Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Author’s note: I have included a tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, in this article. May his memory be for a blessing.

Over the past eight months, my focus in this series has been to offer my readers as many doable strategies in dealing with the challenges we all face during these difficult times. We spoke to the idea that the level of uncertainty that has invaded every aspect of our lives is a major factor in promoting an aura of negativity and a host of psychological, medical and spiritual challenges. Yet, on the positive side, we are deeply grateful to our rabbis, teachers, community leaders, spouses, family and friends who offer support and join in the effort of building our resilience and emunah. There is no doubt that the foundational principles that support our Jewish ideology bear testimony to the truth that the Torah preceded psychological theories and practice. As our rabbis like to say: “We had it first!!”


From the very first story in Sefer Bereishit, with the creation of mankind, the Torah teaches us that our relationships are built on the foundation of dveikut, clinging to God and one another. In doing so, through trial and error, we acquire the knowledge of that which works and that which does not work in building our relationships with the special people in our lives. Moreover, it is through the mistakes we make as individuals, couples, families, communities and nations that we grow stronger. This only holds true if we are willing to make the required changes in the character traits that work against this plan. In fact, the greatest source of comfort is knowing that we stand united in our willingness to make the necessary changes required in order to improve the model.

As we observed in Parshat Bereishit, the first couple, Adam and Chavah, taught us that being served life on a silver platter can be a curse rather than a blessing, and that there is beauty in our imperfections. This is because it is the flaws we possess and the challenges Hashem sends our way that open the doors to our spiritual and characterological growth. Moreover, we are all gifted with unique proclivities, suited to our personal, God-given missions, the purpose of our stay in this world. It is also important to understand that the greatest, unifying gift we share is our Tzelem Elokim, the piece of God He blew into each and every one of our souls, the part that unites us as “Children of God.” Fortified with this knowledge, we avoid the feelings of jealousy, disrespect and hatred that impact negatively on our relationship with our fellow man. It is only in following this trajectory that we can optimize the fullness of our spiritual potential, achieving our goal in tikun olam, the pre-requisite to our final geulah.

Once assured that we possess the basic skill-sets to start the mission, it is also helpful to be reminded that a first step in our journey is to make sure that the important vehicles of spiritual/characterological growth are introduced into our souls through our Torah and tefillah. These are the vehicles through which we communicate with God. The second step is to align ourselves with real-time role models we can emulate and whose wise counsel we can lean on. When these interactions take place within the context of joy, appreciation and gratitude we have a good chance of achieving the status of dveikut, attachment to God, at the highest level. As a result, we also learn that relationships are grounded in love and the desire to do for the other, rather than obligation, fear or the fulfillment of personal needs. So, how do we begin this journey toward dveikut? It’s simple; we start from Bereishit, the beginning, as we do each year. We gain solace from examining and emulating the lives of those who came before us. In doing so, we also increase our potential to stay on the path even in the face of the challenges that are part of the Master Plan.

This week, the Jewish world is reeling in the aftermath of the petirah of two gedolei Yisroel and role models: Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l. Our hearts go out to their families. Ironically, last week, when I first submitted this month’s article on Parshiot Vayeira and Chayei Sarah, I referenced a past article by Rabbi Sacks, who shared his experience early on in his career. Given his status as worldwide international figure, exuding grace and confidence, I was surprised when he revealed his experience with vulnerability during the early days of his rabbinic career. It seems that during this stage in his life he craved a dose of positive feedback, perhaps some compliments for his performance from the senior rabbi. He was disappointed when this was not forthcoming. Yet, it is no surprise that the beloved Rabbi Sacks went on to resolve his dilemma in the masterful, insightful and eloquent manner he was known for. He accomplished this by tapping into his dveikut to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and directing his attention to the Torah truth implemented by our ancestors by virtue of their exemplary lives. Indeed, it was Avraham and Sarah, as they are described in this week’s parsha, who were the trailblazers in demonstrating that the greatest pleasures are achieved in the act of giving and doing for others in our lives. Engaging the strategy of self-talk, he asked himself:“What if I do for the rabbi that which I want from him? What if I give him feedback and tell him how much I respect him, offering him positive feedback about his shiurim and the other lessons I learn from him?” He more or less repositioned himself to be the person he wanted his mentor rabbi to be, and taught by example. And it worked!

