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A Journey of a Thousand Miles

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

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Our parsha contains the most serene description of old age and dying anywhere in the Torah: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25: 8). There is an earlier verse, no less moving: “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24: 1).

Nor was this serenity the gift of Abraham alone. Rashi was puzzled by the description of Sarah – “Sarah lived to be 127 years old: [These were] the years of Sarah's life” (23: 1). The last phrase seems completely superfluous. Why not just tell us that Sarah lived to the age of 127? What is added by saying that “these were the years of Sarah’s life”? Rashi is forced to the conclusion that the first half of the verse talks about the quantity of her life, how long she lived, while the second tells us about the quality of her life. “They – the years she lived – were all equal in goodness.”

Abraham and Sarah were commanded by God to leave everything that was familiar: their land, their home, their family, and travel to an unknown land.

Yet how is any of this conceivable? Abraham and Sarah were commanded by God to leave everything that was familiar: their land, their home, their family, and travel to an unknown land. No sooner had they arrived than they were forced to leave because of famine. Twice, Abraham’s life was at risk when, driven into exile, he worried that he would be killed so that the local ruler could take Sarah into his harem. Sarah herself had to say that she was Abraham’s sister, and had to suffer the indignity of being taken into a stranger’s household.

Then there was the long wait for a child, made even more painful by the repeated Divine promise that they would have as many children as the stars of the sky or the dust of the earth. Then came the drama of the birth of Ishmael to Sarah’s servant Hagar. This aggravated the relation between the two women, and eventually Abraham had to send Hagar and Ishmael away. One way or another, this was a source of pain to all four people involved.

Then there was the agony of the binding of Isaac. Abraham was faced with the prospect of losing the person most precious to him, the child he had waited for so long. neither Abraham nor Sarah had an easy life. Theirs were lives of One way or another, neither Abraham nor Sarah had an easy life. Theirs were lives of trial, in which their faith was tested at many points. trial, in which their faith was tested at many points. How can Rashi say that all of Sarah’s years were equal in goodness? How can the Torah say that Abraham had been blessed with everything?

The answer is given by the parsha itself, and it is very unexpected. Seven times Abraham had been promised the land. Here is just one of those occasions:

The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Raise your eyes, and, from the place where you are now [standing], look to the north, to the south, to the east, and to the west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. . . . Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you” (Gen. 13: 14- 17).

Yet by the time Sarah dies, Abraham has no land at all, and he is forced to prostrate himself before the local Hittites and beg for permission to acquire even a single field with a cave in which to bury his wife. Even then he has to pay what is clearly a massively inflated price: four hundred silver shekels. This does not sound like the fulfilment of the promise of “all the land, north, south, east and west.”

Then, in relation to children, Abraham is promised four times: “I will make you into a great nation” (12: 2). “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth” (13: 16). God “took [Abram] outside and said, 'Look at the sky and count the stars. See if you can count them.' [God] then said to him, 'That is how [numerous] your descendants will be.'” (15: 5). “No longer shall you be called Abram. Your name shall become Abraham, for I have set you up as the father of many nations” (17: 5).

Yet he had to wait so long for even a single son by Sarah that when God insisted that she would indeed have a son, both Abraham (17: 17) and Sarah (18: 12) laughed. (The sages differentiated between these two episodes, saying that Abraham laughed with joy, Sarah with disbelief. In general, in Genesis, the verb tz-ch-k, to laugh, is fraught with ambiguity).

One way or another, whether we think of children or the land – the two key Divine promises to Abraham and Sarah – the reality fell far short of what they might have felt entitled to expect.

That, however, is precisely the meaning and message of Chayei Sarah. In it Abraham does two things: he buys the first plot in the land of Canaan, and he arranges for the marriage of Isaac. One field and a cave was, for Abraham, enough for the text to say that “God had blessed Abraham with everything.” One child, Isaac, by then married and with children (Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born; Isaac was sixty when the twins, Jacob and Esau, were born; and Abraham was 175 when he died) was enough for Abraham to die in peace.

Lao-Tzu, the Chinese sage, said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. To that Judaism adds, “It is not for you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2: 16). God himself said of Abraham, “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18: 19).

