This is the D'var Torah I plan to give tomorrow for Parashat Chayei Sarah 5784, November 11, 2023.
One of the weekly Divrei Torah that are always worth a look comes from Rabbi Josh Feigelson, leader of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This week Josh started by talking about the idea of the “multiverse”, which he first learned about from one of his kids. Josh mentions the TV show “Rick and Morty”, which his son loves, and it’s about a scientist and his grandson who can travel between alternate versions of the universe and different times in those universes and different versions of themselves.
I thought where Josh might be going was to our fantasies of an alternate universe in which, say, the Palestinians had finished negotiating a peace deal with Israel in 2000 at Camp David, or just any other version of the universe after October 7. I also thought he might go to the commentaries on the first line of our Torah reading, which describe Sarah Imeinu, our ancestor Sarah, as the ultimate human multiverse. He didn’t but he helped me to.
The Torah says (Genesis 23:1) that Sarah’s life was me’at shana v’shiv’im shana v’sheva shanim, 100 years and 20 years and 7 years. It’s a distinctive way to express 127 years, and the commentaries cluster around this thought: That Sarah at every phase of her life lived with the qualities of a 7-year-old, a 20-year-old, and a 100-year-old.
The Sfat Emet explains: For most people, as you grow in life you become wiser, building on your middot, your qualities, and purifying them. Which means that for most people, the only complete moment of life is the final one, when you are the most perfect you’ve ever been. But Sarah managed to grow without having to reject any of the previous iterations of herself. Sarah’s multiverse was present with her all of the time, and she always had access to all the dimensions of it, while standing in exactly the time she was in.
To be less abstract about it -- as a child, and an adult, and an elder, Sarah always had the best qualities and capacities of each of those stages.
Even as a child, she had the wisdom that most people need long life to attain.
Even as an elder, she had the wonder and freshness of a child experiencing the world, the constant urge to discover and see if this or that might be a worthwhile interest or a worthwhile friend.
Even as a child and even as an elder, she had the purposefulness of her prime, the ability to pursue a path with capacity and with her full energy. The well-formed dreams of how the world ought to be.
In Jewish tradition, we have an opposite character who helps us understand what was so special about Sarah. Shlomo Hamelech, King Solomon, is said to have authored three of the books of the Bible. It is said that when Shlomo was young, he wrote the Song of Songs, Shir Hashirim, a book of intense love poetry. In his prime he wrote Proverbs, Mishlei, a book of advice for how to succeed and prosper. In his old age he wrote Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, a book of often bitter reflections on whether life has any meaning or whether things just circle again and again -- “there is nothing new under the sun”, ein kol chadash tachat ha-shamesh.
After October 7 we’ve felt like Shlomo Hamelech in his old age. How can we be like Sarah Imeinu?
How can we recapture freshness and energy and wisdom, all at once, even seeing and knowing everything we see and know?
Our Torah reading is framed by two funerals, Sarah’s and then Avraham’s. And yet between them is the first concrete foothold of Israel in the land, the purchase and sale agreement between Avraham and Ephron the Hittite, the translation of Divine promises into something very specific.
Then the introduction of Rivka, the generous young woman who transcended the small-mindedness and materialism of her culture in Aram, who saw a thirsty stranger and his camels and gave them water, even before she knew the stranger was send on a mission to find the woman suitable for his master’s son Yitzchak in marriage. Rivka is the one who delivers on the promise of that our people are to be rachanim b’nai rachmanim, compassionate people descended of compassionate people.
Then we hear of Avraham’s golden years, of life after mourning, and when he dies there is a remarkable reunion of his sons, who have been estranged from their father and from each other, as Yitzchak and Yishmael come together to bury him.
These possibilities the Torah lifts up for us, in a reading framed by two burials. The promise of a homeland; chesed and rachamim, boundless compassion; even reconciliation between Yitzchak and Yishmael -- these are the multiverses that remain present. That we try at least in our minds and hearts continue to leap to, as the descendents of Sarah.
Last Motza’ei Shabbat, last Saturday night, was the annual fundraising dinner for the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter. It felt very strange to go to what was after all a nice party, and I know I wasn’t the only one who felt strange as we walked in. Over the course of the evening, I saw something like twenty-seven members of our Jewish community there. The event was co-chaired by our own Mindee Greenberg, and the new executive direction of the organization is our own Jane Goodman.
I was so proud to be part of a Jewish community that is so committed to feeding people from week to week and helping people become self-sustaining and flourish. And to be so recognizable as Jews in this wider community because fo that work. I was amazed that so many of us could find a way across the multiverse of our Jewish pain in this moment, and make that mission and the joy of being a part of it the central of our lives for an evening.
100 years old and 20 years old and 7 years old. These days we are thinking about all our 7-year-olds, the children held hostage in Gaza or who lost their parents or whose parents are at war, and the children of Gaza, and our own children who we want to shield from an awareness that this is the world still.
And we are thinking about all our 20-year-olds,those who were just joyfully celebrating with music when they were attacked, young people fighting for Israel’s defense and berated on college campuses in this country.
And we are thinking about all our 100-year-olds, our elders, some of whom too are being held captive, Holocaust survivors retraumatized, people who thought they would never have to see what we have been seeing.
As we hold all of them, all of you, in our prayers and in our Torah, we reach for the blessing of our ancestor Sarah. That we can find in ourselves, and help each other find, the best of the 7-year-old within, the 20-year-old, the 100-year-old. That we continue to live with wonder and discovery, with purpose and energy and capable compassion, with wisdom. All at once, 100 and 20 and 7. All in the same life, even now.