Chayei Sarah 5780
Abraham is a person of faith and hesed, kindness. He faithfully follows God out of the world he knows. In his most physically painful moment after circumcision, he welcomes guests into his home. He argues/negotiates/counsels with God for the sake of the righteous people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He creates a small tribe that will leave a lasting legacy for thousands of years and across thousands of miles. He is a visionary who not only believes profoundly in his vision, but acts on it with trust and kindness – except in matters of his own family.
In his family relationships, Abraham’s decisions are driven not by kindness, but by fear and/or neglect. When he is afraid for his life, he lies – twice! – about his relationship with Sarah, referring to her as his sister and exhorting her to lie as well. When Sarah becomes overwhelmed by Hagar and Ishmael, he throws them out of their encampment, sending them to die in the desert. When he loses sight of what God wants from him, he nearly murders his own son. Midrash tells us that Abraham is the kind of person who stops when he sees a burning house even when others pass it by – unless, I imagine, it were his own house.
Abraham is deeply split.
As people in recovery, we know the dangers of this split. The split is where we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t like or are ashamed of. It agitates and overwhelms, provokes anxiety and confuses. When I am in my split, I imagine myself as parched, cracked, desert-like earth – something in me is cracked and splitting because I’m not acknowledging the scary parts of myself. My split is exhausting.
And yet, when he dies, the Torah says:
This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin (Bereshit 25:7-8).
Contented? I know how dry and undernourished a split feels. How can someone living in such a deep and dramatic split die contented?
Because of the self-acceptance that comes from t’shuvah. And not perfect t’shuvah. Imperfect t’shuvah.
Abraham’s t’shuvah doesn’t draw him close to the people around him in the way we hope t’shuvah draws us close to one another. It doesn’t create connection. It doesn’t rid him of the parts of himself that scare him – yes, I believe he is scared of the part of him that was willing to murder his children. Abraham’s t’shuvah doesn’t do these wishful things. Abraham’s t’shuvah does bring self-acceptance – as he is, cracks and all.
After Sarah’s death and with knowledge that his own death is coming, Abraham makes choices to treat his family with more faith and kindness than he had previously been able to willing to share with them. Not only does he will his wealth to Isaac, who will carry on his spiritual legacy, he gives gifts to all of his children while he’s still living. And while he may not reconcile with Isaac, he is sure to secure a wife for him with great intentionality. While he may not develop intimate personal relationships with his children, especially after he nearly murders them, he demonstrates profound intimacy with his servant Eliezer when he trusts Eliezer to find a suitable wife for Isaac. These are not perfect acts. They are acts of kindness and faith. They are Abraham’s imperfect t’shuvah.
Abraham dies contented because he is able to do t’shuvah even with this split within him. He is contented because he knows his imperfect t’shuvah is, in Rambam’s words, “nevertheless elevating” (MT, Hilchot T’shuvah, 2:1). He is contented because, even carrying regret, he accepts himself.
This is the gift of t’shuvah. It does not ask of us perfection. It asks of us progress. And it can give us the contentment of self-acceptance if we do it.
Rabbi Kerry Chaplin