Parshat Chukat

Torah Reading for the Week of June 22-28, 2014


“Whistle While You Work”
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. ’10, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History


Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote, “The seed of all song is the farmer’s busy hum as he plants his rice.” Work songs are among the earliest and most basic types of music making. Whether they come from the lips of a solitary farmer or a team of builders, songs are an intuitive means of easing the burden of daily tasks and toils. In the case of collective labor, rhythmic and repetitive tunes help consolidate energies, coordinate movements, and give shape and purpose to the group. Work songs have been used to good advantage in cultures far and wide, ancient and modern, and seem to be as ubiquitous as work itself. It is, then, no shock to find songs accompanying labor in the Hebrew Bible.

Like much of the Bible’s musical references, work songs are somewhat hidden in the larger narrative. Rather than pausing to tell us that workers are singing, the text gives strong (though subtle) clues regarding the practice. One example comes from Parshat Chukat, a portion most known for its red heifer, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the striking of a rock. Amidst this eventful narrative is a song offered by the Israelites upon the springing of water from a well. It is one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew Bible, and was likely a standard work song for well diggers. In the Hebrew, the verses display a regular pattern of strong accents suggestive of a driving rhythm.


Spring up, O well—sing to it—

The well which the chieftains dug,

Which the nobles of the people started

With maces, with their own staffs. (Num. 21:17b-18)


Given the universal nature of work songs, it is not unwarranted to imagine the Israelites singing in a manner analogous to chain gangs hammering railroad spikes or deckhands hoisting up sails. Of course, details of these and other songs of labor differ depending on place of origin and type of job, but they are nevertheless linked in fundamental ways. In all contexts, the music exhibits a constant pulse and melodic momentum—elements that unify group focus and regulate collective efforts. Frequently, too, the lyrics bolster feelings of cooperation by giving voice to shared values, hopes and concerns. In ancient Israel, laborers probably composed songs with like aims and sang them in a similarly synchronized way.

Work songs are still prevalent in the contemporary West, though they sometimes take on new forms. Driving a car with the stereo on has replaced the songs of oarsmen powering their vessel. Piped-in music at the supermarket is heard in place of the chants of hunter-gatherers. Construction workers hammer along to the radio instead of singing their own tunes. Yet, while these modern forms tend to foster a more passive, less communal experience, work songs old and new are motivated by a common principle: music reduces the strain and drudgery of everyday tasks.

Parshat Shelach

Torah Reading for the Week of June 8-14, 2014


“Two Sides to a Coin”
By Perryne Anker, Associate Dean of the AJRCA Cantorial School and Professor of Liturgical Studies


There are two sides to almost every story; there are two sides to the coin.  In this week’s parasha, the story of the spies, there are 12 sides to the story and, as it turns out, two sides to the coin.

Moses sends twelve chieftains, one from each tribe, to spy for him.  Does he trust them?  Well, one would usually send a spy to collect secret information. Since there were so many and from different tribes, it stands to reason that they would have differing reports to give.   Two people can look at the same thing and report different findings.  Perhaps they have something important at stake and thus they would report in their favor.   In this Parasha only two of the spies , Joshua and Caleb, had enthusiasm about the promised land.  The others had wild tales to tell.  They all saw the same thing but through different eyes.

They all spoke about “the land flowing with milk and honey”; but then, all but Joshua and Caleb spoke only in negative terms.  They were fearful that their own power would be taken away upon entering the land.   Their flattery turned to evil.  They spoke of honey but turned to bitterness.

We see a painting or hear a piece of music and can come away with totally different experiences.

We hear what we want to hear and we see what we want to see.

Some of us see potential in the smallest kernel of an idea while others see only negativity. Joshua and Caleb saw possibility and success and viewed that with  courage.  The other ten saw only failure and defeat.  Thus comes the ever popular expression “is the glass half empty or half full?”   When we are asked to give an opinion or to listen to more than one side of a story, it seems to me that the first thing one must do is to search ones own heart to examine what preconceived notions we might have before offering judgment or opinion.

