GOOD MORNING!! An old friend passed away this week. Rabbi Kalman Packouz was the one who gave me the idea to write this weekly davar Torah and send it out, originally as a fax, hence the name (his name) ‘The Fax of Life’. I just want to express my gratitude to him for pointing me in this direction as it is one of my great joys to be able to share ideas weekly with almost 2,000 people. If you know of anyone whom you think might enjoy receiving this please do send them this sign up link. https://bit.ly/2pDjQrR
The portion begins with the death of Sara and Abraham’s search to find her a burial spot. In the end, he buys (for an extortionate price) a quaint little place called Hebron. Little did he realise the future problems this would cause. (There are 3 places in the land of Israel that the Jewish people actually bought. They are: Temple Mount, Hebron and Shchem/Nablus. It is interesting to note that these are 3 of the most hotly contested plots of land within Israel to this very day.)
Having buried Sara, he finds a wife, Rebecca, for Isaac and they marry. Abraham also marries again, this time to a woman named Keturah. He fathers 6 sons with her and sends them off to live in the Far East, sending with them the secrets of mysticism.
Abraham dies at 175 years of age and is buried, alongside Sara, by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael himself dies at the age of 137 and the portion ends with a listing of his 12 sons.
The rabbis tell us, based on an anomaly in the text of this week’s portion that Sara was as free of transgression at one hundred as she was at twenty; the reason why twenty is considered an age that is free of transgression is because before twenty, in Jewish thinking, God does not hold human beings accountable for their actions.
Wait a minute, you might say, we Jews believe that a child is bar or bat mitzvah at age twelve or thirteen and from then on they are responsible for what they do? That accountability is only to society. We, human beings, will punish someone at that age for breaking the law. But vis a vis God, he or she has until they are twenty. God appreciates, after all, that we can’t go from being children to being adults overnight. We need space to grow, develop, make mistakes and find our way in life. God overlooks the indiscretions of the teenage years to allow us the time for this to happen.
I became religious when I was seventeen. I went to Yeshiva (an Orthodox school of Jewish studies) in Jerusalem and resolved to live by Torah’s strong code of values. However, at nineteen years and nine months I was discovered this idea that God does not hold a person accountable until they are twenty. As you can imagine, the gears of my teenage mind (if it can be believed that teenagers are endowed with a mind) started grinding. I still had three months to enjoy myself, minus the consequences, before a lifetime of needing to be good. I started planning my trip to Amsterdam, as that seemed like the most obvious place to engage in all sorts of depraved behaviour. (I considered Bangkok, but it seemed a bit too far away.) Stupidly, (or perhaps sensibly, depending on how you look at it) I went to speak to my rabbi before I went; and history will record that I never did.
Did I look at trying to do the right thing and live by a code of values as a chore, he asked? Surely it was a gift? Did I want to trade in the satisfying feeling of living a good and meaningful life for the momentary, but ultimately empty, titillations of a superficial world? Did I see no intrinsic value in living nobly, as a human being, rather than unbridling my animal passions to their wonts and proclivities? What was my plan, I thought to myself? To go and live as a mindless ape for a few weeks to build the foundations required for living as a thoughtful and sensitive human being?
Ultimately, as alluring and compelling Amsterdam was, it just made no sense to me and I chose not to go.
I wouldn’t be honest if I said that I have no regrets about it. But, with perhaps more wisdom, certainly more years, I look back on my life at the times when I followed my base desires – and I know they did not bring me any sense of fulfilment. And when I look back at the decision I made to stay in Jerusalem for the last months of my twentieth year, and other decisions like it, they are the ones that have forged a path for me in life – my own path, my own human path – and made me honest and decent person that I try my very best to be today.
Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt