Chayei Sarah: Healthy Ways to Live and Die

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 year ago

      This week’s parashah is largely focused on the purchase of Machpelah and the quest for a wife for Yitzchak, as well as Keturah. The common thread is the end of Avraham’s life, and his preparation for the world to continue without him. Avraham is, at this point, the patriarch of a family with several branches. While this family has its share of negative interactions with neighbors—as evidenced by what the servants of Avimelech do to Avraham’s well, as well as the story of Yitzchak and his wells—Avraham is able to conduct the diplomacy he needs to conduct—here, primarily in the purchase of Machpelah—and has a dependable “manager” to whom he is able to delegate important business like finding a wife for his son. He diplomatically distributes his inheritance to the branches of his family according to their characters, and is able to finish his life in relative peace and harmony.

      Our haftarah this week paints a very different picture. King David is dying, and his departure seems disorganized and chaotic. David has promised Batsheva that her son Shlomo will be king, but now that David is bedridden and unable to maintain his body heat, his son Adoniyahu attempts a coup, bringing many government officials over to his side and declaring himself king even as David is still alive. The nucleus of officials who remain loyal to David, including court navi Natan and Queen Batsheva, mobilize to quickly get a formal order from the king to anoint Shlomo, and once this is secured and becomes public, the situation is rapidly resolved.

      But while this seems like a happy ending, it is an ominous sign of unpreparedness. Shlomo’s reign hinges on his wisdom, not his preparation, and some key mistakes lead to far more significant and less reversible collapse after his death. Avraham is the head of a family without much political power—although they certainly have to interact with government entities at times—and while his meticulous preparation does not shield it from dysfunction two and three generations down the line, we see peaceful resolutions within the family in those generations as well. But with David heading a massive political machine, subject to intrigue and the lust for power, unforeseen circumstances and dysfunction seem to lurk around every corner, plaguing the family, and, due to the family’s position, the nation. Concentrated power leads to more politics, and more politics lead to more dysfunction.

      It seems just yesterday—although it was two years ago—that people snickered in shul that אדניהו has the same gematria as ביידן. It looked to many as if the way in which élites closed ranks around the Biden-Harris ticket, mocking and blocking any attempts to investigate the integrity of the vote, was an admission of guilt; as if that ticket were an impostor, similar to the self-appointed king of the haftarah.

      We do not know whether the 2020 election was fair, and honestly, we do not think it matters much: what matters is that with a government as large as the one we now have, there is a lot of power on the line, and there are strong incentives to gain it. If this has not yet led to cheating on a scale that makes a difference, we have little doubt that it will—especially in the environment of distrust created by the lack of transparencey and investigation in 2020. The contrast between Avraham’s death and David’s shows how big government and political power lead invariably to machinations, corruption, and often the worst of people rising to the top and gaining the ability to create great misery for their posterity.

      What do we learn from this? To shun power as a way to improve the likelihood of a healthy family life? Perhaps. But we would make a stronger statement. Coercive power is a poison to both its holders and their subjects. Imposing our will on others and expropriating their wealth is not a value of the Torah, and getting into that position, even King David cannot maintain a healthy family, nor instruct his wise son how to maintain a healthy nation. How much less so the “leaders” of today.

      We believe that respect, on the other hand—respect for the boundaries of others, respect for the autonomy of others, respect for the property of others—is a Torah value, and is the path to a better world. Avraham is generous with his own property, not the property of others[1]. A culture of respect does wonders for communities and families alike. This is a culture we would like to pursue.

      Every day in psukei dzimrah, we read Tehillim 147, and in it, the phrase השם גבולך שלום. On the simplest level, we translate this as God making the borders of our nation peaceful. But on a deeper level, it is precisely by respecting the boundaries of others that we achieve peace in so many forms.

      [1] When Avraham battles the four kings, it is only in response to their aggression, to recover stolen property. There is no record of Avraham initiating aggression.

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