The following is an adaptation of a talk by the Rav in the 1970s on חיי שרה based on the original 1998 copyrighted version from Dr Israel Rivkin and Josh Rapps.
There were 2 covenants between Hashem and בני ישראל. The first was the ברית אבות (Patriarchal Covenant) between אברהם, יצחק and יעקב and Hashem. The second was the Covenant at הר סיני.
The Rav explained that, on the surface, the ברית אבות is an enigmatic covenant, with only one commandment contained within it, circumcision. What did this covenant accomplish, what does it demand from the Jew and what is its relevance to us today?
The Torah mentions the ברית אבות when it first mentions the Covenant at הר סיני in Parshas Bechukosai, referring to it as Bris Rishonim. The dual covenant notion is expressed in Mussaf on Rosh Hashonah, as both are mentioned in the Beracha of Zichronos. Apparently the two covenants are complementary. The ברית אבות is the background and pre-requisite for the establishment of the Covenant at הר סיני . The Covenant at הר סיני relates to human deed and performance. It teaches us how to act in all situations. The ברית אבות addresses human personality and character as a whole, the essence of the I-awareness, teaching man who they should be. The Covenant at הר סיני teaches man how to act and what to do as a member of the Covenantal Community. The ברית אבות tells the Jew how to feel as a member of that Covenantal Community, and how to experience being a Jew. It is wonderful to be a Jew, unfortunately not everyone knows how to appreciate this experience.
The covenant was reached with two people: man and woman. From the time of creation, and their first rendezvous, Hashem addressed Himself to both man and woman. Both were created together. In plural, they were they called אדם and endowed with the greatest of gifts, the humanity of צלם אלוקים. Human reality connotes a duality. At creation the human condition transcended physiological gender differentiation and extended into the metaphysical level. The very statement of creation, where man and woman were created together and in the image of Hashem, contradicts the perverse notion that Judaism ascribes an inferior status to women. At the same time, it also absolutely contradict the false notion that there is no metaphysical distinction between man and woman.
Man and woman differ existentially, but they do not differ in terms of values (axiological existence), as both share the image of God, their humanity. Hashem created a dual existence, man and woman, as they complement each other. The two existential beings together represent one perfect destiny.
This complementary nature and single destiny is the basis of the Covenantal Community. We see this through the relationship of אברהם and שרה. Both were equal parties to the covenant with Hashem. Indeed, at times we might be tempted to think that שרה was the central figure (see רש’’י on the verse telling אברהם to listen to the voice of שרה, that אברהם was on a lower level, in terms of prophecy, than שרה was).
The defining essence of the Covenantal Community, as requiring both שרה and אברהם, man and woman, is also seen at the end of לך לך. Avraham asks Hashem to pass the covenant on to ישמאל, resigning himself a childless existence with שרה. Hashem answers that שרה, his wife, will bear him a child to be called יצחק, and this child, the product of both שרה and אברהם, will be the recipient and next progenitor of the covenant. ישמאל cannot be the recipient of the covenant, because he represented only one side of the Covenantal Community, אברהם, but not שרה. Hagar was inadmissible as the second half of the covenantal union with אברהם.
When Hashem appears to אברהם and changes his name to indicate that he is now the father of all the nations of the world. Hashem informs him that the change is effective from the time of notification. Later, when Hashem informs אברהם that שרה’s name has been changed, it is mentioned in terms of having previously been changed. Why? The covenantal community requires the dual involvement of man and woman. Since the Covenantal Community required both אברהם and שרה, it was impossible to change the name of one without automatically affecting the name of the other. שרה’s name was changed automatically at the same time אברהם’s name was changed. Hashem later simply informs אברהם that her name has already been changed as well. Only together, could they achieve covenantal sanctity.
After שרה dies, אברהם realises that with the death of the mother of the Covenantal Community, his mission as father of the Covenantal Community is drawing to a close. All that is left is to act out the last part and walk the historical stage, making way for others to pick up the mantle. אברהם survived שרה by 38 years. Yet, after the death of שרה the Torah tells us just two stories involving אברהם (in relation to his role as father of the Covenantal Community). The first is the purchase of the burial plot for שרה, the מערת המכפלה, the second is the story of finding a wife for יצחק. The latter story is more important in the context of the Covenantal Community given the progenitorial relationship of רבקה and יצחק. The Torah relates that יצחק brought רבקה into the tent of his mother. She filled the gap left by the death of the mother in respect of one half of the Covenantal Community.
