Chayei Sarah

Age gracefully, time is on your side

Thoughts on parashat Chayei Sarah

Menachem Mirski

What is time? Time is a measure of the variability of all things. Although this definition may not be sufficient, for example, in astrophysics, it is completely sufficient for our human, earthly perspective and living experience.

Life is reborn in cycles. Our imagination, dominated by Euclidean geometry, often gives us a linear vision of time. It is enough to “superimpose one on the other” to get possibly the most adequate vision of time: time is a spiral. This vision corresponds with our everyday experience: each day brings us something new and even if we experience the same things cyclically, the experience is slightly different each time. The same dinner, made according to the same recipe again, will taste slightly different.

Of course, for all these new experiences there comes an end which is ultimately marked by death. The Torah portion this week describes the death of the mother and the father of our nation(s) – Sarah and Abraham. According to midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 31) Sarah died of despair after learning that Abraham had murdered their only son Isaac by sacrificing him on Mount Moriah:

When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan[1] became infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham.  What did he do?  He went to Sarah and asked: “Did you hear what happened in the world?”  She answered, “No.”  He said, “Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.” Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died.  Abraham came only to find that she had died. From where had he come? From Mount Moriah.

This midrash sees Sarah’s death as tragic: she died of despair after hearing Satans’ lie. It is interesting, however, that Abraham’s death is quite opposite of Sarah’s:

This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.

Abraham died at a good ripe age, old and content. This is the kind of death we all desire. Is there Jewish wisdom that would help us to “achieve this goal?”.

Yes. Woven into the fabric of Judaism there are many views and values and ideas that help us achieve this contented death. I will try to summarize some of these ideas.

Perhaps first is teaching the younger generation to have respect for the elder generation which starts with honoring parents (Ex 20:12), but also all elders in society, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:32)

We are commanded to respect our elders even if they no longer possess their mental capacities. Traditionally, the source for this teaching is the Ten Commandment tablets that Moses shattered, which were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. It teaches that we must continue to respect the elderly, even when they are intellectually “broken.”

The older generations should be credited for what they have done – and they have done quite a bit: they built the entire world in which you live. This awareness is especially salient for those that experience a life of comfort and luxury. Your elders are those that made it happen through their hard work. While there are countless examples one only must think of the state of Israel. At any time, for any reason, we always NOW have a safe haven. This miracle is on the backs of our elders that went to Israel and moved rocks and dug through mud to make this thriving democracy. Tell me, doesn’t just thinking about them bring you deep joy and gratitude? Respect your elders.

While we are commanded to respect our elders – we also have a responsibility as human beings at all stages to do whatever we can to stay mentally clear and physically fit  in order to guide “our” next generation. This commandment can be seen as a two-way street – I will nurture my mental faculties in order to share and inform your generation and you must agree to listen, respect and ultimately do the same to your next generation.

If you are a mid-age person, learn humility and to accept the changes time brings. You can still play sports at any age. You can still be fit and beautiful at any age. But being 60 you won’t beat a 23 years old athlete or 20 years old girl in a beauty contest. Of course this requires you to adapt to changes, but nevertheless, you can thrive. The remedy to defying aging is to constantly revise your habits and customs and not let them dictate completely your lifestyle. This, in its purest form, will prevent ‘spiritual aging’, which only accelerates physical aging, which can happen even in one’s youth. As Baal Shem Tov said once: “Do not forsake me in old age”: let not old age and stagnation rule my habits and customs. While aging brings less physical strength and a slower body, it also brings wisdom, which is a virtue and a blessing.

If you are not an older person, yet, you should remember that mental decline in old age is primarily preventable. You just need to keep working on your intellectual capabilities early enough and keep doing it throughout your life. Then, when you retire, your mind will be clear and you will finally have time to read all the books you have always wanted but have never had time for.

“He removes the speech of men of trust and takes away the sense of the elders.” But when it comes to aged scholars, it is not so. On the contrary, the older they get, the more their mind becomes composed, as it is said: “With aged men comes wisdom, and understanding in length of days.” (Mishnah Kinnim 3:6)

And you will not feel irrelevant and forced to hide away from the world during your “slow years”, which you shouldn’t do, because by doing it you don’t fulfill the purpose of the wisdom that you spent years accumulating and do a disservice to the younger generation that needs and relies on your wisdom.

When our bodies start to age – and this starts pretty early, around 25, we should start growing our spirit. The sooner the better. If we do that, we will have the capacity to overcome the fears of time and be able to be happy and content during our last days. We can grow our spirit in many ways: by learning, by doing moral actions, involving ourselves in intellectual activities, studying and performing art, being involved in social actions, charity and altruism and generally doing what is good beyond your own good.