The famous phrase of this Parasha is “they were giants…  we  seemed to ourselves as grasshoppers and so we must have looked to them.” If we live fearful lives, if we fail to see our strengths and diminish ourselves, we will fail to seize the opportunities that are possible.  But if we live our lives believing in our creative powers, and if we have imagination, there are endless possibilities.   Sometimes if little children have a mishap building something with blocks, if one little section tumbles, they will become angry and knock the whole thing down. Once the kernel of dream or an idea is knocked down or destroyed in anger, it can be hard to go back to that kernel to begin again, to pick up the pieces.  Anxiety and fear can almost strangle the kernel of success.  How difficult it is to take a leap into the unknown or to begin again!  Having faith in oneself or in a higher power can bring comfort and strength to take that difficult step to begin again.

Parshat Beha’alotecha

Torah Reading for the Week of June 1-7, 2014


“The Wild Horses of Hearsay”
By Rabbi Yehuda Hausman, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics


“Who brings a tale takes two away.” So goes an Irish proverb.

Gossip is like that. I share one tale with a friend, and this friend shares a second tale with me. Often it doesn’t end there. Dirt is piled upon dirt; the proverbial molehill becomes a mountain.

In this week’s portion, Beha’aalotecha, the Torah records the saintly characters of Miriam and Aaron – Moses’ siblings – swept up in the winds of disreputable chatter.

“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: For he had married an Ethiopian woman. And (then) they said: Has the Lord spoken only with Moses? Has He not spoken also with us?” (Numbers 12:1,2)

Note the progression. First Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ relationship with his wife, and then they complain about Moses’ relationship with God.

The conversation may very well have continued had they not been interrupted by an irate God: “And the Lord spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: ‘Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting…” (12.4)

Such is the power of gossip, without a swift or sudden interruption, without a voice from Above or within that says, ‘Enough!’, gossip will carry on.

A final thought.  It is somewhat of a mystery just what it was that Miriam and Aaron found bothersome in regards to Moses’ wife. The Torah seems to want to spare us specific details, yet our commentators, as is their custom, attempt to flesh out the unsaid.

Some are of the opinion that the conversation was about Moses being a neglectful husband  (Rashi, Hizkuni).  Others suggest it was about Moses’ decision to marry a non-Israelite wife (Ibn-Kaspi, Shadal). A third approach imagines that they went as far as discussing his wife’s unattractiveness (Ibn-Ezra).

Whatever the truth, there is a certain irony in the Torah trying to spare us the details of Miriam and Aaron’s exchange, and we in our curiosity trying to flesh out the scandal. When it comes to gossip, legend abounds. A thread of hearsay can become a patchwork of conjecture or outright fabrication. In this, too, there is a valuable lesson.


Parshat Naso

Torah Reading for the Week of May 25-31, 2014


“The Daring Spirit”
By Rabbi Mordecai Finley, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

One of the most famous personages in the Jewish tradition appears in our Torah portion – Nachshon ben Amminadav. In the last section of the portion, a representative of each tribe of the tribes of Israel donates an array of magnificent gifts to the sanctuary.  The representative of the first tribe to donate, the tribe of Judah, is Nachshon ben Amminadav. We know almost nothing about him, other than that his sister Elisheva married Aaron the priest (Exodus 6:23). In the Midrash (Number Rabbah 8:7), he is named as the first person to enter the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites were facing an implacable sea in front of them, and a furious Egyptian army behind them, closing in. Moses raised his staff, but the waters would not part until someone plunged into the water, essentially saying that death was preferable to slavery. The Torah, however, is silent on who that person was.

I think when the Midrash connects Nachshon to the unnamed man at the sea, we see an unwritten rule of rabbinic interpretation at work, the rule of “parsimony of personages” (this is what I call it; I am sure that someone else has come up with a better term.) You have a person who has a great honor bestowed upon him for reasons never cited, and you have an anonymous person who has done an exceedingly honorable thing. Link them up!

Another example is the Daughters of Tzelophechad (“afraid of his shadow” in Hebrew) in Torah portion Pinchas. The daughters of Tzelophechad challenged Moses and God on a point of the law of inheritance. They thought that God had not thought this one through. Moses takes it to God and God realizes the error. The law is changed, due to their challenge. Wow!  All we know about them is their dad’s name, but we have no idea who Mr. Tzelophechad was.

We also have an unnamed man at the end of Torah portion Shelach Lekha, who gathered sticks on Shabbat and is executed for his efforts. Through very slim (very slim) textual analysis, the rabbis decided that Tzelophechad was the stick gatherer. Parsimony at work.

