A Good Old Age

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the deaths of Abraham and Sarah.

“Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything…Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people”

“Sarah lived to be 127 years old: [These were] the years of Sarah’s life.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, says that the latter part of this verse was intended to teach that each of Sarah’s 127 was equally good.

But we have been reading the story. We know that Sarah had some very bad years. She wrestled with infertility. She made the mistake of permitting her husband to have a child with Hagar, the housekeeper. And let’s not overlook what must have been an extremely arduous journey from her homeland in southern Iraq after her husband received a “call” from G-d to travel to Canaan (Israel).

We know that Abraham too had his challenges and struggles. Just last week G-d tested Abraham, asking him to slaughter his son, Isaac. Abraham had to banish his son Ishmael, wrestle with his nephew Lot and struggle with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. G-d blessed him with everything?

As Sarah dies this week, we read how Abraham owned no land to bury her. He doesn’t have everything! He has to prostrate himself before the Hittite people before he is able to purchase a cave that will serve as a burial place for Sarah.

Why does the Torah make it seem like Abraham and Sarah’s lives were filled with only good years? Why are we taught that they had everything? Because, despite challenges, Abraham and Sarah did have everything and, in their entirety, their lives were good.

How can we say this?

Because our matriarch and patriarch spend their lives developing a relationship, a holy covenant with G-d who promises both of them that their special bond with G-d will be passed on to their offspring forever. Abraham and Sarah’s lives are spent securing the future of their family. Thus, it is not a coincidence that as we read about the death of Abraham and Sarah this week, we also read about Abraham purchasing his first plot of land in Israel (the burial cave) and securing a wife for his son Isaac. As Abraham and Sarah pass away, the stage is set for the next generation to continue living in the holy land with G-d. What a gift Abraham and Sarah give to Isaac and his children.

I say it is time for us to go back to the biblical definition of a good, meaningful life, a life in which we have everything. A “good old age” should not be measured by material possessions, net worth and professional accomplishments. A good old age should be measured by the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.

Learning From The Mistakes of Others

This week, we learned important moral lessons from national and international leaders.  Unfortunately, we learned these lessons because of mistakes made by these leaders.  Nonetheless, the lssons are ones we must all take to heart.

A private conversation between President Obama and French President Sarkozy in which the two leaders made disparaging comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was captured on a live microphone (certainly not the first time important people have found themselves in such a situation!). Abe Foxman, the National Director of the ADL expressed concern over these comments, stating: ” we now have to worry to what extent these private views inform foreign policy decisions of the U.S. and France ˆ two singularly important players in the peace process.” The lesson we learn from this exchange is a lesson that lies at the core of Judaism: our words are like arrows – once they leave our mouths, like an arrow, they can’t be pulled back; the damage they do can’t be stopped; the harm they do can’t always be predicted because, like arrows, words go astray. The lesson: live our lives as if all of our words will be broadcast on the front page of the newspaper.

A much more disturbing lesson has been taught by what appears to be the shameful inaction of the administration of Penn State’s football team. As a result of this inaction, children were sexually abused. Responsible, respected, well-known adults ˆ leaders ˆ knew what was going on ˆ and, according to reports, they did nothing to stop it. Again, the lesson we learn from this tragedy is one that lies at the core of Judaism: Jews don’t simply believe, we act. It is not enough to know that something is wrong; when something is wrong, we must act to stop it. There is no alternative.

In Pirke Avot, we are taught “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” We don’t ever want others to stumble. But, it happens. Just as we must learn from our own mistakes, we must learn from the mistakes of others. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, once said that: “We shall learn from the historic mistakes of others in the same way as we learn from our own; for we are a modern nation and wish to be the most modern in the world.” In the same way, to become the best people we can be, we must learn from our own failures and the failures of others. This week, we have unfortunately had the opportunity to learn a lot. Hopefully, we have all incorporated these lessons into our lives and grown because of them.

A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness – Dr. Daniel Gordis

I share with you the latest article by Dr. Daniel Gordis, a powerful peace about what he discovered as a result of Gilad Shalit’s release.

A Rediscovered Abundance of Goodness
Daniel Gordis

Mr. Prime Minister,

Before the Shalit deal fades entirely from view, many of us are hoping that you have noticed what you unwittingly unleashed. I don’t mean the next wave of terror or the terrible decisions that Israel must make before the next kidnapping. We knew about those even before last week. But last Tuesday, all of us ˆ those opposed as well as those in favor (and there were persuasive arguments on both sides) ˆ rediscovered something magnificent about this country. It would be tragic if we returned to business as usual without pausing to take note.