Spirit, over time, takes some responsibilities of the body. As long as bodies are the dominant forces to animate themselves, they are to a large extent subjected to biology and all kinds of natural laws. Over time this determinism decreases (except time when you are sick) and that’s good news because we are becoming more and more free in our actions, including moral actions, and more aware of everything that determines our actions and their consequences. Talmud delineates the different stages of life: age 30 is for peak physical strength, and age 80 is for peak spiritual strength. In the contemporary, secular world, where physical strength and beauty is emphasized, a person at age 80 is – generally and unfortunately – regarded as having little value. In the Torah world, 80 is prime time!

You should never stop caring about your body and you should never stop caring for your spirit. We grow the spirit in the body and when the body becomes more and more fragile the spirit shall take over the care of the body. If you do all of that, time will not be your enemy, it will be on your side!

Gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness.

(Proverbs 16:31)

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

[1] Satan in Judaism is not a physical being ruling the underworld, rather, in the Torah, the word Satan indicates “accuser,” “hinderer” or “tempter.” Satan is therefore more an illusory obstacle in one’s way – such as temptation and evil doings – keeping one from completing the responsibilities of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Satan is the evil inclination to veer off the path of righteousness and faithfulness in God. (Jewish Virtual Library)

EMOR

EMOR

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

This is a day whose significance cannot be ignored, even if it is a day which has many facets. Officially, on 8th. May 1945, the Third Reich capitulated against the victorious Allied forces represented by Britain (together with its Imperial forces), the United States and the Soviet Union. At the stroke of a pen. Since I come from Britain, live and work in Germany and work also in Poland (even if held geographically distant at present by a new form of Iron Curtain) this is an anniversary that cannot be ignored. As we know – if we bother to listen and learn – this did NOT mean that the conflict called the Second World War was over. (It had become a World War perhaps when America joined in December 1941). The conflict in the Far East continued for another half a year and military planners at the time assumed it could continue for several more years – it was only the horrendous shock of the realisation that one aeroplane with one bomb could instantaneously wipe out an entire city, something which until then had required thousands of men and tanks and shells and months of misery, that jolted some of those responsible into calling a halt. (And even that required a repetition, a duplication before the message was understood.)

As we know, the killing did not stop straight away, nor did the dying – from wounds, from hunger, from exhaustion, from disease, from despair. As we know, many millions of people of all ages and nationalities were on this date displaced refugees, bereaved, lost, traumatised, impoverished, disoriented. Some felt they should return home, some already knew they had no home to go to, some only found this out once they had made the effort to return to the places from which they had been so brutally taken – but which were no longer ‘home’. Many found themselves the sole survivors of their family or of their generation or their community. Many were imprisoned, prisoners of war or prisoners of political prejudice. Many were dispossessed, many were maimed. The list of forms of human misery can continue. Stalin, of course, had initially made a secret treaty with Hitler then, when Hitler broke it, demanded aid from the Allies – given at enormous cost in lost convoy ships – and a Second Front and then immediately afterwards changed his tune again, so that for large sections of Europe the Liberation was not, in fact, a true Liberation but merely the replacement of one totalitarian invader by another. Wars rarely have tidy endings. I have seen pictures of how Berlin looked in May 1945 and I have seen pictures of how Warsaw looked in 1945 – I am sure that you will have seen similar pictures – and, frankly, there is little difference and one wonders how anyone, ANYONE could find the strength to start all over again.

Only three quarters of a century later, the war is still not yet really over, it has certainly not diminished in the folk memory even though the last of the active eye-witnesses are leaving the scene. I have spent some of the time in ‘lockdown’ catching up on reading, including the memoirs of ‘My Rabbi’ Hugo Gryn z’l’ who was ‘liberated’ in Austria after a zig-zag odyssey from Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz to Lieberose near Cottbus to Gunskirchen near Linz. I have also been looking through a remarkable work, published in 1981, concerning Hitler’s bizarre fantasy of constructing a gigantic railway line to link Berlin with Kharkov, with Moscow and with Constantinople. Photographs show him, just two weeks before his suicide, gazing wistfully at models of the planned new cities of the Greater European Empire he intended to found, if necessary by destroying the existing ones. Quite fascinating is the way he single-handedly both dreamed of, planned and started the war – and personally caused the German defeat. In early 1941 he told General Paulus, who was worried about supplying the troops in winter, ”Stop talking about winter campaigns, there will not be a winter campaign, I forbid anyone to talk about it.” That winter – the Wehrmacht froze and the Blitzkrieg against Russia came to a halt. Just as fascinating is the way intelligent, experienced, competent men followed him blindly, even when they knew he was wrong, even when they knew the cause was lost, even when it went against the way they had been raised, or the consciences they still (just) had.  And if one were to have asked any of the Axis leaders of the time just what it was they really needed, what they personally wanted, what they hoped to gain by moving national borders backwards by several kilometres whilst spilling so much blood and destroying so many homes, I am not sure what they could have told you. Apart from empty rhetoric about ‘national pride’ or ‘Destiny’.

