Chayei Sarah, Elections and Community

This sermon was delivered at BMH-BJ: The Denver Synagogue on Shabbat morning, November 10, 2012.

Most of the country this past Tuesday found themselves glued to their television sets throughout the evening. We tried every way possible to avoid the nearly 73,000 commercials these past few months. We turned off all of our lights when we saw a campaign volunteer approach our front door. We sifted through the mountains of mailings that flooded our mailbox. Yet, on Tuesday night, for so many of us, there was nowhere else we would have rather been than watching the results and the accompanying commentary on our favorite network news channel.

It was around 11 PM or so that the season that had cost some $6 billion dollars was over. Some of us cried. Some of us rejoiced. Some of us were just left plain confused.

We as a nation have witnessed so much vitriol, negativity, slander and disrespect in these months. This extended far beyond the confines of the national stage. I heard a news report about family members disowning family members; parents kicking their children out of the house, even Senate hopeful Josh Mandel in Ohio faced the scorn of family who disagreed with his politics splashed on the front page of a newspaper for all to see.

There has been so much hurt on both sides of the political aisle. As a rabbi in the community I have heard from people from both sides express so much bewilderment, frustration, anger and pain.

In this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah we also find pain and hurt albeit in a different sort of fashion. In one Parsha, at the two bookends of the Parsha, we encounter the death of both of our founding parents, Abraham and Sarah. The patriarch and the matriarch of our Jewish family, the trailblazers that set the stage for the 4,000 year journey of our people pass away.

Abraham and Sarah were and continue to be models for us on how to impact humanity with a message of godliness, ethics and holiness. They reflected the best of the human potential. They set forth a never-ending dialogue between God and us, His creation, that continues to this very day.

Yet, Abraham and Sarah also had some difficult times in their family lives. They only bore a child together late in life. Before the birth of Yitzchak they grappled with profound questions of continuity and transmission: Who would take the mantle once they were no longer here? How would the revolution that they had begun continue without a next generation?

Those questions brought forth a radical idea. Hagar assumes the role of surrogate mother and bears a child with Abraham. This child was meant to become their child, Abraham and Sarah’s child. The realities of family dynamics, the complexity of competing mother identities and other factors only become exacerbated when Sarah does at last bear a child with Abraham and now that first born child, Ishmael, faces competition for the primacy of intimacy and the selection of heir from his younger half-brother. Sibling rivalry becomes sibling insult and disrespect.

Ishmael and his mother Hagar are sent away from the family. A schism of mother vs. mother, brother vs. brother occurs and the family is torn asunder.

It is only near the very end of our Parsha, chapter 25, verse 9 that we find a move towards reconciliation: “And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron the son of Tzohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre…”

For this final act of honor bestowed to their father, both of his sons, with the bitter and acrimonious history between them, put aside their past, and for the sake of the present found peace.

The Midrash teaches that “milamed sheh’oseh Yishmael teshuva,” that we understand that Ishmael performed teshuva, repented, from their act of reunion. The Hebrew word teshuva does not only mean repentance – the framework of approaching past deeds with contrition and recognition of past failures and the work towards rectifying it for the future – but it also means to return; to come back.

The death of their father was too big of an event, too monumental of a moment for the two brothers to not come back to each other; to not return as a family. Their history was bitter, their past was harsh, their present for sure was not so simple, but they committed to building a more positive future.

As a country, what unites us is and must be more than what divides us. The American story is too big; the American dream is too monumental to not return to each other.

Isaac and Ishmael set a standard for us in how to bring harmony where there was only discord; peace where there was hatred and unity where there was only disunity. They understood that the time beckoned for a new approach and a new way. The past was behind them, the future was not yet laid out but the present was theirs to determine and to shape.

This too is our responsibility and our task. The acrimony, in-fighting and disrespect of yesterday can and must be behind us. The future is yet to be seen but right now in this very place we have the real chance to chart a new path, to restore the bonds that form the social capital of our community and to begin to learn to disagree without disowning; to diverge in political and philosophical approaches without devaluing and to embrace intellectual diversity without discord and personal division and derision.

Let us learn from the example set forth for us by our ancestor Isaac and his older half-brother Ishmael and let us actualize their remarkable coming together in our own lives and in our own community.

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