Now think of Abraham at the beginning of this week’s parshah. He has just been through the greatest trial of his life. He had been asked by God to sacrifice the son he had waited for, for so many years. He was about to lose the most precious thing in his life. It is hard to imagine his state of mind as the trial unfolded. Then, just as he was about to lift the knife, came the call from heaven saying, “Stop.” The story seemed to have a happy ending after all.
But there was a terrible twist in store. Just as Abraham was returning, relieved, his son’s life spared, he discovers that the trial had a victim after all. Immediately after this episode, we read of the death of Sarah. The Sages said that the two events were simultaneous. As Rashi explains:
“The account of Sarah’s demise was juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac because as a result of the news of the ‘binding’ – that her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered – her soul flew out of her, and she died” (Rashi to Genesis 23:2).
Try now to put yourself in the position of Abraham. He has almost sacrificed his child. And now, as an indirect result of the trial itself, the news has killed his wife of many years, the woman who stayed with him through all his travels and travails, who twice saved his life, and who in joy gave birth to Isaac in her old age. Had Abraham grieved for the rest of his days, we would surely have understood – just as we understand Noah’s grief.
Instead, we read the following:
“And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba – that is, Hebron – in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead…” (Genesis 23:2-3)
Abraham mourns and weeps, and then rises up and does two things that secure the Jewish future, two acts whose effects we feel to this day. He buys the first plot – the field and Cave of Machpelah – in what will one day become the land of Israel. And he secures a wife for his son Isaac so that there will be Jewish continuity.
Noah grieves and is overwhelmed by loss. Abraham grieves, knowing what he has lost, but then rises up and builds the Jewish future. There is a limit to grief: this is what Abraham knows and Noah does not know.
Abraham bestowed this singular ability on his descendants. The Jewish people suffered tragedies that would have devastated other nations beyond hope of recovery: the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile; the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty; the expulsions, massacres, forced conversions and inquisitions of the Middle Ages; the pogroms of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries; the Shoah. Yet somehow the Jewish people mourned and wept, and then rose up and built the future. This is their unique strength, and it came from Abraham – as we see him in this week’s parshah.
Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, theologian and religious author, wrote a profound sentence in his Journals: “It requires moral courage to grieve; it requires religious courage to rejoice.” Perhaps that is the difference between Noah the righteous, and Abraham the man of faith. Noah grieved. Abraham knew that there must eventually be an end to grief. We must turn from yesterday’s loss to the call of a tomorrow we must help to be born.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.