The Shabbat after the election, Joe Biden was proclaimed to be the winner, and there was a collective moment of relief and joy for so many in my congregation. I simply couldn’t contain my joy, and neither could most of us at the end of our Zoom services that morning. Around the country, countless people took to the streets in dancing and celebration. At the same time, it wasn’t a moment of relief and celebration for everyone in this country, that’s for sure. Millions of people are very angry. Even in my mostly liberal and progressive congregation, there were some who were angry. Most of us in my synagogue agree on the big things, and that sense of common agreement can draw lines in our community; lines where, if you don’t think like everyone else, you may feel excluded, ostracized, and abandoned.
At this moment in time, we all hope and pray that we are coming to the end of a period of divisiveness in our country. Starting now, we must get the word out in all our houses of worship, in all our communities and gatherings, that everyone is welcome–no matter who you are, and no matter who you may have voted for in the past. We are entering into a time when our whole country must come together as one, and likewise, our houses of worship must do the same.
The big question I would like to address is how do we get there? How do we even begin to bury the hatchet after living through so much division in this society? After all of the corruption and immorality we have borne witness to, how can we forgive and move on? And most importantly, how can we heal together as communities so that everyone feels equally cherished? Where can we even begin? As Jews, we can look to our ancient ancestors, who were genius at bringing people together, and at forming a new community and tribe, that would one day become the Jewish people. I’m talking of course of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah who bear a critical message for all of us in this moment in history.
Parashat Chayey Sarah begins with the death of Sarah Imenu, the mother of the Jewish people, the first great matriarch. And the announcement of her death is written in an odd way:
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃
The standard English translation of this line is: “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” But that’s not exactly how it’s written in the Hebrew. If we translate it literally, it says “And it was the life of Sarah: one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years–the years of the life of Saray.” It could have just said “Me’ah v’esrim v’sheva shanah”, “One hundred twenty seven years,” but the text chooses to lengthen out the years, breaking it into hundreds, tens and ones, and repeating the word “shanah”, “years” over and over. What gives?
Rashi brings in a famous midrash to try and capture the meaning of this strange elongated enumeration of her years:
The reason the word שנה is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin — for just as at the age of twenty one may regard her as having never sinned, since she had not then reached the age when she was subject to punishment, so, too, when she was one hundred years old she was sinless — and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven (Genesis Rabbah 58:1).
An interesting midrash. It points us to reflect on something very special about Sarah, that she was ever-youthful, undaunted and unsullied morally and spiritually by the long and difficult years of her life. And to this, Rashi further interprets the last repeated phrase, “the years of the life of Sarah”. Why the extra phrase at the end, Rashi wonders? He explains, “The word ‘years’ is repeated and without a number to indicate that they were all equally good.”
That’s quite a statement about a human being! We all have ups and downs in our lives. We all make mistakes, we have bad spells, things we wish we hadn’t done, things we regret. But Sarah, according to Rashi, was not only ever-young, but every year of her life was equally good. That’s quite a tall order, and difficult to believe. In fact, I would say that her having cast Hagar and her son Yishma’el out of her house to die in the desert doesn’t constitute a “good” year for Sarah!
So what is Rashi and the Midrash really up to here? I suggest that we are not supposed to see her enumerated years as meaning that she was literally perfect all the time. Instead, there is a message here about living a life as perfectly as we can manage, in our very broken, uncertain, and often frightening world!
The Sefat Emet compares this line about Sarah to a verse in Psalm 37 (v. 18):
יוֹדֵ֣עַ יְ֭הוָה יְמֵ֣י תְמִימִ֑ם וְ֝נַחֲלָתָ֗ם לְעוֹלָ֥ם תִּהְיֶֽה׃
The LORD knows the days of the blameless/perfect; their portion lasts forever;
Who, indeed, is perfect? The Sefat Emet explains that this teaching, like the teaching about Sarah–isn’t about perfect people, it’s about the time we are granted in this life. He explains that we certainly are not perfect, but we are all here to strive to perfect ourselves. And that each day contains infinite possibility; that just as God called called the first light, day, each new day is a new light, each day the whole of creation is renewed, each day that we are granted, we can find the resources to renew all of creation, all the world, if we are tamim, blameless/perfect with the time we have.
