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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Don’t forget the corner of your field when times are tough
The Sefat Emet, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Rebbe of Ger commented on the verse, “Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty and seven years, such was the span of Sarah’s life” (Gen 23:1). He cites a Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 58:1) that compares our verse to one in the Psalms, “Just as they are perfect, so are their years perfect” (Ps 37:18). Rashi comments that her age is written out, or we might say, ‘spelt out,’ in this way to show that all of the years were equal in goodness.
The Sefat Emet interprets the Torah text through Rashi and the Midrash as expressing the quality of equanimity, evenness of mind and temper. He suggests:
“Sarah had lived through some very hard times early in her life. There had been hunger, and then she had been taken both to Pharoah and to Abimelech. Now, at the end of her days, she and Abraham lived in great comfort. But nothing changed in her, despite all these differences.
This is what the Mishnah means when it says that Abraham our Father went through ten trials, all to show his great love. Abraham loved God so much that all the changing winds in the world couldn’t move him from his place. He remained whole, not feeling at all those things that passed over him.
Most people are not like this; they go through several changes each day. But Sarah and Abraham were unchanged in all their days…This includes all those changes and trials, both in poverty and in wealth.”
The Sefat Emet sees in Sarah and Abraham, parents who provide moral strength through their perfection and equanimity. As Arther Green states: “It sees them as leaving their children the greatest of gifts: models of wholeness towards which each generation in its own way aspire. The task of being ourselves, remaining faithful to our truest values in the face of both temptations and trials (those of plenty as well as those of deprivation), is one that confronts each of us.
True, some find it helpful to have role models who represent perfection or wholeness. However, we know that even Sarah and Abraham were not perfect. The Sefat Emet and his forebears, omit the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael which seems to blot Sarah and Abraham’s copybook. Indeed, none of us are so perfect that we do not have something to atone for each Yom Kippur. In this Sarah and Abraham, do I find true role models. People who are as good as they can be but who occasionally slip up.
I know that I am not doing the Sefet Emet justice though for his observation is one that bears a message for us today. The Gerer Rebbe wrote for those Ger Hasidim who, by the late nineteenth century, had begun to evolve from the shtetl to the rising middle classes of Warsaw Jewry. Whilst the life of the shtetl might have been one of economic deprivation, the Sefat Emet held it as a time of high Jewish values and was warning against the temptations that come from economic opportunity.
What this Hasidic Rebbe identified in Abraham and Sarah, was a devotion to the values in their life that were most dear to them, exemplified in Abraham’s love for God, and I would add to Sarah and vice versa. The faith that Abraham and Sarah showed for each other and their God was truly constant.
“Faith has never been easy. It is a vision liable to fade, as passing clouds conceal the sun. There are times of faith, and there are times of doubt and despair, in the histories of peoples and the lives of individuals. Faith has always been a venture, a pilgrimage, and a struggle” (Siddur Lev Chadash, p. 219). Rabbi Danny Rich, the Chief Executive of our parent movement, Liberal Judaism, used these words this week to announce the foundation of the Pe’ah Fund.
In recognition that the people who are worse affected when things go wrong in our world, are those who are already affected, the poor and needy, the Rabbis of Liberal Judaism want to highlight the ongoing plight of these people at a time when everyone is touched by anxiety for their own financial welfare.
The Pe’ah Fund is named after the law found in the Holiness Code of the Torah, in Leviticus 19:9-10, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the very corners (p’at) of your field…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I the Eternal am your God.”
It did not matter how large or small one’s holding or its harvest, a portion of it was to be left to the poor and needy. In positive defiance of the credit crunch Liberal Rabbis have committed to contributing 1% of their annual salaries to assist individuals or groups who are hit by the credit crunch and cannot access financial support elsewhere.
Whilst you can of course join Hillel and I in donating to the Pe’ah Fund, what we are trying to highlight is the need to maintain support for the good causes that we have all been engaged with, whether that be financial or practical support. Last Shabbat, over a fifth of our Community did the latter by supporting our Mitzvah Day activities. We urge our Community to also not forget the former. In some ways the Torah may be antiquated in that we are no longer a people based on agriculture, a people connected to the land. The message still rings true and I am sure that the principle behind the Pe’ah Fund is not too complex for us to calculate for ourselves.In Sarah and Abraham we can find models of equanimity, expressed in their faith in God and each other. Let us express our faith in God and humanity by displaying the character equanimity, through times of plenty and when things are trying. Eternal God, give us the strength so that we may say the blessings, Barukh Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melekh ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’ytzivanu, al tzdakah v’al gmilut chasadim – We praise You Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe: You sanctify us by Your commandments and enjoin us concerning the duty of charity and the duty of helping our fellow human beings.
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