In Parshiot Vayeira and Chayei Sarah, Avraham and Sarah partner with Hakadosh Baruch Hu in teaching us all what we need to know about the mitzvot of bikur cholim and hachnasat orchim. It is a bit surprising that Avraham interrupts his conversation with God to attend to a lowly group of travelers, Yishmaelim, no less. Yet, rather than shooing them away he more or less held up his hand to God, as if to say: “Hold that thought, God, CEO of the world.” He then invited the travelers to take off their shoes, sit in the shade and rest. He also directed Sarah to bring out the drinks and cakes, nourishment to replenish their hunger and thirst. One would imagine that the Boss would be upset! Yet, as we know, Hashem was not taken aback.

Rather, He took pleasure in watching Avraham and Sarah emulate His Godliness. This was our first lesson in learning that in the eyes of God, mitzvot bein adam l’adam are even more precious than those of bein adam laMakom.

In his commentary on Parshat Chayei Sarah, where we follow the journey of this holy couple, Rabbi Sacks, zt”l, taught us another important life lesson. He made it crystal clear that the sustainability of our emunah is determined not only by our belief in God but by the knowledge that God believes in us. In fact, in Parshat Noach we observed that it was Noach’s failure to buy into the second pillar that led to the first misstep he took as he entered the “brave new world.” In stark contrast, in this week’s parsha, Rabbi Sacks, zt”l, demonstrated how Avraham and Sarah set the paradigm for dealing with the challenges Hashem sends our way. He began by directing our attention to the paradox reflected in the very title of this parsha. Ironically, while it translates as “The life of Sarah,” it actually begins with her death. The answer, Rabbi Sacks noted, is that not always, but often, death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it. Rashi also comments on the superfluous phrase “the years of Sarah’s life.” He famously points out that the word “years” is repeated, to suggest they were all equally good. Really? Equally good? Twice, first in Egypt, then in Gerar, Sarah was taken into a “royal harem, a situation fraught with moral hazard.” Added to this, there were the years when, despite Hashem’s repeated promise of many children, she was barren and was led to bring Hagar in order to bear a child for Avraham. This also led to a great deal of agmat nefesh, contention for Sarah.

This trajectory of challenges continues with the early petirah of Sarah, the fallout from the Akeidah, and the humiliation Avraham experiences in purchasing a plot for Sarah. In fact, all three promises made to Avraham were never realized in his lifetime. Still, he believed with all his heart that he had it all. That is why the parsha ends with the words “God blessed Avraham with everything…” and his death is described as serene. Indeed, it is not difficult to view the life of this couple as fraught with challenges. Yet, the positive manner with which Rabbi Sacks, zt”l, concludes matches the perspective with which he viewed his own battle with cancer. It is no surprise that he not only eloquently “talked the talk,” he courageously “walked the walk”—a perfect match to the manner in which he taught us the life lessons in conducting ourselves as the children of God. We accomplish this by learning the lessons of our Torah greats on how to approach the best of times, as well as the perceived worst of times. Leaning into his wise counsel, we are lifted by his beautifully stated message:

“He who has a ‘why?’ can bear almost any ‘how.’ Avraham and Sarah were genuine examples in all history of what it is to have a Why in life. The entire course of their lives came as a response to a call, a Divine voice, that told them to leave their home and family, set out for an unknown destination, go to live in a land where they would be strangers, abandon every conventional form of security, and have the faith to believe that by living by the standards of righteousness and justice they would be taking the first step to establishing a nation, a land, a faith and a way of life that would be a blessing to all humankind.”

Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a chavrusa in cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at [email protected]