Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chayei Sarah and Broken Hearts

According to rabbinic legend Sarah died of a broken heart.

Moments before she dies, at the beginning of this week’s portion, the rabbis imagine she discovered that her husband Abraham had nearly sacrificed their only son on Mount Moriah.  Her heart was shattered.   The rabbis reason that she died then and there.  The Torah relates: “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty seven years.” (Genesis 23:1)  Abraham then mourns, buys a burial plot in the city of Hebron and buries his wife in the Cave of Machpelah.  It was then and there that our attachment to the land of Israel was solidified.

And yet while we understand Sarah’s torment and are sympathetic to the rabbis’ interpretation, our tradition argues that the heart is to be mistrusted.   If we were to rely on the heart alone we might never do what is required of us.  The Torah admonishes us: “Take heed, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn away, and serve other gods.”  (Deuteronomy 11:16)  We are therefore given a very long and detailed list of actions.  The commandments are to serve as our guide.

While the heart is the seat of love and passion, creativity and even commitment, the law guides our actions.  Our tradition is more confident in legislating behavior over feeling, deeds over inner intention.  We are commanded to observe Shabbat and give tzedakah, for example.  What we hold in our hearts is left to each of us.  What we do is guided by thousands of years of wisdom and inherited tradition. 

Yet we discover inspiration not in the minutia of observance but in the motivation of prior generations and in the promise of future generations.  Grandparents inspire us.  Children motivate us. 

Yehudah Halevi, the unparalleled medieval poet, writes of his desire to leave Spain and travel to the land of Israel.  “My heart is in the East and yet I am in the depths of the West.”  His attachment to the land of Israel is unrivaled.  His words continue to inspire.  He imagines his voyage to the land’s shores.  “The sea is the color of the sky—they are two seas bound together.  And between these two, my heart is a third sea, as the new waves of my praise surge on high!” 

Halevi died before reaching the holy land.  His commitment drove him to ignore the advice of friends and undertake the perilous journey to the land of Israel.  A legend recounts that he was killed by Crusaders as he reached out to touch Jerusalem’s stones.  Historians disprove this story.  In fact he died of typhoid on a quarantined ship in Alexandria, Egypt.  One wonders as well if he stayed there because of his new found love for a slave girl. 

We ask again: is the heart to be trusted?

It is indeed the source of passion.  The law, however, is the anchor of an ethical life.

Still the heart is torn.  Can the heart remain whole, filled with passion and creativity while still bound by the demands of tradition and history? 

Following the Akedah, Abraham and Isaac, no longer walk together and as one.  We sense that Isaac is broken.  His heart is perhaps also shattered.  Soon he marries Rebekah.   And we read: “Isaac then brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and found comfort after his mother’s death.”  (Genesis 24:67) 

Is the heart no longer broken?  Is it now healed?

And Halevi writes of his new found love:
“Oh, let my eyes pluck the roses and lilies
that were sown together in your face!
I rake the fire of your cheeks,
to put fire with fire:
and when I am thirsty, it is there that I look for water.”

Perhaps poetry is all that remains.  It emerges from the tension—and even the brokenness of the heart. 

As we walk forward we carry the poem in our heart.

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