Chayei Sarah 5779 – The wisdom of Letting Go, and a Mother’s Love

By: James Rosenberg

At the beginning of this week’s Parasha in Genesis 23:1, the verse tells us of Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life, and it came to 127 years.

In getting into Sarah’s life, let me tell you about a group of students that went to New Orleans to help out as best they could with the poor people in one of the neighborhoods filled with trauma after Hurricane Katrina. While there, they visited the French Quarter. And, a funny thing kept happening to them as they wandered the narrow streets and old buildings. They found money scattered on the sidewalk, some tucked away in the seats at restaurants, even under the seat of the rental car, and even in dark stairwells. And, by the end of the night, they had found nearly $140.

This, of course, led to a lively debate among the students about what to do with this windfall. Some suggested that they take it to the police. Others thought they should donate it to the organization they were supporting that weekend. And, to their credit, not a single student suggested spending it on French pastries. It was of particular note, because this experience gave way to an understanding of the teachings of a section from the Talmud, a discussion referred to as “Elu Metziot,”– that details the laws of lost and found property.

The central concept that emerges from a discussion of old, is the idea of “Ye’ush.” Ye’ush literally means “to give up on.” A lost object that has been found must be returned to its owner, so long as the owner has not yet done Ye’ush – given up on ever recovering the object. Once the owner has resolved that the lost object is irretrievably gone, it ceases to be that person’s property, and it becomes free.

In its original context, Ye’ush referred only to lost physical property, but its spiritual power extends far beyond that definition. There can be a letting go of disappointments, of hopes, of grudges, and of desires. In some ways, this Ye’ush is sad, because it means letting go of the possibility that what was lost might someday be restored, that what is broken might even be repaired. But Ye’ush can also be a source of liberation. It is a rest from the constant what-ifs, and if only I had, that accompany so many of us for so much of our lives. It is an invitation to honor loss, and to then get on with the rest of life.

Last week’s parasha, Vayeira, is among the most traumatic of the Torah. It tells the terrifying stories of two sons who endure two awful fates. Ishmael, Abraham’s eldest, is banished to the desert – driven from the only home he ever knew, with only a slim chance of survival. In the next chapter, Abraham’s second son, Isaac, is led up a mountain, bound to an altar, and saved only at the last moment from his father’s eager knife. While both sons survive their close encounters with death, their family is shattered.

This week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, has its own share of heartache, but it ends with a profoundly redemptive moment. At the close of this week’s reading, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father (Abraham). Two brothers, torn apart by trauma, meet again to quite literally bury the past. This is an extraordinary moment of Ye’ush. What has been lost to them – love, innocence, a sense of security – will never fully be restored. Yet, in this moment, we bear witness to their placing the past in the ground. We can imagine them walking away from the gravesite, possibly with tears in their eyes, but maybe – perhaps, with a sense of liberation.

Conceivably, this is the reason that according to Jewish Law, one does not begin reciting the Mourners Kaddish for a loved one until they have been buried. Kaddish, which ultimately is a prayer of redemptive, ongoing faith in the face of grief, cannot begin until the ritual of letting go has been completed. Our tradition teaches that only when we can acknowledge that our loved ones are gone forever, can we begin to contemplate returning fully to our own lives.

Thus, Ye’ush is potentially among the most redemptive forces in our lives. It is not about forgetting our losses; it is about releasing them. It is about recognizing what can be mended and what cannot, and being prepared to let go. Every one of us has things that we have schlepped around for too long – a relationship that will not be fixed, a dream that will not come to pass, a wish for things to have turned out differently. Ultimately, and in our own time, there must come to each of us a moment of Ye’ush – of letting go so that new ‘possibility’ – has the space to enter.

On Shabbat Chayei Sarah, we come to understand the courage of Ishmael and Isaac, who were able to do the painful and powerful work of putting their past behind them. We are taught, gently but persistently, of the value of setting down our burdens and embracing a new future. We are offered the capacity to walk toward a tomorrow that is undefined, but in which we are completely free.

The Treasure of Sarah’s Love for Us All.

Testimony to the Power of God’s love for humanity is revealed in the love two people feel for each other — “a man for a woman, a woman for a man, and both with God.” Our tradition repeats the insight that human beings are fulfilled in their love for each other, and in the deeds of love they can perform for each other. Love is ‘as if’ the couple becomes one at some point in their relationship, after marriage.

This week’s Torah reading testifies to the power of love. After Abraham buries his beloved wife, Sarah, and mourns her passing, he then instructs his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer returns with Rebecca, who becomes Isaac’s wife, and one of the great figures in the entire Hebrew Bible. And, in the process, the Torah illuminates the power of love inside all of us. “Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother tent, took Rebecca as his wife, and Isaac loved her and found comfort through Rebecca after his mother’s death.”

Parents, generally the mother, are the first source of love in life. The mother attends to her infant’s needs even before the child is aware of having them. Food, comfort, and clothing — all are magically provided, along with smiles, kisses and hugs. As the child grows, the mother is there, along with the father who provides support, encouragement and insight.

HOWEVER, at some point in the child’s life, it becomes apparent that the parents can no longer meet every emotional need or resolve every fear. As the child begins to see glimmerings of the parents as human beings, the parents slowly “die” as parents, and they emerge as people.

Through most of our adult lives, we maintain some mixture of both attitudes — viewing our parents as parents, and also seeing them as people. But something precious died when we lost that vision of our parents as the perfect sources of love, protection and wisdom. One has to wonder if that intense closeness is gone forever. I don’t think so; with a loved spouse, we all have the opportunity to regain some of the same security, affection and intimacy which babies and mothers enjoy. And that comfort is as close a replica of the love of God as one can know in this world.

In the care, trust, decency and goodness of one’s spouse, we can reaffirm the lesson learned in our mother’s arms — that in this sometimes difficult life, there is a haven, and that our love for each other can testify to God’s love for all human beings.

In preparation of this D’var Torah, I would be remiss if I did not thank Rabbis Cheryl Peretz, Gail Labovitz, Adam Greewald, and Rabbi Bradley Artson.

And, please allow me a moment more of your time, to share a thought…

A famous Rabbi said…

“I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Tendler, Rebbe and Administrator at Aish Ha Torah, shared that this quote embodies the depth of love every Jew needs to feel for one another. The connection between Jews is innate; therefore, one has no choice but to speak. Caring for other Jews cuts to the core of who we are as a people, and we need to reach a point where that care is so deep – that it is impossible not to say or do something.

The Rabbi…

Abraham Isaac Kook; he was an Orthodox rabbi, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, the founder of a Yeshiva, a Jewish thinkerHalakhistKabbalist, and a renowned Torah scholar.

With last Shabbat’s horrifying act of mass murder in a Jewish Sanctuary,

I wish each of you a very safe and spiritual Shabbat Shalom.