Rohingya refugees
Justice, Religion

#TorahForTheResistance: Parashat Chayyei Sarah

#TorahForTheResistance is a campaign by rabbinical students, Rabbis, and religious students about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality. Read more here.

A Rohingya woman, Setara Begum, mother of four, looked back at the orange glow of fire consuming her village in Myanmar as she fled across a stream to Bangladesh not long ago. Some time later she was quoted in the New York Times: “If the color of the fire was in a dress it would be beautiful,” she said, looking down at her muddy clothes, “but it made me very fearful when I saw it.”
Another voice from another moment of terrible peril also speaks with the same heart-rending clarity and beauty: Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, also known as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.
During the initial Nazi invasion of Poland, his son, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law died in the bombardment of Warsaw, and his mother apparently died of a heart-attack upon hearing this news.
In the wake of this tragedy, still in the first weeks of the Nazi occupation of Poland, he delivered a devar Torah to his hasidim. It was the week of parashat Chayyei Sarah…
The Piaseczner opens with the opening words of our parashah: “Sarah’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life.”
Using the traditional tools of Jewish textual interpretation, building on prior commentators, he paints a picture from these words, which, he notes, directly follow the account of Aqeidat Yitzchak, Avraham’s near-sacrifice of his and Sarah’s son Isaac.
The picture the Piaseczner paints in his drashah is of Sarah as a righteous person par excellence, one whose years – her seven years and her twenty years and her one hundred years – were models of virtue. In this he follows the classical commentators. Interestingly, he adds that she is even more righteous than Avraham. Again following the classical commentators, he shows that Sarah suffers terribly from the news that Avraham almost sacrificed Isaac, so much so that her soul flies from her – that is, she dies from shock. This is why this verse in our parashah directly follows the story of the Aqeidah at the end of the previous parashah – one led directly to the other. The Piaseczner once again goes further – Moshe, he tells us, arranged the order of the stories of the Torah to show that the Aqeidah led to her death.

Hardship may develop character, he says, but too much suffering is not a good thing.

‘This was too much!’ – says Moshe with his editorial hand – ‘even the most righteous person in Torah can’t withstand this much suffering!’ And Sarah participates in the protest, too. She was so righteous, so spiritually advanced, says the Piaseczner, that perhaps she could have withstood the shock of even this terrifying news. But she recognized that her descendants would not be able to survive such terrible tests, so she allowed her true feelings to overwhelm her, thereby warning G-d against continuing to test us, her mere mortal descendants, so harshly. Who are Moshe and Sarah trying to teach about the limits of the human capacity for suffering? The one who instigated the Aqeidah in the first place – G-d. This is a lesson for G-d. G-d, the Piaseczner tells us, needs to be taught that we humans can only withstand so much.
There are so many remarkable things about this derashah:
It portrays a woman as the paragon of virtue, hardly standard in traditional Jewish commentary.
It describes a remarkable activist stance in which humans teach G-d a lesson about the limits of human suffering. They argue back to G-d, telling G-d “It’s too much!”
What’s more, Moshe does this with his editorial discretion over the ordering of the narrative of Torah – a radical statement for a traditional rebbe.
But what are Sarah’s tools in teaching G-d this lesson on behalf of future generations? If we look closely at the Piaseczner’s derashah, we see that her tools are her righteous life – which made her the perfect spokesperson for the limits of human suffering – and her feelings, feelings with which she demonstrated the terrible cost of the trial she had been put through. It’s critical to remember that he understands Sarah’s response as intentional advocacy with God on behalf of future generations of her descendants. In other words, both living with integrity and allowing oneself to feel deeply can be done strategically for the sake of, in the words of my teacher Rabbi Or Rose, teaching compassion, and hopefully effecting transformation.
Our conditions are not nearly so dire as Sarah’s or the Piaseczner Rebbe’s, and our activism, thankfully, should never come at so dear a cost. But we live in another moment in which it often feels like “This is too much!” So we can take measured inspiration from the examples that Sarah, Moshe, and the Piaseczner Rebbe offer: We can advocate forcefully. We can say when enough is enough. We can show, unflinchingly, as each of these three advocates did – in speech, writing, editing, photography, film, art, online and in person – not only for G-d’s benefit, but for the benefit of humankind, the true awful consequences of the injustices that surround us. Like Setara Begam, too, we can wring poetic beauty from the darkest moments and simultaneously experience our fear, grief, shock, anger and make these known to the world.

We can choose to feel – and feel out loud – in order to alert ourselves, each other, and God to the limits. Rather than becoming numb in the face of “too much,” or getting down on ourselves for feeling overwhelmed, we can recognize that our feelings constitute the first step in making change. Feeling, and feeling openly, and showing that feeling are political acts.

When directed at God, as the Piaseczner Rebbe intended it, it’s an amazingly powerful protest against excessive suffering; we can stand in awe at his boldness. And we can direct that same kind of protest against the Godly part of other humans, in hopes that they will understand the limits of suffering. But we could also hear the message as directed to us ourselves, telling us “Of course you can’t withstand all of this suffering! Even Sarah Imeinu couldn’t withstand it. We all have limits. It’s OK to feel that this is too much. We’re only human.”

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