The Need for Abraham’s Wisdom in These Times
Richard is a Chicago alumnus of The Wexner Heritage Program. He is Vice President of Development at Sinai Health System in Chicago. This is a slightly revised version of a D’Var Torah Richard recently delivered at a Board meeting of North Suburban Synagogue Beth EL in Highland Park, IL. Richard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bereshit is one of my favorite books of the Torah. It is filled with rich and wonderful stories about our patriarchs and matriarchs to which we can all relate. But what I like most is the book’s realistic portrayal of human nature. It does not pull any punches – it provides vivid and stirring accounts of both good and evil. Indeed, through these stories, we learn not only about righteousness and courage, but also about immorality and depravity. Take, for example, the readings of the past several weeks: they deal, among other things, with murder, egotism, timidity, questionable sexual behavior, inspired and visionary leadership, hospitality, and so on.
Like these thought-provoking parshiot, Hayyei Sarah, does not disappoint. It literally deals with matters of life and death. The parsha opens with news of Sarah’s death. Soon after, we learn that Isaac’s life has been saved and concludes with the demise of Abraham. In between we read about Abraham’s determined efforts to marry off Isaac to someone “in the family” – a not insignificant act, since it has serious and profound implications for the future of the Jewish people.
A modern midrashic interpretation has it that Sarah dies after hearing about the tragedy at the Akedah and the fate she thought Isaac had coming. In a broader sense, one reading is that the parsha teaches us that life is filled with both joy and sorrow – that even in the highest moments of joy we need to recall sadder occasions to help keep us on an even keel. The latter reminds me of the infamous joke about the Jewish telegram: “Start worrying, details to follow.”
In the midst of reading about Sarah and Abraham’s death, as well as Isaac’s hoped-for marriage, I was particularly struck by the opening sentence of Chapter 24 of the parsha: “Abraham was now old…” We are told that the word “old” does not refer to chronological age but to Abraham’s wisdom and maturity. As a note in Etz Hayim says: “Before Abraham. . . none was described as ‘old’ with its connotations of wisdom and maturity…Abraham was the first person in history to grow wiser as he grew older.”
Wisdom is a highly valued attribute in the Jewish tradition. The term “wisdom” is mentioned in the Tanach hundreds of times, pointing to the great significance that our tradition places upon it. The same is true in the Rabbinic literature as well, as the Midrash Shmot Rabba states: “Great is sagacity and greater still is knowledge and wisdom.”
The virtue of wisdom – one that Abraham possesses in abundance – is disturbingly in short supply these days. At the state level, Illinois has the ignoble distinction of being a fiscal basket case. This failure of leadership on the part of both parties is wreaking havoc on Illinois’ social safety net. In my own institution, Sinai Health System, we sit on pins and needles nearly every day waiting for the State to pay us so that our dedicated and talented physicians and nurses can deliver health care to the disadvantaged on Chicago’s West Side. This outrage exists even though we are on an expedited payment schedule with the State. Other health and human service agencies, including beneficiaries of our own Jewish Federation, are not so fortunate. Late payments and budget cuts are forcing many providers to lay off staff and, in an increasing and depressing number of cases, closing their doors, making it difficult, if not impossible, to serve those in the greatest need.
Unfortunately, the situation in Washington is not much better. Ameliorating our economic troubles is going to involve tough choices, likely involving both budget cuts and tax increases, and our nation’s political leadership seems unwilling or unable to do the right thing.
Every Shabbat following the haftorah reading we stand and say a special prayer for our country. Over the past several months, whenever I recite this prayer, I say to myself, “I really hope that God is listening.”
May it be that in the days ahead our leaders both locally and in Washington will draw inspiration from Abraham and summon the wisdom, courage and foresight to address our country’s devastating economic and social problems, making it possible for the United States to truly be “a city on the hill” again, as our Founders envisioned.
This is important for its own sake, and a strong America is essential to the safety, security and survival of Israel, something clearly on the mind of the Jewish community at this turbulent and uncertain time.