skills to protect himself against any further pain and anguish.

We often observe how after years of experiencing life with all its pressures and struggles, people develop a certain indifference and apathy. They have simply been through too much to subject themselves to the vulnerable vicissitudes of life. They detach. 

So the Torah informs us that Abraham's courage lasted him till the very end. "Abraham was old, he came into the days." Even as a widower, Abraham did not detach from life. He breathed it in, with all of its majesty, drama, joy, and pain. On the lines of his face and the streaks of his soul, he carried a reminder of every encounter, every relationship, and every experience. That is what we call truly living: acquiring the courage to become one with life, to feel it, love it, and possess it.

Abraham believed that cynicism and detachment are the easy retreats of a small mind. Till his last breath, the founder of the Jewish faith awoke each morning and said, "I will live my life today to the fullest; my heart and soul will immerse themselves fully in the journey of life today and I will maximize the unique mission give to me for this day."

When you live in such a fashion, as the verse, continues, you are blessed. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.” Or as Grace Hansen said: "Don’t be afraid your life will end; be afraid that it will never begin." [8]

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____________________

[1] Genesis 24:1. 

[2] See references noted in footnote No. 3.

[3] See Ibn Ezra to Genesis 18:11; Radak ibid. and to Genesis 24:1; Ramban Genesis 18:1. These classical commentators explain that the Torah's expression that Abraham "came in days," implies that Abraham was now extremely old. He was not merely old, but very very old. Yet two difficulties remain: 1) The identical expression is found in the Tanach concerning King David (Kings 1 1:1) when he was merely 69 years of age! 2) The same expression is used in the Torah concerning Sarah when she was at 90 years of age (Genesis 18:11), which in that era was not considered being extremely old (Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 35 p. 90). These questions suggest that there may be a deeper meaning in this expression, as will be explained below.

[4] Genesis 18:1.

[5] This question is posed by Bereishis Rabah 48:16; Ramban and Klei Yakar to Genesis 24:1. Each of these commentaries presents its own solution to the dilemma. See, however, Likkutei Sichos vol. 35 pp. 89-90, how all of these explanations cannot account for Rashi's perspective on the dilemma.

[6] This would also explain the term by King David, though he was only 69 at the time. When you read his book of Psalms, you notice how present David was in life. Every encounter and experience touched him. He took it in and became one with it. King David took on life, and never ran from it.

[7] See the explanation of Rabbi S.R. Hirsh in the beginning of the portion why the letter chaf in the word “velevkosah” (to weep for her, for Sarah) is written small in the Torah scroll. For the visible tears of Abraham were only a small fragment of the depth of his pain over her loss.

[8] On a final note, I want to share something with you I have only recently realized. This essay you have just read is based on an address I was privileged to hear from the Lubavitcher Rebbe 34 years ago, on Shabbos portion Chayei Sarah 5748, Nov. 14, 1987 (Published partially in Likkutei Sichos vol. 35 pp. 89-92.)

Only recently did I realize that the Rebbe delivered this address about Abraham a short time before his own life partner, Rebbetzin Chayah Mushkah Schneerson, passed away, on 22 Shevat 5748, Feb. 10, 1988, at the age of 87. They married in 1928 in Warsaw and were together for 59 years. Her passing affected the Rebbe profoundly.

Was the Rebbe perhaps describing what would become a personal dilemma? 

Here is a story. When the wife of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) died in 1861, the Rebbe quoted the Zoharic statement, “A king without a queen is no king.” The Rebbe explained that the queen, the feminine attribute of Malchut, was the link between the masculine attributes of G-dliness and the reality of the universe. Without the presence of Malchut, these attributes retreated into their own transcendental space. Indeed, the story goes, the Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, to a degree, retreated from his intimate involvement with the world around him.

Please leave your comment below!

  • C

    Chasida -2 years ago

    Simply put: They went through life and life went through them.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • BC

    Barry Citron -2 years ago

    The Tzemach Tzedek retreated when his wife died ,but we need to continue to embrace life in order to survive.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Thank you Rabbi.  I needed this today.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -2 years ago

    Simply put, when they went through life, they allowed life to go through them.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • SB

    Sruly Bollag -6 years ago

    Looking at life

    Excellent. Proper prespective of life. Life has so much good to offer, grasp it, hold it, enjoy it. Life will always have its potholes, and bumps. Ride them, and move on to a smooth ride.

    Thank you Rabbi Jacobson.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • Anonymous -6 years ago

      Meant, Grasp it, typo.

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -6 years ago

    Terrific!! Loved it!

    Terrific!!  Loved it!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • D

    David -6 years ago

    Inspiration

    Thank you for inspiring us to come into our days. I will be sharing this.

     

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • A

      Asher -6 years ago

      Beautiful.  Aside from the "vort", the quotes you use are powerfully moving as well as your thoughts on the Tzemach Tzedek.  I know many single people who use this idea as a defense against embracing life, saying "I cannot be fully alive and happy until I get married, so I will just wait until I can share my life."  It is important to acknowledge that everything you "live" single is what you bring into a relationship/marriage.  And that other traits are infinitely valuable even without Malchut. 

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Chayei Sarah Essay

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • November 9, 2017
  • |
  • 20 Cheshvan 5778
  • |
  • 3972 views
  • Comment

Dedicated in the loving memory of Chaim ben Reb Asher Anshel Hakohen hy"d Weiss

Class Summary:

In Genesis, the Torah states that "Abraham and Sarah were old, they came in days; the manner of women had ceased to be with Sarah." The verse describes Abraham and Sarah at the ages of 99 and 89, respectively, one year before their son Isaac was born. Their description as two elderly people seems fair.

Yet, a few chapters later, the Torah states: "Abraham was old, he came in days”—describes Abraham living 41 years later, after the death of his wife Sarah at the age of 127 and right before the marriage of his son Isaac, who married at the age of 40. Why would the Torah suddenly now state that "Abraham was old" again, 41 years later?

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