I have flown often over parts of Europe and the interesting thing is that, when you look down from the window, you can see mountains and rivers and cities and fields – but you cannot see borders. Maps, on the other hand, are dangerous – you do not see mountains and rivers and cities and fields, the evidence of what people have built, you see only blobs and lines writhing over the paper and the sheet divided into different colours. Nations are defined by their place on the map, not their place in the world.

 

Humans often dream of changing the world, and some even achieve this. It is, after all, a part of being human. They design or compose or write or preach, they persuade people to change their lives, they present them with new opportunities, how to travel, how to grow food, how to heat their houses, how to build, how to heal their bodies against infections, and more. They persuade people to try new forms of social organisation, they persuade them to think of themselves in the universe differently. But this is best done by showing, by teaching and by persuasion – not by force, not by compulsion, not by threat and not by violence. That way leads, sooner or later, to destruction and death.

But some dream differently. They dream of Control. Control of a country, control of a business, control over anyone and everyone. Their psyche seems to need it. I believe that World History would be much better if all those men who dream of playing soldiers could remain content with painted lead models. (Nowadays there are of course electronic video games to take the place, but although these permit faster and more realistic two-dimensional conflict, they also suppress the need and the ability to fantasise.) Some like to build model landscapes and some like to design model railways to run in them. As the creator of a model railway layout one can decide everything, for there is no-one else to have a different opinion, to complain, to object. No-one who needs to be forcibly removed or eliminated….   There are no shareholders to complain about the cost and no passengers to complain about delays. Total control.

What happened in that awful period was that people – maybe, proportionally, only a few – felt they had the right to control whole countries and whole continents; that they and they alone would have the right to decide who might live (and where and under what conditions) and who must die. Proportionally, only a few – but once they had gained or been given power and authority, it is a sad reflection how many others were prepared to help them; How many others were prepared to benefit from the weakness or the losses of others, to exploit them, rob them, dispossess them.

In the Sidra ‘Emor’ which (should be) read this week, we find in chapter 25 of Leviticus the command to treat the Land with respect. The land, just like every living creature, needs a rest, a break once in every seven cycles.  For a human, or an animal, a cycle is a day, and seven days; for a land, which wakes, flourishes, then returns to sleep, a cycle is a year, and seven years.  God says that the Israelites have to learn that the land is not theirs, to do with as they wish, it is God’s, and needs to be cared for. Prior to this, in chapter 23, the Israelites have to create or impose the one-year cycle upon themselves, to count days and months (including the Omer, the period in which we find ourselves), so that each annual cycle can have a proper beginning and a proper end. They also need to learn that they need the Land, more than the Land needs them.

If one looks at what human beings are capable of – and this week’s anniversary is a prime example of this horror – then the Torah with its commands for a modest subjugation to God combined with a regular expression of gratitude and care becomes a very potent symbol indeed, of what our relationship to the land, to the lands and to each other and indeed to time itself could and should be. The Jubilee should come every fifty years, states the Torah. That is as far as one can look ahead, and then all is ”re-set”. There is no mention of a Thousand-Year Reich…..

 

Shabbat Shalom.   Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

P.S. One should mention also at this time, even though it is less fashionable, the issue of Blame. In the past few weeks, as one may possibly have read, researchers in the Vatican Archives (recently opened) have discovered that Pope Pius XII was indeed made aware of the mass murder of Jews in Europe, but was either encouraged by his assistants to downplay it or chose to do so himself. But there is documentary proof of meetings and written submissions and this indicates that the time for blurring this matter or questioning it must be put behind us. Similarly, this very week the Catholic Church in Germany has publicly confessed to the misdeeds of the Church in the Nazi period, with most of its bishops and priests supporting Hitler and the National Socialist Party through a mixture of nationalism, fear of Bolshevism and, one supposes, stupidity and prejudice against all those who were not Catholic. This is an enormous step forwards. Individual priests and others did their best to help or save whom they could, but the Church as an institution failed – as the ‘Body of Christ on Earth’ it seemed to have lost or sold its soul. Whilst this blame does not attach to those active today (unless perhaps one believes in inherited sin?) it should serve as a reminder that mixing religion and politics usually corrupts both. It would be helpful if this lesson could be learned, or re-learned today.

