Chayei Sarah: Gray Matter

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Gray Box
10 Nov 2009

In our shul (and I suspect in many others) the Artscroll siddur gray box is well known to many. Yaa’aleh V’yavo, Aneinu, Shir HaMa’alot, etc. For the Artscroll novice, the idea of the box is that it marks the occasional – sometimes we say it, most often we skip it.

I have often thought that much of the living breathing Torah operates in the gray box. Yes, there is much that is black and white in Judaism. Yes Shabbat, no treif, yes tefillin, no lashon hara. Yet so much of Torah operates within the gray box of our lives. Halacha is replete with situations of competing values, pressing needs and complicating factors. At times we must engage in nonstandard behavior (perhaps we must speak lashon hara, e.g. shidduch) – because that is the call of the moment. The common denominator of these gray areas is that they require discernment, sensitivity, consultation, and reflection.

Perhaps nowhere is this grayness more manifest than in the world of midot (character traits). The Ba’alei Mussar (great ethical masters) considered midot refinement the essential path of clinging to God. Yet ethical refinement is not only a great challenge, it is also a complex one. Transcending one’s own natural desires is the stuff of greatness. Not eating that cake, learning patience, and exercising discretion are all transformative behaviors; figuring out when it is appropriate to eat, be impatient and throw caution to the winds is what makes the task so immensely difficult.

The word itself, midah , hints to this complexity. For a midah is not a trait – it is a measure, connoting a particular amount or an item that must be evaluated. For every trait has its place. Kohelet teaches that “with greater wisdom there is more anger” (1:18) and yet he also teaches that “anger resides in the fool’s lap” (7:9). Ibn Ezra illuminates. Anger as ire directed against the world’s emptiness plays an important rule. Anger that envelopes the fool is no longer a tool, it is rather a disease. Similarly, Avraham, the quintessential ba’al chesed is summoned to quash that very midah in akeidat Yitzchak. Yaakov, the tam, the simple tent dweller is forced to confront the Lavans and Eisavs of the world and to his chagrin must counter Eisav’s deceit with guile.

Sarah dies at 127. According to the famous midrash (Pirke D’rabbi Eliezer 32), she is informed by the Satan that her husband is going to slaughter Yitzchak. Her soul flies away and she dies. So much is troubling about this midrash: Why did it have to be that Sarah would die as a result of the akeidah story? Is the Satan the purveyor of some type of cruel joke?

Shnei Chayei Sarah (23:1). These were the years of Sarah. The text, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky states, indicates that Sarah was supposed to die at 127 – this was part of the Divine game plan. This is not a punishment, it is the completion of a life well lived. Why did Hashem choose this mode of death for Sarah and what is the Satan’s function? This was not Sarah’s satan, it was Avraham’s satan and his final test.

Just consider. On his return from the akeidah, Avraham was surely going to share with his beloved partner in all things holy, Sarah, the nachat news of the akeidah – only to stumble upon a wife who suddenly died. Avraham either intuits or discovers that Sarah’s fate is somehow linked to the akeidah. At that moment, Avraham faces his final test – the test of regret.

Regret is a powerful tool in Divine service. It forms the essence of teshuva and is the bedrock in the repair of human relations. Love is having to say you’re sorry again and again and having the courage to recognize that it is worth it. On a macro level, regret is an essential means of evaluating one’s life and making the appropriate midcourse corrections. Thus, one who lives without the ability to regret is stuck. And yet, regret can be abused – for it can become a means towards regression, forcing one to revisit yesterday’s battles already won.

The same Avraham who (according to Rambam) finds Hashem at forty and regrets his earlier life, has to learn that now is not the time for regret. It is time to remove his satan (as we say in the evening service) milifaneinu u’meiachareinu – the satan that lurks before the mitzvah and the one that remains behind – desperately trying to coax us to adopt the cynical expression “no good deed goes unpunished”.

Avraham is victorious and thus paves the way for his children. May we have the strength to follow.

Shabbat Shalom, Asher Brander

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.