What is driving these two Midrashim, connecting Nachshon to the Man at the Sea, and connecting Tzelophechad to the Gatherer of Sticks? Something very deep.

Elisheva is the sister of Nachshon, we are told. She is the mother of Nadav and Avihu, who broke the regulations regarding sacrifice to God, and were immolated. In identifying Nachshon the brother of Elisheva (and therefore the uncle of Nadav and Avihu) to the Man at the Sea, they are creating a biblical archetype of the daring spirit. Expressed one way, it becomes the man who breaks from the panicking crowd and enters the sea. Expressed another way, it becomes a spirit of disrespect for the holy.

The same is true in identifying Tzelophechad, whose daughters challenged God, with the Gatherer of Sticks. Each rejected the status quo. Expressed one way, this rejection of the status quo has God rethink a law of the Torah. Expressed another way, it is, again, a repudiation of the holy. In the midrashic linkup, Tzelophechad is the man who was executed for violation of the holy. His daughters achieved a unique place of honor.

I believe that the rabbis employed this delightful interpretive tool that I call “parsimony of personages” to communicate their ideas, in this case, a specific one: the force that drives us forward toward the sublime can also be the force that destroys us. There are people of intrepid and daring spirit who lead us toward greatness, and there are people of such spirit who propel us toward mediocrity, or worse. The daring spirit is volatile in its raw state; only a trained spirit can direct it rightly.

The AJR was founded by the daring spirit of two people, Rabbi Stan Levy and Rabbi Stephen Robbins. (I was honored to be invited by them to help birth this project.) The AJR is for me a shining example of the daring and trained spirit, which has drawn and inspired an unsurpassed administration, an exceptional board, a spectacular faculty, an outstanding and caring staff and crews of marvelous students to shape the Academy, to train and to dare beyond anything we could have dreamed, 14 years ago.

Parshat Vayeshev

Torah Reading for Week of November 17-23, 2013


“Success is the G-d of America”
By Ronnie Serr, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

Joseph is “Ish matzlia’ach,” a successful man, because HaShem is with him — and everyone can see it. Parasht Vayeshev mentions this fact three times. Joseph’s dreams about Egypt’s feast and famine become true, and he becomes the master of their manifestation. As viceroy to the Pharaoh, he enjoys wealth, notoriety, and tremendous power in the Egyptian empire.

Each of our ancestors had incredible achievements. Yet, with few exceptions (e.g. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant), none of our ancestors have the quality of being successful. Abraham, for example, is blessed with blessings. Moses is the most humble of men. King David’s is the sweet singer of Israel. All incredibly successful, but none, other than Joseph, are literally credited with success.

Joesph represents the tzaddik, the righteous person. In Kabbala, Joseph stands for the Sephira of Yesod, Foundation, the tip of the “Small Face,” signifying the sexual organ. The tradition assigns the quality of righteousness to him because of his ability to control his sexual desire when confronted with the wife of Potifar. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach suggested a novel interpretation: Joseph is the epitome of righteousness because he fully forgave his brothers who had wished and planned to kill him.

What is success? What is the source of success? Is success a sign of G-d’s approval, acceptance, love, satisfaction? Is failure, inverse, a sign of G-d’s disapproval?

Joseph’s success, from his own perspective, is neither a sign of G-d’s approval or disapproval. He understands it as a means in HaShem’s plan. In as much as everyone else does, Joseph the tzaddik plays a part in the divine plan whose final objective is goodness. His brothers’ attempt to kill him is also part of the divine plan, hence he can forgive them.

In mass societies, especially America, individual success has become the most desired goal for many. Virtually everyone desires to have success and be as close to it as possible. Achieving success is the objective of the large part of individual and collective efforts. Do we worship the success of fame, notoriety, celebrity, wealth and power as a sign of G-d’s approval, acceptance, love and satisfaction — or as a G-d of its own?

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s offered a democratic and egalitarian vision of success in America: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In this statement, success, manifested as fame, is the goal (and perhaps right) of everyone, even if it’s temporary.

During the Medieval period, the Christians would ask the Jews in many occasions (e.g. during Disputations): If your G-d is the only G-d, and the most powerful of all, how come we, the gentiles are sovereign (i.e. successful) over you? The Jews responded: we sinned against our G-d. As a result, He exiled us. The purpose of our exile is to give us an opportunity to repent. HaShem’s love to us is eternal. The day will come when it will be manifest to all. From this perspective, our success as a people is not notoriety, fame and power. Our success has been survival, our ability to represent G-d’s will for millennia.

Please HaShem, please grant all of us success, in material and spiritual matters. Please give us, each and all, an internal sense of triumph over the Evil Inclination, and an external sign of Your love to us. And please, may we experience our internal and external success swiftly in our days.


Parshat Miketz

Torah Reading for Week of November 24-30, 2013


“Joseph’s World of Dreams”
By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., AJRCA President


This week’s parsha opens with a dream of Pharaoh, with images of fat and skinny cows, paralleled by rich and withered corn, and the numerology of seven.  In the second chapter of the parsha, when Jacob’s sons come to Egypt to buy food, Joseph recognized his brothers and “remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them” (Gen 41.6), referring to the dreams of the stalks of grain that bowed down to his, and the sun, moon and stars that bowed down to him.

Two doubled dreams, whose interpretation set in motion major events.  In the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph read them as prophecies of years of good harvests followed by famine.  In the case of Joseph’s dreams, his brothers’ reading of them as evidence of their younger brother’s drive for power led to his captivity and slavery in Egypt. 

Notice, however, that Joseph has a way of reading the dream such that a positive resolution can be found.  Good harvests followed by famine?  Then we need some strategic planning and economic centralization.  While it sounds quite practical, the assumption is that the dream comes from G-d, and therefore it must show a path to a good outcome. His proposal, born of dream wisdom, appealed to Pharaoh, who appointed Joseph to take charge.

In the case of his own dreams, Joseph did not accept the negative, power-mongering interpretation of his brothers but, like his father, “guarded the matter” (Gen 37.11).  Now, as his brothers bowed before him in humility, seeking to buy grain, he again realized that G-d was speaking through the dream. Necessarily then, a good outcome was intended, and he began devising a way to bring the family back together – not to  reign over them as his brothers had feared, but to save them.  As Joseph will later affirm, “G-d sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45.5).

From this the rabbis learned that one should always “give the dream a good turn,” as it says in the Talmudic tractate Berachot.  When a dream court met to consider a particularly difficult dream, they would recite blessings of peace and goodness before they would offer the dreamer an understanding of it.  

This can help us remember that we have a choice in interpreting dreams – or, to speak more broadly, a choice in reading people’s inner desires.  We can, like Joseph’s brothers, relate to them with fear, jealousy, or anxiety about power.  Or we can, like Joseph, see in them the workings of divine intention, however strange they may appear on the surface – and use our own abilities to turn them to good.   

Parshat Vayishlach

Torah Reading for Week of November 10-16, 2013

“Life’s Inner Struggles”
By Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, AJRCA Professor of Talmud


Life is filled with challenges, both from without and from within. At night, after a long day facing life’s external challenges, we often find ourselves facing our own internal challenges and struggles. Confronting our own internal struggles is a lonely and potentially frightening experience.

On the eve of one of the greatest challenges in his life, Jacob finds himself in a deep internal confrontation and crisis. Scheduled to meet his brother Esau in the morning for the first time in twenty years, Jacob is tormented and afraid. Their last encounter involved Jacob deceitfully taking his brother’s blessing, kindling Esau’s wrath against Jacob with threats to kill his brother. This terrifying reunion is about to take place, and Jacob spends the entire night before engaged in a deep internal struggle. He knows he wronged his brother, and now he must face him. Jacob sends his family ahead, staying behind all by himself: “And Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until thebreak of dawn” (Genesis 32:25).

Who was this “man” that wrestled with Jacob? Was there actually a “man,” or was this mysterious nocturnal encounter a metaphor for Jacob’s own internal struggles? Was Jacob involved in a physical wrestling match, or was he wrestling with his own conscience?

I believe that Jacob was wrestling with his own anxieties, his own fears, and his own internal complexities and dilemmas. The “wrestling match” that night was a manifestation of the complexity of Jacob’s own life, projected through Jacob’s subconscious.