The Torah says that אברהם came to eulogise שרה and (then) to cry for her. Human nature suggests that one cries and then eulogises. Crying is not mourning. It is the spontaneous release of tension to a (usually destructive) surprise. On the other hand, a eulogy is a rational, intellectual performance requiring clarity of mind to evaluate and appraise the loss, and discover how reality has consequently been changed. אברהם suffered a double loss with the death of שרה. The first was the loss of his wife and partner as they met the challenges of life. No one understands the bleak loneliness and destructive nostalgia felt by a surviving mate. אברהם felt that his whole world had been dislocated. The second sense of loss was the uncertainty of the fate of the Covenantal Community. אברהם understood that the covenant was entrusted to both a man and a woman. Now that the mother of the Covenantal Community had died, would Hashem trust him to continue? Perhaps he had sinned and was no longer worthy to be the father of the Covenantal Community.
The first thing that אברהם did was to appraise שרה’s contributions to the growth of the Covenantal Community, and to put in place a future plan. After all, אברהם was not alone in this loss. As the Rambam writes, that they had brought tens of thousands of followers into the covenant. These people also felt the loss of the mother of their community. First אברהם oriented himself to the loss of שרה in terms of the community. Afterwards he broke down and cried over the loss of his soul mate.
What was שרה’s assigned role within the Covenantal Community? What kind of person was she? The first (enigmatic) verse (and רש’’י) in the Parsha answers these questions. The repetition of the word שנה after each digit in the number 127 is strange, as well as the clause שני חיי at the end of the verse. רש’’י quotes the מדרש that the reason for the repetition is to emphasise that when she was 100 she was as free of sin as a woman of 20, and as a woman of 20 she was as beautiful as a girl of 7‡.
What kind of life did she lead? What was the essence and substance of her personality? The Torah answers these questions by stressing that indeed שרה was a unique individual. She was a 7-year-old innocent child, with the beauty of a 20-year-old girl at the age of 100. רש’’י stresses that even though she was ripe in years (100), she was still a young vivacious girl. The whole biography of שרה can be summed up in these three closing words of the first verse שני חיי שרה.
The Rav mentioned that he would associate the opening רש’’י in Chayei שרה with (להבדיל) the story of Peter Pan. Peter Pan refused to grow up and take his place in life. However, שרה did not suffer from a stymied, under–developed personality. She was a bold, daring and responsible person who, miraculously, did not allow the maturity of the adult in her to squash her inherent enthusiasm of an innocent child. She grew older and wiser with the passage of time, yet in times of need or crisis the young girl in her came to the fore. רש’’י is telling us that the three time periods of a member of the Covenantal Community, childhood, young adulthood and mature older person can coexist simultaneously; they are not mutually exclusive. The paradoxical confluence of all three in an individual is a sign of greatness necessary for leadership in the Covenantal Community.
There are 4 basic מצוות in the life of the Jew. Study of Torah, Faith in Hashem, Prayer and the Love of Hashem. One studies Torah with his intellect. Not everyone is endowed with the capabilities necessary to study Torah at a meaningful level. Intellectual endeavours are esoteric in nature. The more capable one is, the more time they have for study and the pursuit of knowledge and the more knowledge they accumulate. A wise person is called a זקן because intellectual wealth is usually associated with someone who has devoted much time to study, and this is typical in an older person. Maturity is required for the study of Torah. The immature mind cannot adequately grasp the concepts of study.
Torah scholarship, indeed scholarship in any field, requires intellectual curiosity and skepticism. The effective student questions everything the teacher offers, attempting to refute the lesson in order to achieve a clearer understanding of the topic. The Gemara (Baba Metziah 84a) relates the story that after the passing of Resh Lakish, the Rabbis sent Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedas to take his place as the study partner of Rav Yochanan. After a while he was sent back. Rav Yochanan explained that Resh Lakish would argue with him and force him to support his positions and opinions. Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedas would agree with Rav Yochanan and would not challenge him intellectually. Rav Yochanan had no use for a passive study partner. Some people become vindictive with old age. However old age that is accompanied with a discriminating skepticism is a very important quality for the study of Torah.
When it comes to prayer, skepticism is an undesirable quality §. The adult, with the skeptical mind does not know how to surrender himself in prayer. He does not know how to generate the mood of despair, helplessness, worthlessness necessary for prayer. If a man does not feel himself completely dependant on Hashem for his needs, he may not pray. The closer one comes to Hashem the more he realizes how insignificant he truly is. The Rambam speaks of man’s movement towards Hashem and with the sudden realization of how worthless he is, that he is someone here today and gone tomorrow, he recoils from Hashem. The Rambam refers to this experience as Yiras Hashem. This experience is the spring well of prayer.
The sophisticated intellectual cannot pray. Only a child, the naïve person who is capable of complete faith and trust in Hashem can pray. An infant has unlimited trust in his mother. King David expresses this concept when he says that he puts his faith in Hashem like the weaned child’s faith in his mother. A child instinctively feels protected in the arms of his mother, sensing that the mother would never allow any harm to come to him and would do anything to make his life more enjoyable. A child has absolute faith in his mother because she has never lied to or disappointed him. This same absolute, child-like faith in Hashem is required for prayer. In theological terms, faith cannot be applied to man. Faith is absolute, complete reliance without reservation that he will never be betrayed or disappointed. To have faith in man would contradict the statement of King David, Kol Haadam Kozev, all men lie. One can have confidence in man, but it is blasphemous to have faith in man.
Faith requires of the faithful the willingness from time to time to suspend his judgement, to surrender body and mind to Hashem. Faith sometimes requires irrational actions without providing an explanation for the action. The ability to surrender judgement requires the child within to help the intellectual adult surrender himself to God and pray.
The ability to suspend judgement was required of אברהם at the Akeida. Hashem had decreed that it was prohibited to murder another human being, including the abomination of human sacrifice. One who commits such an act is punishable with death. אברהם had spent much of his adult life engaging the priests who practiced human sacrifice in debate, attempting to convince them to stop this horrible practice, a practice that contradicts the very essence of humanity. אברהם built altars, but he never sacrificed anything on them, with the exception of the ram on Mount Moriah after the Akeida. Suddenly, Hashem commands אברהם to offer a human sacrifice. In this context, it was not important who he was to sacrifice, but rather that he was to offer a human sacrifice at all. אברהם could have protested to Hashem, how could he do the very thing that he had devoted so much of his energy and time to discredit and prevent! How could he suspend his humanity and offer a human sacrifice? אברהם never protested to Hashem. He suspended his judgement and humanity in order to fulfill the will of Hashem. אברהם acted as a child, showing complete faith in Hashem.
Hashem does not ask us to make the same leap of faith that He required of אברהם. All we are asked to do is to accept the Torah and the מצוות without trying to rationalize each Mitzvah. We have no right to rationalize the מצוות, our obligation is to accept and follow, and like אברהם show our complete faith in Hashem. It takes a great deal of Chutzpa to rationalize the מצוות, to make them fit in our view and mood of the minute.
The Rambam writes that אברהם deduced that Hashem was the guiding force behind creation. The Rambam describes אברהם as an intellectual giant who overcame the foolishness of the idolaters that surrounded him to recognize Hashem. Yet this intellectual giant was capable of suspending his judgement when he had to faithfully serve Hashem. אברהם was also the first person to pray to Hashem, because he was the first who was capable of suspending his intellect to express his complete reliance and child-like faith in Hashem. He was able to view himself as dust and ashes when praying to Hashem. He acted the same way when called to perform the Akeida. The Torah teaches us that man must be ready to act as both an adult and child, and to switch between them at a moments notice.
Both אברהם and שרה, the founders of the Covenantal Community, exhibited maturity and child-like behavior when called upon to do so. The Torah expects a member of the Covenantal Community to fight as a young man for his ideals, like אברהם did when called upon to save his nephew. אברהם was at least 75 years old at that time, probably older, yet he acted as a young warrior when it was time to fight and went into battle without hesitation. When אברהם studied the skies of Mesopotamia in search of Hashem he acted as a wise old man. When he prayed, he did so with the complete faith of a young child. And when called upon to fight, he did so as a young and vigorous man.
What is the covenant personality as defined by the patriarchs and matriarchs? One trait is the existential dialectic with which he/she is burdened, having an awareness of greatness as well as helplessness, of courage and self-doubt. The 3 fold personality that is so indicative of the Covenantal Community, that of child, youth and old person, is expressed in the opening verse of the Parsha, Shnay Chayei שרה, the biography of שרה. These three traits combined to form the essence of the covenant personality as exhibited by the patriarchs and matriarchs.
In addition to the covenant personality, the ברית אבות has also created a concept of covenant historical destiny that is distinct from historical experience. The covenant bestowed upon בני ישראל a destiny distinct from other historical processes in 2 ways: 1) causal determination and 2) dialectic covenant destiny.
The main distinction between universal historical and covenant dynamics lies in their view of the causality of events. Universal historical dynamics is based on the premise that an event in the present is caused by an event in the past. Event A begets event B. It is based on a mechanical notion of causality. The covenant event should be placed in a different causal context, that of teleology or purposiveness. The covenant dynamic is sustained by the covenant promise and the drive to attain a goal that temporarily lies outside the reach of the community.
Let us examine the relationship between the Jew and ארץ ישראל. The whole ארץ ישראל experience, including that of the state and the political pressures that it faces, cannot be explained in normal historical mechanistic terms. Rather it is a covenant event. The commitment of the Jew to the land is not based on events that happened in the past as much as on a promise of a miraculous future when the divine promise will be fulfilled. In covenant history, the future is responsible for the past. Covenantal events cannot be explained in terms of normal historical categorisation. One cannot explain in normal psychological terms the commitment of the Jew to ארץ ישראל. It is an irrational, yet unconditionally strong, commitment based on the covenantal promise.
The covenant has created a new concept of destiny. The word destiny conveys a notion of destination. The historical experience of the Jew is not based on the point of departure, but rather the destination towards which they are driving. The destination of the Jew is the ultimate eschatological redemption of the universe that will occur with the coming of Moshiach. The covenant is the force behind this destiny.
Historical destiny, however, can also be characterised by another trait: the contradiction inherent in our historical experience. There has never been a period in history where the Jew lived a completely covenantal existence. From the beginning, Jews have always lived among non-Jews. אברהם lived among the children of Ches; he dealt with them in economic matters. The modern Jew is certainly entangled and integrated into the general society. Consequently we share the universal historical experience. We have no right to tell society that societal ills like pollution, famine and disease are problems owned by the rest of society. These problems apply to the Covenantal Community as well. The Jew as a member of humanity, as someone endowed with צלם אלוקים, must contribute his part to the benefit of humanity, regardless of the terrible treatment accorded him throughout the ages. The patriarchs and matriarchs were buried together with Adam and Eve, the parents of all of society, in order to show that there is no gap between the Jew and the rest of society. There is no contradiction between laws based on human dignity of צלם אלוקים, and laws based on the sanctity of the Covenantal Community. The Covenantal Community adds additional responsibilities to the Jew beyond those already based on his humanity.
The non-Jewish world finds it difficult to understand this duality and therefore view us as an enigmatic people. For example, they view our commitment to ארץ ישראל as irrational because they do not comprehend the nature of the covenantal commitment that is the foundation upon which this attachment is based. The extra commitment that the Jew has that they do not share or understand creates existential tension between the Jew and non-Jew. אברהם described this tension when he instructed אליעזר and ישמאל to remain behind while he and יצחק travelled on to another point. The Jew and non-Jew have common cause up to the point of פה, “here”. However the Jew has an additional commitment beyond that of society. He cannot remain “here” as אברהם said. He must go further, to כה, to fulfil his additional covenantal commitment and destiny. This tension is worth enduring in order to be the maintainers of the destiny and legacy of אברהם.
‡ Parenthetically, the Rav noted 2 questions here. We know that a woman is punishable from the age of 12, so why was she compared to a woman of 20 in terms of purity from sin, which implies that a woman of 20 is not liable for her actions. Also, we know that the prime age of beauty for a woman is not 7, but closer to 20. The Rav noted that while he does not like to alter texts, he felt that this מדרש would read better if it was inverted to say that she was as beautiful at the age of 100 as a woman of 20 and as free from sin as a young girl of 7.
§ The Rav noted that the Jewish people discovered prayer, taught the world how to pray, and unfortunately many of us have forgotten how to pray. The Rav emphasised the importance of the Siddur in the life of the Jew. He related the story of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Baal Hatanya, who as a young boy in White Russia reached the age where he had to choose where to continue his studies. He was presented with 2 choices. The first, Vilna, was the centre and pinnacle of Talmudic study. The second was the town of Mezeritch, where the Maggid of Mezeritch concentrated on the study of prayer and the Siddur. The Baal Hatanya was an accomplished Talmudist already, but he felt that he knew nothing about the Siddur and how to pray, so he decided to go to Mezeritch.