After climbing and surmounting the monumental crescendo of the Akeida, Avraham descended with Yitzchak, and it must have been surreal. We can only begin to imagine the undoubtedly complex and fraught emotions and feelings they must have had coming down from such dizzying heights. Yet their reprieve was all too brief. No sooner as they got home, they learned the great Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, and Avraham’s wife had just died.
Can we imagine what that must have felt like? After all that, now this? We just read about the Akeida! About circumcision and the covenant! About fighting with God to save innocent lives! About running after weary travelers to have someone to look after! And now that this great story is drawing to its close, his wife dies?! It’s all too easy to perceive it as a cruel gut punch, below the belt, and frustratingly unfair. Can they not get a break? A few moments of peace? Where is the happy ending that, of anyone who ever lived, these great heroes surely deserve?
If we expect life to be fair or balanced somehow, the question is far better than the answer. There is no real answer. It just doesn’t work that way, and if life is fair or balanced, it certainly doesn’t appear that way. We would do well to make our peace with that.
If nothing else, R’ Jonathan Sacks inimitably teaches that humans can never truly understand suffering because if we could, we would come to accept it. And we cannot accept it; we must not accept it. Because the question is better than the answer, no answer is good enough.
But although we can’t understand why it happened that way, we can take heed of what Avraham did.
Played this difficult hand, the Torah says Avraham grieved a little – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – but it doesn’t even record what he said about her. It doesn’t record Yitzchak’s grief at all! It gives us no information about the funeral. But it gives us a lot of information about the negotiation of the burial plot, about the cave and field our ancestors rest in.
Is that what mattered? Dealing with a crook and a shakedown, haggling over the price of the deal? The Torah goes on at length about the back and forth between the factions and parties, the strain and tension of the rounds of negotiations, far more than anything about the family grief or funeral information. The Torah is telling us that, of all things, this back and forth is the most important information we can have for posterity!
R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights that the lesson isn’t in the grief – which is all too human and ordinary. The lesson is in the extraordinary greatness of Avraham’s response.
There can be no question that Avraham was emotional and that if he would only let it, sadness and grief would consume and overwhelm him. Sure, he grieved; he was not some stoic, unfeeling rock – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. But when it came to it, Avraham could manage his feelings and emotional state enough to do what needed to be done in the moment.
Like the heart has different chambers; we have to compartmentalize. Grieving and in pain, Avraham had to – and was able to – collect himself and live up to his responsibility to deal with the situation while dealing with his pain. This legendary figure, this hero of heroes, this icon of icons, could deal with his pain enough to do what needed to be done.
We are all in pain. Some more; some less. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it comes with terrible ferocity and packs a bitter and cruel punch. When that day comes, it certainly doesn’t feel fair.
But R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that if you can’t figure out why something bad is happening and what the point is, there is literally no point, and it just wouldn’t happen. We can’t plumb the depths of the global why’s; why now, why like this, why to these people. We can’t begin to fathom, and anyone who tries is likely to be cruel because the question is better than the answer. But there is always a local why, if only we spend a moment to think.
We can find a reason in the hurt and give meaning to the hurt. It can be rocket fuel.
It’s true in our personal life, when someone gets sick, or when we lose someone. And it’s also true of our national life, whether it’s something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust or something as astonishing as the State of Israel blossoming into existence.
We need to ask ourselves why and think about what the duty of the moment is. If life goes on just the way it did before, then we missed it.
When pain comes, as it surely will, we have a chance to distinguish ourselves and live up to Avraham’s legacy. We must take responsibility, identify the duty of the moment, and do what needs to be done. Sure, the pain is real. Don’t ignore it! Experience it, feel it.
But don’t overreact. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, what has to get done? Who will do it for you? Where will it take you?
You can do it, and you have got what it takes. You’ve always had it.