What does all of this mean? It means that while none of us are perfect, we have access to perfection each and every day. As the Sefat Emet says, “Each and every day, God places a point of awakening in each one of Israel, to which they may attach themselves.” This is the true meaning of being perfect, of being blameless, of living each year, each day of our lives as ever young, fresh, youthful, and good.
I bring all of these teachings today as a way of framing our relationship to the time we have. We look around at our society today, and we see horrible divisions . We see people whom we fear are threatening our democratic way of life. We are afraid. We wonder what it is that we can hold onto.
And today, we have this teaching that our Jewish tradition literally draws out of the years and days of the life of our first matriarch, that there is indeed a way to stay youthful, joyful, alive, fresh, and unsullied by bitterness no matter where the vicissitudes of time may carry us. And that involves reframing our relationship with time into a very Jewish framing of time: that each year, each day, and indeed each moment is a gift from God. In fact, the moment of creation wasn’t just a historic memory from eons ago. It’s renewed each and every day. What would happen if we lived our lives from this perspective?
This, of course, is a very beautiful and spiritual teaching: it points us to living always in the present, always being mindful and grateful of the miracle of life, moment to moment. It’s something I love to teach and remind us of every Shabbat and in teaching Jewish mindfulness practice.
But this teaching isn’t just a spiritual message to stay present with life. Jewish tradition posits a challenge before us all: the essence of the great righteous matriarchs and patriarchs is that they were tamim: they had this notion of the perfection of time. Abraham is literally called tamim in the Torah as well. So the essence of righteousness, the essence of being a moral leader, the essence of using our time well to bring about justice in our lives, is to cultivate this quality of temimut, of living in a way where we see creation renewing each day.
What does this mean? We are all feeling deeply wounded and fearful and mistrustful of others in our society right now. And who could blame us for living in fear and mistrust at this moment. But if we really want to be moral leaders, if we really want to be among the righteous who can truly change the world for the better, we need to be more like Abraham and Sarah. We need to be tamim: we need to not be sullied by the bitterness of what came yesterday, nor distorted by mistrustful anxieties of others in a future that we are uncertain about. We must meet these uncertain times as Sarah would: if we’re one hundred years old, we have to be as if we were twenty; if we’re twenty years old, we must be as if we’re seven years old. In other words, we must start each day with the given.
If we allow ourselves to be distorted by our own bitterness, our anger, our grievance against the millions of people who voted for the other candidate, then we aren’t being like Sarah and Abraham; we aren’t being righteous! If we allow our hatred for those attempting to subvert our electoral process to shape our worldview and our actions toward rage and vengeance, then we aren’t being like Sarah and Abraham.
Instead, our tradition calls to us to greet each day with a childlike simplicity: to look for the “point of awakening” planted in this day by God, to find the seed of righteousness that is born in what we have been given. There will always be those who are divisive and guided by hate. Our job is not to be like them, not to let them distort us from our childlike practice of righteousness. Our job is to remain ever fresh, ever faithful to the possibility of something good that we can do, something constructive toward justice that we can build. It’s always here, each and every day! But if we’re angry or bitter or afraid, we won’t find it.
And we won’t get it perfect! Neither did Sarah and Abraham! They messed up. A lot! But they showed us the way: they strove, each and every day, to find the seed of goodness and justice that is always here. Like us, they had their moments of anger and fear and bitterness. But they always returned to the practice of righteousness, of temimut, of finding the infinite potential, the rebirth of the universe, and the infinite potential for goodness in humanity–in each new day. This is our challenge. This is our task. And this is a possibility that awaits us on this very day, in this very moment. Let us no longer sink to the level of those who spread hatred and bigotry. Let us instead, just keep our eyes looking forward, and find the goodness that is born each day in one another. In this practice we can, just like Sarah before us, find the only kind of perfection that is available to humanity, and in this, we can be a blessing.