The Torah portion Chayei Sarah, beginning with Genesis chapter twenty-four verse one says; “And Abraham was old, and well advanced in age; and the Eternal had blessed Abraham in all things.” This verse reminds us to question the meaning of having made it in life. Popular culture typically defines ‘making it’ as achieving wealth, a great career, even a well-adjusted family, and being acknowledged by one’s peers. Feeling like “I made a difference’ is another kind of catch phrase that we use to encourage people to do well and asses their effectiveness in life. It is not about where we live so much as what we are doing with our lives that supposedly matters most of all.
Now we come to two of our most cherished ancestors Sarah and Abraham who, the Torah recounts, died in this week’s parashah. The Parasha narrates Sarah’s death and the process of Abraham negotiating with Ephraim the Hittite and paying for a burial site at the Cave of Machpelah for his beloved wife and life partner. Could Abraham have believed that his life was a success and that in a spiritual sense he made it?
What does it mean that God “blessed Abraham in all things? Was it wealth, progeny and life partner, or power? What about Sarah? Did she go to her final rest with the feeling of having lived a satisfying life? Finally do these questions teach us about the most important criterion to use in order to feel that God has blessed us “with everything” at the time when our life journey comes to an end?
It is easy to idealize our blessed biblical characters despite the fact that they all had flaws and traumas in their lives. Are there literary temptations from sacred texts of our past which tend to over embellish their lives through Midrash and aggadah? Are we reading about people who understood that at the end of life one has to put into perspective the high and low points? Does that apply to Abraham and Sarah?
In one commentary on 24:1 “And Abraham was old and well advanced in age”, the Midrash Genesis Rabbah said that Abraham’s entire life was considered to be “days” based upon Genesis 1:5 when it was written God called the light -day.” This meant that his life was full of deeds of righteousness. Yet, Torah in the same verse refers to the creation of darkness on the same day which God called night. This meant that the night symbolized acts of the wicked. Abraham was literally ‘old in days” because for him there was no night.” In other words the Midrash aims to teach that Abraham lived a life without blemish, evil action or disappointment.
One more commentary on the same verse which says, “And the Eternal blessed Abraham with all things”… God blessed Abraham with the quality of “all things, “meaning that he was content with whatever he had and never felt that he was lacking anything” (Or Li-Yesharim).
If I had to identify with one of these two texts from our tradition I would choose the second one. Who lives a life that is free of care or concern? Who lives without making mistakes? Who gets through life without hurt and disappointment? The second text feels more like a goal that we can aspire to because it is about coming to terms not only at the end of life, rather, it is through life at every stage that we can live within ourselves and with the world around us.
We know that by reading the stories of Sarah and Abraham that they had more than their fair share of drama and tragedy. Stories from the expulsion of Ishmael, and Hagar, to the binding of Isaac to the pain of Sarah not being able for so long to bear a child. So it is with life. It is the struggle and how we handle or cope with joy and hardship that ultimately teaches us to evaluate whether we can feel blessed or not.
Remember Abraham and Sarah came to know God late in life and to have Isaac well into their nineties. So seeing the blessings of life come at all ages in the life cycle of a human being is what makes living each day challenging and beautiful. Every stage of our aging provides us with the opportunity to see the past, present and future with renewed vigor and to bring insight and wisdom to the meaning of our aging and that God blesses us in all things. My hope is that Abraham knew that God had blessed him in all things. Preparing ourselves for feeling blessed in life is a daily commitment towards living with integrity and compassion believing that God’s presence is all around us.
About the author:
Rabbi Brad Bloom serves Congregation Beth Yam in South Carolina. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org