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Sermon: Parshat Chayei Sarah, 11/13/20

11/18/2020 01:57:37 PM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom!

When Isaac is comforted by his marriage to Rebekah at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, it marks a moment of calm in what has been a tumultuous life. While his birth is met with great joy, the next thing we’re told is that part of his household – Ishmael and Hagar – are removed from his life. We can only imagine the trauma of his father almost sacrificing him. And then his mother dies.

There’s a midrash – a Rabbinic story that after the Akedah – the binding of Isaac, he went off to the school of Shem and Eber. But the midrash doesn’t answer an important question – why doesn’t Isaac show up to his mother’s funeral? The beginning of the parshah details how Abraham mourned and purchased a burial plot and cared for his wife’s body after she died. Isaac isn’t mentioned. Additional commentaries talk about how Isaac was still mourning his mother when months or years later, he marries Rebekah. So how could Isaac miss the funeral? I haven’t found a commentary that explains it.

My personal midrash is that Isaac was studying, he was meditating, he was recovering after “the incident” with his father – and then the news arrived about his mom. I’d like to think that he tried to get there. But he missed his camel or there was a sandstorm – he made every effort, but by the time he made it to Machpelah, it was over. And he just knew that his father was even more disappointed in him – God didn’t want his life and now this. Isaac was devastated. This was before therapy, so he went back to the school of Shem and Eber and devoted himself to prayer and study. To deal with trauma upon trauma – it took him a long time. Broken, but healing, Isaac finds comfort in his relationship with Rebekah.

Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz in “The Mussar Torah Commentary” argues that Isaac’s disciplined practice of learning, reflection, prayer, and relationship helps him to develop resilience based on m’nuchat hanefesh – a calmness of the soul. Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice that focuses on middot – inner traits. M’nuchat hanefesh – a sense of spiritual stability or serenity speaks to the ability to maintain a calmness of the soul in the midst of the whirlwind of life.

We know that we can’t simply wish the whirlwind of stress and anxiety away. Our strong emotions, such as worry and fear, anger and jealousy and lust – they are a part of us and often enough, they have overwhelmed us. While, we can’t get rid of the whirlwind, m’nuchat hanefesh is an anchor to make sure we don’t blow away. Developing such an anchor requires some effort.

According to Rabbi Gubitz, “The first steps in Isaac’s journey of resilience followed a pathway of study, learning, and seeking…finding moments of meditation…, discovering words of prayer – be they gratitude or anger – and seeking out connection to a presence greater than himself” (p. 33). And that’s just the first steps. Once we begin, the process is ongoing. For no matter how much we can calm our soul in one moment, the future is unpredictable and there’s never a guarantee of absolute emotional or spiritual safety. It may not be something we can perfect, but striving for m’nuchat hanefesh, calmness of the soul, certainly sounds like a worthy enterprise.

I have to admit that while I have studied a little about Mussar, I don’t know a lot. And as I have been over the years, I am intrigued. Dr. Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, explains that Mussar comes from the intersection of Torah and real world experience. “…It’s teachings focus on the reality that each of us is a unique soul following a unique life path” (Ibid, p. xv). Right now, making the time for a spiritual discipline that could help provide perspective and a sense of calm during such tumultuous times sounds very appealing.

We envision how successful such a practice was for Isaac helping him to move from trauma to healing to resilience. I know a number of rabbinic colleagues who found their studies in Mussar to be positive, if not profound. Please let me know if you’re interested in exploring such a practice with me. And whether it’s through prayer or meditation or study or relationship or something else, I pray that we all can find an anchor to help us endure the whirlwind and calm our souls.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, January 21 2021 8 Sh'vat 5781