Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 135

November 18, 2022 (24 Chesvan 5783)

Messages: Heard and Misunderstood

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you in good health and good cheer. We look forward to welcoming you to shul this Shabbat morning at 10:30am for services, which will also be broadcast on our regular Zoom webinar prayer link.

Last week, we welcomed back several members, who joined us for the first time since the Covid outbreak began. We were delighted to see them after such a long time and we look forward to seeing others make the return too. Come daven and join us for an uplifting spiritual experience and a delectable kiddush lunch!

In this week’s Torah portion, ironically entitled, “The life of Sarah,” the first sentence reads, “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred years and twenty years and seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”

To make sense of the awkward description of her age, Rashi, borrowing from Midrash Rabba 54, teaches that Sarah, at the age of one hundred, was as a woman of twenty with regards to sin — for just as at the age of twenty, one may regard her as having never sinned, so too, when she was one hundred years old, she was sinless. When she was twenty, she was as beautiful as when she was seven. These accolades are, of course, glowing, but leave us questioning the nature of her death.

Responding to that inquiry, another Midrash, teaches that the Satan (the adversarial angel) went to Sarah’s tent before Avraham and Yitzchak returned from the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) and told her that Avraham had in fact slaughtered Isaac, her beloved son. Sarah misunderstands the nasty nature of the Satan and dies from shock. The lesson of the Midrash is that if only Sarah had been more patient, she would have seen the true nature of Hashem’s supportive messages of eternal covenant.

Throughout life, we too, hear messages that may be difficult to comprehend or accept. As with Sarah, we need to understand the one who delivers the message, as well as the nature of the guidance. We should not repeat Sarah’s mistake.

I was heartbroken this week when one of our high school students was asked to leave our nurturing academic institution, which prides itself on Torah values.

The boy, aged sixteen, had come from an incredibly difficult family situation (beyond believable) and struggled academically and behaviorally in terms of accepting community norms.

To the school’s credit, the administration bent over backwards to work with and support him, even going to the lengths of having him sign a contract, at the beginning of the fall, acknowledging that he understood all expectations. To help the young man even further, some educators tutored him on their own time, psychologists helped him therapeutically, and I even took him weightlifting three times a week to help him burn off some of that “extra adolescent energy.”

Regrettably, the messages of support did not resonate with him, and he now finds himself betwixt and between, isolated and frustrated.

In my life, I know that sometimes, I too have not been able to listen to messages from caring individuals at the first or even tenth iteration. Perhaps it was due to my misunderstanding of the nature of the message, the tone of the delivery, or even my own ego, which assumed that I did not need any guidance.

The Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, as well as caring relatives and friends, often share with us messages of concern and support. While listening can sometimes be challenging, responding can be even more difficult, yet ultimately, self-improving.

As we enter Shabbat, I pray that we recognize the words of the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) in discussing the domino effect of sin, mitzvoth and life, which concludes with the Aramaic phrase, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. May this Shabbat remind us to share our messages lovingly with those in need and may this Shabbat help us to truly listen and accept the messages of love from those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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