Abraham’s pains – Parshat Haye Sarah

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When God commanded Abraham to take his son Yitzhak and to offer him as a holocaust, the Torah introduces the subject by stating that God put Abraham to a test: “nissah et Abraham” = He tested him (Gen. 22:1). We may translate it, in modern terms, “He challenged Abraham”.

The Torah defines this divine commandment as a test, a challenge. Following this definition, our Sages understood that other commandments God gave to Abraham are, indeed, challenges: “Abraham went through ten challenges and he came out successful of all of them, showing how great was Abraham’s love of God” (Pirke Avot 5:3) What were these ten challenges? They don’t tell, but Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishna, explains that all of them are written in the Torah and provides us with the sources (Rambam’s commentary to Pirke Avot 5:3).

Abraham, like a hero, overcomes the challenges because his love of God bestows on him extreme strength! Abraham’s deep faith and total trust on God make us generally thought of him as a person with no pain or sadness. God is with him and he knows it: is there any place for sadness? Why should he feel pain, if everything is because of the Lord and for the Lord?

A more detailed reading of the Torah, however, allows grasping Abraham as a plain human being, with all the strengths and weaknesses any other person has. His faith wasn’t for him a shield against adversity or against the ups and downs of the soul. Yet it offered him the tools to overcome them. Good things elicit nice feelings, while adversity elicits rage, sadness or pain. Nobody is free of it and nobody should be free of it, since this is a natural expression of the human soul. Abraham teaches us that even while having an intimate dialogue with God, pain shows up. It is all about not to succumb because of it, but rather to dare feeling it in its sharpness and overcoming it.

Parshat Haye Sarah begins telling about Sarah’s death: “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:2). He feels the pain of the loss – death is a definite separation even for one who holds a constant dialogue with God. The old patriarch, however, does not succumb: he gets up from his pain so as to make all the necessary arrangements for the burial. He then comes back to his pain, inhuming Sarah. And then again, he recovers to care for the future – his son Yitzhak’s marriage and the welfare of all his other children.

There is an interesting midrash, in the Tanhuma collection (Parshat Ekev, art. 3) that echoes Abraham’s pain because of Sarah’s death and presents us with a list of afflictions of Abraham. Even the ten challenges stated elsewhere are here part of those afflictions! The text shows Abraham not as a superhero, but as a human being like you and me that teaches us, through his life example, to cope (he does as we should) with God, with the shocking reality, the feelings and the faith. It is not an exhibition of suffering as trophies; the midrash teaches us how important it is not to avoid pain when it arrives: only by dealing with it we can overcome it and feel better on. Pain always leaves consequences, but if we do not face it, it will not remain as a rest, but as a steady burden.

The text says: “Whoever feels pain at the beginning, will be calm at the end. And no one has felt pain at the beginning more than Abraham: he was thrown into the oven, had to abandon his father’s home, was chased by 16 kings, went through ten challenges and buried Sarah. But in the end he was calm, as it is written: ‘In time Abraham became old, while God had blessed him in everything’ (Gen. 24:1)(Midrash Tanhuma, Ekev, art. 3)

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