The lesson we draw from Jacob’s famous “wrestling match” is not the outcome, but the struggle itself. We are reminded, in very powerful, even physical terms, that people of faith –“men and women of G-d” — experience inner struggles and complexities in their lives. Faith does not always provide the answers to our struggles, but instead offers a medium through which we can express our fears and insecurities. While struggling, “Jacob remained alone,” but his experience inspires us — as people of faith – that we can in fact “struggle and still believe.” Perhaps during our moments of internal crisis is when we potentially feel G-d’s presence most powerfully. As Abraham Joshua Heschel – himself a complex man of faith — famously put it: Man is not alone.




Parshat Vayetze

Torah Reading for Week of November 3-9, 2013

“Epiphany and Maelstrom”
By Judy Aronson, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Education

The Hebrew year 5774 (2013-14) began on Erev Rosh Hashanah September 4th.  Thus, holidays and festivals come earlier than usual this year, giving rise to the curious anomaly of Chanukah coinciding with Thanksgiving.  In most years we would be reading Chayei Sarah or Toldot in the middle of November.  But this week we are already reading Vayetze and it starts with a journey.  

In The Torah: a Women’s Commentary, an interpretation of the first verses is labeled, “Departure of the Hero Jacob.” Some might say Jacob’s cause for leaving is not exactly heroic.  Rebekah his mother recognizes that her first son, Esau, tricked out of the rewards of primogeniture, is a danger to his twin Jacob. Often, I have identified with the young Jacob and felt that up until this time in Torah, he has been the “daughter” Rebekah never had. They are very close. Cleverly, she has convinced Isaac that Jacob should leave with his blessings to find a wife of her tribe.  On his journey he will change and be changed.  On his own, he will become a man if not a mensch.

At sunset of the first night out, Jacob stops his journey and immediately falls into a dream state.  He sees what we know as Sulam Yaakov, Jacob’s ladder.  It resembles a ziggurat with messengers of G-d, ascending and descending.  “And lo–YHVH stood above it,” and the voice of YHVH renews the covenant made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Sulam Yaakov is the name of one of the most popular of Israeli folk dances choreographed in 1972.  The verse of the song has a person encountering a white winged angel from Jacob’s ladder and asks “Where did you come from and where do you go, and what will you see there?” This coincides with a midrash that says the angels were amazed at Jacob.   In our text, Jacob is the one amazed, as the next morning he says, “YHVH was in this place, and I, I did not know that.”  No longer just a wanderer from home, he has become a reverent teacher to the generations that follow him to this very day.

I found one lovely example of the use of Sulam Yaakov on the Internet. In Larchmont, NY, a congregation calls itself Sulam Yaakov.  Its website says that “The image of angels going up and down the steps of the ladder represents different levels of knowledge or stages in our lives.”  You can visit their website and read a remarkable story of how as a community confronted with a serious issue they live up to their name.

And now I take a deep breath and tell you that Shabbat Vayetze in 5774 is concurrent with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the most awful pogrom in our long history – vandalizing businesses, destroying hundreds of synagogues (many burnt to the ground), and other heinous atrocities.   Life for the German and Austrian Jewish communities would never be the same after that crime, and it was only the beginning.

It is uncommon for Kristallnacht to fall on Shabbat and almost never when we study Vayetze, with G-d’s promise that “Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing.” And further, G-d informs Jacob, “I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil.  I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” (Gen 28: 14).

It has been painful for me to grapple with the promise of blessings in the Torah and the realities of our history.  Now, our calendar this year directly challenges us to relate a Biblical epiphany to a 20th century maelstrom.

Parshat Toledot

Torah Reading for Week of October 27-November 2, 2013

“The Power of Brevity”
By Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud

Ernest Hemingway is known as the “Father of the Word Story.”

An anecdote depicts the author dining with other writers when their conversation turned toward an interesting subject.  Is it possible to tell a story using just six words?  Hemingway claimed it could be done, and he would do so.  His companion deemed this an impossible task.

Hemingway purportedly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around the table.  He won the bet. 

What was the story Hemingway told with such brevity? 

“For sale: Baby shoes.  Never worn”.

What power and pathos emanates from these six words?  How eloquently they depict an indescribable tragedy.