In addition to Gilad Shalit, we got one more thing in return that few of us could have expected; we got a reminder of the abundant goodness that still resides at the very core of this society. You could see it everywhere. Compare the speeches on our side, celebrating life and freedom, to the blood-thirsty Palestinian harangues calling for renewed terror and additional kidnappings. Compare the respectful restraint of our press to Shahira Amin’s immoral and abusive interview in Egypt. But more than anything, we saw this reservoir of goodness in the streets ˆ in the people so moved that they could hide neither the tears in their eyes nor the lumps in their throats. We saw it in the throngs along the roads, people who wanted Shalit to know that they, too, celebrated his long overdue freedom. And we saw it in the hundreds of people in Mitzpe Hila who continued dancing long after he’d entered his house and closed the door.

We all felt it ˆ it was innocent, pure and thoroughly decent. We were witness that day to an entire country believing in something again. Those young people outside the Shalit home were singing not only about Shalit, but about this land, this people, and about a future in which they still believe. Did you see them? Women and men, religious and secular, dancing with abandon in celebration of freedom? Did you hear them singing anachnu ma’aminim benei ma’aminim ∑. “We’re believers, the children of believes, and we have no one on whom to depend, other than our Father in heaven”? You didn’t miss it, did you? Hundreds of people of all walks of Israeli life, proclaiming without hesitation their belief in something bigger than themselves?

The reason that the trade was wildly popular, Mr. Prime Minister, wasn’t ultimately about Gilad Shalit. It was about Israel. About a country desperate to transcend the cynicism, that still wants to believe that it’s worth believing in. Shouldn’t we ˆ and you ˆ therefore ask ourselves what can we do next to justify people’s belief in this place? What will it take to make this a country that its citizens can love even when we’re not freeing a captive?

How about if we start by eradicating evil? Take but one example and deal with it. There’s a small but vicious group of kids living over the Green Line who bring inestimable shame on the Jewish people. They burn mosques, tear down olive trees and sow fear everywhere ˆ all with the implicit support of their rabbis. And they make many young Israelis deeply ashamed of this entire enterprise. Last week, you showed us that you do know how to take decisive action. So do it again. Rein them in. Arrest them. Cut off funding to their yeshivot. If you show this generation of Israelis that your government stands for goodness even when that means making tough domestic decisions, you’ll unleash a wave of Zionist passion like we haven’t felt here for a generation. It wouldn’t be any harder to do than what you just did, and it would actually do even more good for Israel than getting one soldier back.

And beyond goodness, there’s also Jewishness. No, we shouldn’t make too much of that anachnu ma’aminim benei ma’aminim song, but admit ˆ it’s not what you expect to see lots of secular people singing. Yet they did. Because this is a strange and wondrous country; not so deep down, even “non-religious” people aren’t “non-religious.” Just like their observant counterparts, they’re searching, struggling, yearning and at moments like that, they know that the well from which they hope to draw their nourishment is a Jewish well.

That’s why it was wonderful that you quoted from Isaiah (the Haftarah for Parashat Bereishit) in your speech. It was your suggestion, I hope, that at its core, this society must be decent, but it must also be Jewish. You know what the main problem with the summer’s Social Justice protests was? It wasn’t the naïve embrace of high school socialism, or the utter incoherence of the demands. It was the fact that there was simply nothing Jewish about their vision for Israel. Dafni Leef and her comrades could have given the same vacuous speeches at Occupy Wall Street. Or in Sweden, for that matter. Those inane speeches were testimony to the failure of our educational systems and of Israel’s religious leadership. The Yoram Kaniuk affair and the court’s willingness to let him declare himself “without religion” is a reflection not on him, but on the appallingly uninteresting variety of Judaism that the State has come to represent. Can you ˆ or anyone else ˆ name eve! n one single powerful idea that’s come from any of Israel’s Chief Rabbis in the past decade or two? Me, neither.

But lo and behold, it turns out that Israel’s young people still want to believe in something. We haven’t given them the tools to articulate it, but they still intuit that whatever we become, it’s got to be Jewish. So ride that wave, too, Mr. Prime Minister. What would it take to shape a country where the profundity at the core of Jewish tradition became once again the subject of discourse in our public square? Does Judaism in the twenty-first century suddenly have to become dull and backward, or can we restore the intellectual and moral excellence that once characterized it? Can you take this on, too? Appoint the right people? Build the right schools? Can you help make this a country encourages those young people now searching for Jewish moral moorings?

For or against, hardly a single one of us is not thrilled that Gilad Shalit is home. He deserved his life back. But so, too, does this country. Shalit, hopefully, will now get better and stronger with each passing day. Israel must do the same. It needs to get better ˆ we need to be honest about the evils lurking in our midst, and we must exorcise them. And we must become stronger, which we can do only by engaging with the roots that brought us back home in the first place.

Can you do this? Many of us hope so. Because if this fails, it will in the long run have made no difference that Gilad Shalit came home. But if it succeeds, we might just come to see his liberation as the turning point in our collective return to believing in ourselves.