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Parshat Chayei Sarah

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In his book, Thirteen Days (1968), Robert Kennedy publicized the inner workings of the Kennedy White House during the terrible days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He described how the President’s special advisory group, known as ExComm, debated the options available to defuse the crisis in light of the intelligence presented to them. Fortunately, JFK and his advisors managed to avoid a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union and compelled Khrushchev to withdraw his missiles from Cuba. For many who have studied this crisis the story ends on day 13 when the Soviet Union agreed to remove its weapons. However, David G. Coleman in his new book, The Fourteenth Day (2012), argues that the story did not quite end there. In fact, an entirely new chapter began on day 14.

The challenge facing Kennedy on that day, and in the subsequent months, was how to ensure that the Soviet Union kept the agreement. Coleman explained that, “One issue stood out as the most urgent: verifying that Khrushchev was following through in having the missiles removed. It was not an easy problem. It hinged on a fundamental issue notably lacking in the U.S.-Soviet relationship: trust. How could Americans be sure that they weren’t being duped? Might it all be some kind of devilish trick, buying time for the Soviet nuclear forces in Cuba to be readied for action” (p.36).

Over the next several months various agreements were achieved, ultimately ensuring the removal of the missiles and Soviet combat troops from Cuba. But to achieve these agreements Kennedy had to go through many hoops and juggle many different constituencies and pressures. He had to address the military’s concerns, he had to convince the American people that he was not compromising their security for the sake of a diplomatic deal, he had to confront the partisan pressures and accusations from his opposition in Congress, and he had to seal a deal with the Soviet Union that would actually decrease tension permanently, thus lessening the chance of a recurring crisis.

Kennedy understood a fundamental aspect of leadership. Success without follow-up is not success. If gains are not consolidated they will evaporate quickly. The essence of this week’s parsha illustrates the importance of this truism. Prior to the events recorded in Chayei Sarah we witnessed Avraham changing the world through feats of international renown. In Lech Lecha he emigrated from his homeland to the Land of Israel. During his journey he and Sarah spread monotheism and taught people how to lead an upright life. In Vayeira we were overwhelmed by Avraham’s defeating an international coalition of the greatest military powers of his day. He then argued with Hashem to spare the lives of the citizens of Sedom. Finally, he was prepared to offer his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to G-d. These events are certainly worthy of note. Yet when we read Chayei Sarah we seem to leave the world of front page news and move to what at best seems like the human interest section. We see Avraham purchasing a grave for his wife and mourning her. We then spend the bulk of the parsha learning how Avraham, through the services of his loyal servant Eliezer, finds a wife for Yitzchak. We conclude with Avraham’s relatively quiet retirement and passing.

This contrast begs the question: What is the real message of Chayei Sarah? Rav Moshe Feinstein in his work of Torah insights, Derash Moshe, suggests an explanation that sheds light on this issue. Rav Moshe questions why the Gemara in Avodah Zarah (9a) claims that with Avraham, the two thousand year period of Torah learning began, when, in fact, there were others who prior to Avraham taught Torah as well. Rav Moshe answers that Avraham revolutionized Torah learning. Torah scholars prior to Avraham, such as Shem and Aver, taught Torah, but only to those people who were self-motivated enough to seek out Torah on their own and who were willing to commit totally to a Torah way of life. Avraham, on the other hand, circulated among the people, encouraging them to join the ranks of Torah learners and explaining that every commitment made to Torah, no matter how incremental, is important and a critical step forward. It is for this reason, Rav Moshe claims, that Avraham is credited with the real beginning of Torah learning. Through Avraham’s actions the Torah achieved a permanent place in peoples’ consciousness.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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