Gen. 23:1 – 25:18
Rabbi Gary Pokras
How did he do it? Abraham, at 137 years of age, had much to mourn. Decades before, God had called him to leave his home and his people with the promise of land and progeny. The land was filled with famine, and unfriendly neighbors, and the promised child did not come even as he and Sarah entered old age. Only when it seemed impossible, did Isaac finally arrive. Only despite his struggles, did Abraham accumulate wealth. There was no ease in the life to which he was called. Then God asked the impossible, the sacrifice of Isaac at the top of the mountain, only stopping Abraham at the last moment. And then, at the very next moment – and the beginning of Chayei Sarah – Sarah dies, as if the news of Isaac’s close call was the cause of her death.
Abraham had cause to be bitter. He could have spent the rest of his days mourning and looking backwards. However, he did the opposite. Our text reads: “Sarah died in Kiriat-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites …” (Gen. 23:2-3)
After only a brief time of mourning, Abraham leapt into action, first to purchase a burial place for Sarah, and then to find a bride for Isaac. Abraham could have just said, “Enough already, I’m done.” Instead, he sets about acquiring land (God’s first promise) and ensuring the next generation of his family (God’s second promise). If these are God’s promises, why did Abraham take matters into his own hands? Rabbi Sacks teaches that Abraham understood “one of the profoundest truths of Judaism: that God is waiting for us to act.”1
Rabbi Sacks wonders how Abraham overcame the trauma and grief of almost losing his son, and then losing his life partner. How did he do it? How did he keep going?
The answer can be found from those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, who experienced traumas that Abraham could never have imagined. The survivors I knew never spoke about the past, at least not at first. They made new lives for themselves, learned new languages and skills, married, raised families, embraced life. It was only decades later that they began to share their stories – first with their families, then with the larger community. In essence, they followed in Abraham’s footsteps. If they had stayed focused on the traumas of their past, they would never have moved forward. Instead, they built their futures first, and only when they were secure, would they dare to look back.
In contrast, consider the story of Lot’s wife. As she fled her home in Sodom and Gomorrah, she looked back instead of forward and turned into a pillar of salt. Rabbi Sacks reminds us:
So much of the anger, hatred and resentments of this world are brought about by people obsessed by the past and who, like Lot’s wife, are unable to move on. There is no good ending to this kind of story, only more tears and more tragedy.2
Abraham understood that God calls to us from the future. The promises of Torah are for the future. The work we do, the families and communities we build, all of it is for the future. And the struggles we overcome; they too are for the future. We remember the past, but only dwell there temporarily, and always in service of a better future. Ours is a tradition of hope, one of the many wellsprings of our strength.