Incidentally, one could (tongue in cheek) suggest that the best time ever to have lived in Germany was just after the Capitulation. Despite the land being filled with rubble, mass graves and misery, the one shining point was that, wherever you looked, whomever you asked, there were ABSOLUTELY NO NAZIS!!! If there ever had been, then they must have flown back to Mars. Everyone was Innocent! Truly a form (a strange form) of Paradise…..

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

Shemini

The Bad Thing Happened. What’s Next?

Thoughts on Parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski

Pesach, the festival of freedom, has just ended. The concept of freedom is inextricably linked to the concept of choice. Life brings choices before us, maybe not all the time, but it does, at least most of the time bring us in a position to choose. There are small choices and big choices. Small choices are usually easier to make because the consequences are smaller. The big choices entail bigger consequences – sometimes even entailing suffering, and thus, they are significantly harder to make. The inherent problem is our knowledge about the future is always limited, so hard choices are hard to make. But we have a choice.

We never have completely reliable recipes about what we should do at a given moment  because of those two facts: that our life requires choices made on time and that we never have complete knowledge about the future to make sure our choices are right (because we cannot wait infinitely for this knowledge, because we have to make our choices on time, quality of our knowledge is dependent on time we are given to gather the data and create a theory.) Thus we have the entire spectrum of attitudes towards life – we have people who value security above everything else and we have people who cannot live without taking risks. This duality of attitudes often overlaps with another duality: we have people who act patiently (not because they are afraid of losing security, but because they deeply think over consequences of any act)  and people who act quickly and move on, because they don’t care or believe that they know everything. We can multiply these overlapping dualities. The core problem is that we don’t have objective criteria to judge which attitudes are correct and which are not. I agree that to be an educated risk taker might be the best choice from all the above, but we usually know it post-factum, basing on the outcomes of certain decisions.

This week’s Torah portion describes the tragedy of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu.  Both of whom died as a result of offering a “strange fire before God, which He commanded them not (to offer.)” Aaron fell silent in the face of what had happened, but Moses seemed to overreact: he was both angry because of what had happened and at the same time afraid of a possible recurrence of this tragedy. For this reason he decided to be extra careful, to the extent that he forbade Aaron to perform a mourning ritual over his sons:

And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the LORD has wrought. And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the LORD’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden. (Leviticus 10:6-7)

Later we have a series of instructions on sacrifice procedures and a debate between Moses and Aaron on this subject. This story gave rise to an extensive rabbinical debate on all issues related to this incident, from the causes of the accident, to practical conclusions on how to deal with similar situations in the future. Without going into details, both the Bible and the Rabbis agree that Aaron was right: He was forbidden to rend his clothes as a sign of mourning but he was not obliged to force him to rejoice. The sacrifice does not bring the worshipper nearer to the Divine automatically without being accompanied by the proper state of mind. This would mean that if there had been other priests, besides Aaron, and his two remaining sons, Itamar and Eleazar, to perform the duties, they wouldn’t have to continue making those sacrifices.

What we can learn from this story is that, the fact that we are right when it comes to analyzing the causes of a given situation does not necessarily mean that we are right about how we should deal with its outcomes. Our knowledge is always limited, and it is often best to assume that OTHER PEOPLE KNOW SOMETHING WE DON’T. Let’s face it, this is why we often have different opinions. Let’s face it, we only know what we know – should we not be open to knowing … learning … what other people know. Let’s face it, this is the Talmud.

What we learn from this story is that being extra careful is not always good. The philosophy behind “better safe than sorry” can have negative effects, especially if fear, anger or any other strong emotions are involved.

Another very relevant consideration when it comes to restricting freedom is the inherent rebellion of man. Being overprotective and going too far with restrictions can do more harm than good. This is particularly relevant today with our stay at home “orders.” As a society, for our government, it is crucial to weigh the consequences of societal actions in a complete context. Specifically, when we talk about Covid stay at home restrictions and discussions of opening up society, we have to be very careful in putting restrictions on people and on humanity. This is not a “economy vs life” discussion, as any thoughtful thinker can see. The belief that by putting strict restrictions on people you can produce submission is not founded in human psychology or in history. We know from history, heck, anyone who has raised a teenager knows, if you place arbitrary restrictions on a soul they will rebel. Anyone that saw communism fall in the 90’s know that if you place arbitrary restrictions on society they will rebel. They will rebel for various reasons but the bottom line is being forcibly deprived of freedoms is not a natural state and unless you are trained and beaten down by a … communist society for instance, humans will not submit. The moment “the people” realize that the restrictions are not essential and even arbitrary they are bound to overreact and see all restrictions as arbitrary and worthy of rebellion and this will have tragic consequences, especially now when the stakes are so high. That’s the reason the proper balance is always important. The proper approach to this matter is to have a clear, understandable and justified set of rules and a good and effective system of enforcement.

Menachem Mirski- student  Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA