Tempest and tranquility

The transition from Parshat Vayeira to Parshat Chayei Sarah is very abrupt; the contrast between them is almost immeasurably stark.

Parshat Vayeira is full of exciting events, which surely made headlines in those days. As early as Parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham’s war against the four kings was an international affair. The devastation of Sodom was likewise a tumultuous and geopolitically significant event. In the narrative of Abraham’s family life, we read of the Akeidah, which was certainly a profound and important event. The parshah is replete with angels and lofty matters, and it takes place entirely on a plane of great tension between momentous ascents and descents. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, is very complex and raises fundamental questions, such as to what extent God intervenes in the world and how a place can be condemned to complete eradication, despite God’s promise after the Flood.

By contrast, Parshat Chayei Sarah is very tranquil. It deals with Sarah’s burial in Me’arat HaMachpelah, the courtship of Isaac and Rebecca, and the latter part of Abraham’s life.

Unlike the previous parshah, in which each event was an extra­ordinary occurrence, this parshah features events that can and do happen in every generation. Nowadays as well, people often argue over burial sites – if not with the Hittites then with the head of the burial society. Similarly, the match of Isaac and Rebecca is, all in all, not such a dramatic story. The story of Jacob and Rachel is at least somewhat romantic. There is a man and a woman, there is love – there is at least a story. Here, the match is arranged by Isaac’s representative Eliezer, who returns to the family’s place of origin and finds an appropriate wife for his master. Finally, after Abraham has finished caring for his son, he remarries and has children, who do not appear to interest us at all. These are commonplace occurrences which, were it not for the fact that they involve our esteemed patriarchs, would not even be reported in the newspapers, and perhaps would not even be reported to the neighbors.

The two parshot – Parshat Vayeira and Parshat Chayei Sarah – stand side by side as though for the sake of contrast. What is more, even the ancillary characters that appear in Parshat Vayeira seem to remain constant in Parshat Chayei Sarah to reinforce this contrast. Our sages explain1 that “his servant, the elder of his house”2 – whom Abraham sent to find a wife for Isaac – is Eliezer; and when the Torah records that Abraham took with him 318 men to the war of the kings,3 this refers to Eliezer as well, whose name has a numerical value of 318.4 Abraham’s chief military officer, who is victorious in war, is the same person who is sent to negotiate a match for Isaac.

Every person’s life consists of two different modes. One mode is characterized by ascents and descents, while the other is characterized by calm and tranquility, without major events or great excitement. In a certain respect, this is also the difference between the summer season and the winter season in the Jewish calendar. Our entire summer – from Passover onward – is full of events. In the winter, even if we include all the rabbinically-ordained holidays – Chanukah, Purim, and Tu BiShevat – these months are still largely devoid of religious events.

In every person, there is a sort of inner debate as to whether he would prefer great excitement or calm and tranquility. There is a side, even in one’s spiritual life, that despises the sense that nothing is happening, feeling bored and unstimulated. But the opposite side also exists, the aspect of “Jacob wished to live in tranquility.”5 Jacob was not interested in unusual or dramatic events; he did not want to pursue romance or other developments. He wanted to settle down quietly for as long as his circumstances would permit.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov uses similar categories to describe two forms of worship: There is calm, tranquil worship, generally characteristic of people who feel settled in society; and there is also ecstatic, frenzied worship, characteristic of people who do not feel settled in society. It is worth noting that the first form of worship is not limited to laypeople – to balebatim – and the latter form of worship is not limited to yeshiva students. How one approaches his relationship with God does not depend on what he does during the day, as many believe, but on something more personal, more innate.

The pendulum

Sometimes, it is precisely those who generally operate in a state of calm who will seek out excitement in their lives, and it is those who lead tumultuous lifestyles who will seek out calm and tranquility. In any case, even those who seek out excitement often find it difficult to maintain such a lifestyle over a long period of time. One cannot expect to achieve great things without experiencing periods of stagnation and complacency. This reality is rooted in human nature itself. After all, we are not built as one harmonious unit, with body, soul, and various aspects of our personalities in complete harmony. If one tries to pull things in one direction, the law governing both the physical and the spiritual dictates that there will be an equal reaction in the opposite direction.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in his work Peri HaAretz, describes this problem using the example of a pendulum. A pendulum cannot move to just one extreme. If it swings far to the left, it must also swing back to the right in equal measure. So it is in the service of God: It is impossible to constantly ascend. Everyone inevitably experiences descents and falls in his spiritual life, each person in his own way. Although there is a difference between the fall of the righteous and the fall of the wicked – the distance of the fall, where one lands after the fall, and in what condition one finds himself – nevertheless, a fall is a fall, and the resulting trauma is the same trauma.

Anyone who has experienced such a rise and fall, even on a small scale, knows that this is a problem. Look at our history. Our greatest spiritual disaster was the sin of the Golden Calf, and that story underscores precisely this point. The People of Israel were taken and suddenly elevated to the great height of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. When they, quite naturally, do not undergo fundamental change all at once, they inevitably experience a great fall.

My purpose here is not to denigrate a stirring, stormy life. However, one cannot ignore the dark side inherent in a life of dramatic ascents and jumps: equally dramatic descents and falls. In the tranquil mode of life, while one does not make drastic changes or great leaps, nevertheless, in avoiding exposure to falling he has a better chance of persevering in his course.

Two paths

There have been many discussions, in various forums, as to whether these two modes lead to the same place but each one is appropriate for different types of people, or whether there is actually a preferred path that can take a person farther and higher than the other. In the animal kingdom, some creatures advance in jumps, while others can only crawl. There certainly is a difference between a deer and a snail. While they both can travel from one place to another, the snail is much more limited than the deer, unable to reach the high places to which the deer can easily leap.

A similar question is that of the “shorter but riskier” path and the “longer but safer” path. The first path may be quicker, but may also contain dangers along the way. The second path allows one to reach his destination more securely, but only if he dedicates more time to the journey. Do they really reach the same place?

To a great extent, these differences in style depend on and are ingrained in a person’s character. For example, one who feels “settled down” in his life need not necessarily be married with children; even a five-year-old boy can already act the part of a layperson – a baal habayit. He still may need nurturing care, but his character may be that of a baal habayit in every respect. Conversely, there can be a lively old man for whom the pace of a baal habayit is inappropriate, and who never “settled down” entirely despite his advanced age.

There are Jews who are outraged by the sight of a baal habayit; they cannot stand his readiness to accept a life of utter tranquility. On the other hand, there are people who naturally gravitate to that lifestyle. It is clear to them, by their nature, that in life one must settle down and work, on a regular and steady basis, as a matter of routine. One does not change the order of things; one follows the custom of one’s predecessors. If his father was an ox, then he will be a calf, as it says, “For I am not better than my fathers.”6 This is life’s structure and its framework; only within that framework does one effect changes. Similarly, the Midrash relates that “Abraham called [the place of divine revelation] a mountain, Isaac called it a field, and Jacob called it a home.”7 In this version, the sons operate within the same framework as the fathers and follow the same pattern, reflecting basic continuity. There is much virtue in this. The strength of such a person is the ability to steadily persist and persevere, without needing to go to extremes or experience grand adventures.

Back and forth

Ultimately, despite the ingrained differences in our personalities, there is also an element that transcends personality, namely, freedom of choice. Ultimately, people choose their own path, the path by which to ascend God’s mountain.

The Torah itself does not appear to decisively favor one side or the other. If, nonetheless, there is a message that the Torah conveys, it is that a person need not adhere to one mode exclusively. After a period of excitement, there can be a period of calm, and this calm is not necessarily a descent.

The point of Parshat Chayei Sarah is not that Abraham has grown old and can no longer do everything that he used to do – wage war, circumcise himself, etc. What this teaches us is that there are different periods in life. The Torah does not present one mode of life as intrinsically preferable to the other. Rather, the Torah posits the reality that people need to learn to conduct themselves in both modes, because there is no one single way to live in which one can find continuous and lasting success. On the one hand, we live in a world where each day presents new situations that have never been experienced before. On the other hand, this same world is also built on routine, and life is often characterized more by its trivialities than by its drama.

Both modes are integral to the complete human being; like the fires in Ezekiel’s chariot vision, they move “back and forth”8 within each person’s character. Man must be capable of great excitement, but he must also be prepared to live without it. There are periods in a person’s life when he must move at a frenetic pace, without stopping once to rest. Even when this frenzy of activity causes pain and stress, he must not stop, or he will fall. But there are other times when he must be passive and reactive rather than take dynamic action or innovate. In order to straddle both modes, one must be able to maintain a state of constant flux: at certain times emulating a burning flame, and at other times remaining calm and tranquil.

To some extent, the course of Jewish life forces us to follow this path of constant duality and change. Once a week, on Shabbat, we are instructed to change the basic pace of our lives. Throughout the week one is immersed in his work, whether it is physical labor or other work that involves pressure and stress. Once a week, a day arrives during which the whole essential structure must change: One moves from a state of constant activity and movement to the pattern of Shabbat, whose whole essence is that man becomes a vessel for the holiness of the day – he must sit still, in peace and tranquility, calm and quiet. This is a true “back and forth,” and one must develop the inner ability to operate in both of these modes.

Exploit the energy

The relationships between these two modes of life are diverse and multifaceted. Sometimes, it is best to begin with a period of listening, study, and absorption, and only afterward switch to a period of creativity and breakthrough. Sometimes, the proper order in the working process is precisely the opposite: First one works at breaking things down and smashing them, so that afterward it will be possible to build new things. And sometimes it is precisely one who has experienced a period of calm and tranquility who feels a need to change gears and accelerate the pace of his life.

These two aspects present themselves in the various stages of a person’s life, and one must learn to utilize them when opportunities for growth arise. Paradoxically, the perfect time to acquire Torah and good deeds is when one’s evil inclination seems to be at its strongest. When everything is most volatile, that is the time in which one can ascend in spirituality and intimacy with God. If one does not exploit the natural energy that one has when young in order to run, then when he is older it will become much more difficult for him. If one wants to engage in the service of God, and this does not cause him to reach for the heavens, then perhaps he is not truly as young as he appears. If a person does not desire great things at a time in his life when he is naturally driven toward them, when will he desire them? Later in life, when a person declines, it becomes much more difficult to leap to great heights.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that our forefathers never accepted age as an excuse. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that Abraham was circumcised when he was ninety-nine years old – so that no one would be able to claim advanced age as an excuse to avoid ­starting on a new path. That person would simply look at Abraham, who at ninety-nine made a new start from the same place where an eight-day-old baby begins.

Even someone who has seemingly reached the latter part of his life, generally a time of decline, can still grow. After all, all of Parshat Vayeira transpires at a time when Abraham, one would think, should have been sitting calmly in his rocking chair – he was about one hundred years old, yet it was at this stage that he experienced many of the momentous and dramatic events of his life.

Betuel our patriarch?

The sequence of Parshat Vayeira immediately followed by Parshat Chayei Sarah teaches us an additional point. In order to live properly in the mode of calm and tranquility, one must know how to live in the other mode as well. One cannot maintain a state of constant, fast-paced activity throughout his entire life; but to ensure that the quiet life does not become a life of stagnation and decline, one must first experience great ascents and self-devotion. If someone has not first experienced a spiritually exciting world and all that it entails, he must not proceed to the routine of everyday life, for then the dangers of such a life will overshadow its benefits. There are two worlds – a world of fire and a world of water, a world of tempest and a world of tranquility – and not only does each world exist alongside its opposite, but each world actually builds the other. If one has never seen angels, he will not be able to sit and engage properly with merchants without sinking into this mundane lifestyle and remaining there.

Similarly, if Abraham had never experienced the Akeidah and the events of Parshat Vayeira, he would not have been able to spiritually survive the tranquil events of Parshat Chayei Sarah. In Isaac’s narrative, from the Akeidah onward, major events are far and few between, especially compared to Abraham’s narrative. This is a direct result of the fact that only one who experienced the Akeidah can later settle down and successfully lead a quiet life.

Isaac digs wells and the Philistines dig wells. What is the difference between the two? Abraham buys a field and the Hittites sell a field. What is the difference between the two? There are two fathers involved in the match of Isaac and Rebecca. In a certain sense, both fathers are our patriarchs. The Jewish people is descended from Betuel, the father of Rebecca, just as much as it is descended from Abraham. However, at least for us as a nation, there is a fundamental difference between the father of the groom and the father of the bride. Betuel is a faded figure, lost in the tides of time. He remained an Aramean, the son of an Aramean, and nothing more than that. In contrast, Abraham, who traveled from the deepest depths to the highest heights, is known as Abraham our patriarch. Because of his incredible journey, Abraham can now walk on level ground as well without sacrificing his greatness.