This Sabbath’s Torah portion, Toledot, commences the saga of father Jacob and his son Joseph, arguably the most powerful and dramatic story in all of Scripture.  This story has all the makings of a lengthy Hollywood film, replete with romantic intrigue, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, estrangement and reconciliation, exile and redemption.  It has everything, and deserves a four volume novel (see Thomas Mann) or an extended TV series.

Yet the Torah relates it all in but a few chapters.  In the climax of the saga of Joseph and his brothers, Judah will deliver a powerful speech in but 250 mostly mono-syllabic words!

Brevity is hardly a virtue in today’s world.  Pulpit to pew communications in the synagogue are frequently drowned in a deluge of excessive verbiage.  All too often our personal lives are similarly characterized by a plethora of unnecessary words.  Therapists testify that it is precisely when we have nothing to say that we insist on talking ad- infinitum when we say it, as if the merit of the message lies in its poundage, if not tonnage.

How much more satisfying human relations would be in a world of honest brevity.  Elaborate and evasive word play is a poor substitute for open direct communication.

How powerful are simple phrases such as: “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you”, “This means so much”, “Thank you”, and “I love you”.  How deeply they are appreciated and all of them are even less than six words in length.

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Torah Reading for Week of October 20-26, 2013


“When Love Slips Away”
By Rabbi Yehuda Hausman, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics

“And Sarah died at Kiryath Arba that is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan. And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.” (Gen. 23.2) To an attentive reader, it would appear that Sarah has died alone. In fact, the Torah records specifically that Abraham dwelt in a different a city, Beer-Sheba, on the outskirts of a different land, “the Land of the Philistines.” It is here in Beer-Sheba that Isaac was born and raised, it is to here—their family home—that Isaac and Abraham return after the ordeal of the Akedah. So how, just a few verses later, without segue or sequitur, does Sarah come to dwell and, ultimately, die in Hebron? How does she become separated from Abraham, so far away it would seem, that he must journey to her? “And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.”

If physical distance is a metaphor for psychic distance, then at the end, Abraham and Sarah were miles apart. The Hizkuni (13th century commentator, France) suggests that Abraham originally “sent her away so she would not sense the Akedah.” The brief comment provokes wonder. Does Abraham send Sarah away because he cannot face her, much less the prospect of returning to her without Isaac? Or in a more modern vein, does Sarah leave him, for how can she even look at her husband, this stranger, who would contemplate the murder of her one and only son?  

Either way there is a vast chasm between them. But one wonders if this distance, to some extent, existed all along. Consider Abraham’s public habit of claiming Sarah as a sister instead of a wife. “This is the kindness that you can do for me: in every place to which we come, say of me, you are my brother.” (20:13) If the act of marriage is a public declaration that affirms relationship, what would repeated public denials affirm—if not its absence?

One might add Abraham’s eventual preference for Hagar and Ishmael. After G-d’s promise to Abraham that Sarah (not Hagar), would be the mother of his elected heir, Abraham retorts, “Would that Ishmael might live in your favor!” (Gen. 17.18) It is “G-d who remembers Sarah,” and Abraham who forgets.

Perhaps the best illustration of their emotional estrangement is again depicted in geographic terms. We read last week, at the start of Parashat Vayera, how on a sweltering day, three messengers appear at the entrance of Abraham’s tent. The Torah tells us twice that Abraham seats them and serves them outdoors ‘beneath the shade of a tree.’ But if the sun was so terribly strong, why not forgo the shade of a terebinth and move the repast to the much cooler tent?

Noticing something amiss, one guests inquires, ‘“Where is Sarah your wife?” Pointedly, the Hebrew word used for “where” –ayyeh— is the same interrogative used to question Adam in the Garden: Where are you? (ayeka); And the same used to question Cain: Where (ayyeh) is Abel your brother? This is not an innocuous, ‘Is your wife home?’ Instead it is a question for Abraham’s soul, ‘Where is Sarah in your life? Why is she not aside you? How long must she remain behind you, hidden from kings and messengers and, above all, hidden from you. “And Sarah was listening at the tent flap, which was behind him.” (Gen. 18.10)

This week we read the Torah Portion of Hayyei Sarah, literally translated, “The Lives of Sarah.” Naturally, Abraham must mourn the life that was lived, but there is too a mourning for a life that was not; a life with Sarah in one city and Abraham in another. Sarah could have died with a husband by her side, instead she died alone.