If you ensure that your children will continue to live for what you have lived for, then you can have faith that they will continue your journey until eventually they reach the destination.

The meaning of this is clear. If you ensure that your children will continue to live for what you have lived for, then you can have faith that they will continue your journey until eventually they reach the destination. Abraham did not need to see all the land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish people become numerous. He had taken the first step. He had begun the task, and he knew that his descendants would continue it. He was able to die serenely because he had faith in God and faith that others would complete what he had begun. The same was surely true of Sarah.

To place your life in God’s hands, to have faith that whatever happens to you happens for a reason, to know that you are part of a larger narrative, and to believe that others will continue what you began, is to achieve a satisfaction in life that cannot be destroyed by circumstance. Abraham and Sarah had that faith, and they were able to die with a sense of fulfilment.

To be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised. It means, simply, to have done what you were called on to do, to have made a beginning, and then to have passed on the baton to the next generation. “The righteous, even in death, are regarded as though they were still alive” (Berakhot 18a) because the righteous leave a living trace in those who come after them.

That was enough for Abraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org.
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Discussion (8)
November 14, 2014
Anonymous
"f you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies...
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it..."

I'm tired, I admit it, but I'll keep waiting and keep going and keep smiling. Thank you for that uplifting passage.
anonymous ottawa
ottawa
November 12, 2014
A retrospective and introspective thought
I think this parsha is a good opportunity to bring about a retrospective vision of the life already lived. It's a good exercise establishing a parallel between our own life and that of Abraham thinking in all the projects we had in our youth and those ones nowadays already achieved; because Abraham had the faith it is supposed we should have or in the words of the poet -Rudyard Kipling's IF
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies...
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it...
Anonymous
October 23, 2013
That's what faith is all about after all...
Two words to describe that article from you on Avraham and true faith Mr. Sacks, "Simply Amazing". Enough said!
Beracah John Martyn
India
November 10, 2012
Wholeheartedly agree, but...
The thread that connects us generation to generation is even clearer after reading this. Each building on what had been done before. Never wavering. It is difficult though to know what to actively do to keep things alive when you are an adult without children, when all of my contemporaries have children. Jewish life sometimes seems a little exclusive for those of us who are not married with families. I try to treat all humans with the hope that my positivity will be meaningful to them after I have gone but often its difficult to know where to fit in. I want to emulate my parents and our matriarchs/patriarchs but do not always clearly see an opportunity for that direct sort of "continuation" discussed here.
MSG
New York
November 15, 2011
Great article.
Well written and completely aligned to my life's biggest ambition, which is to be happy with my lot in life - or at least content enough to appreciate how much I have and develop how well I can work with it. It really brings a lot of peace and a feeling of security to put myself totally into that mindset.
anonymous
ottawa, Canada
November 15, 2011
Jewish Hands on Eretz Israel
There are more and more Jews in Eretz Israel. Sooner or later, the time will come when all our beloved Holy Land will be in the hands of the Jews. G-D bless us!
Akiva Hillel
Singapore, Singapore
November 15, 2011
I agree
And that's why I am so against the prevailing "culture"of doping minds in order people "not to suffer", being them young or old.
I think an elder should have his/her mind clean in order to be able to do a balance of their lives. A balance of conscience, telling them what they did right and what they did wrong.

Abraham and Sarah did all right, and the serenity, I think, is the result of the fact that they were conscious of that, even without Freud to teach them how to return to their subconscious since they were the first couple to already be in touch with their souls and to their Destiny.
One of the gravest flaws of capitalism is to think that people are machines and it is redundant to say we are not...
Carmen
November 14, 2011
How did you know that I needed this.........?
I awoke at 2 a.m. this morning realizing that I had outlived ALL my family with the exception of my Wife and my Son. My parents, my grandparents, my brother. Even my two Grandchildren were taken away in an auto accident. I lay thinking but that there was so much I hadn't done...so many things that I wished to do...and I felt alone and sad. Then I was blessed to be able to read this. I have my Son and he is a good Son, well educated, upright, and he loves me and he will see that what I have tried to do, he will complete in G-d's time and in G-d's way. I will sleep well tonight. Thank you. G-d Bless.
Larry Payne
McKinney, Texas
chabadofdallas.com
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