Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18 - Keeping Our Cool: What Sarah Can Teach Us


November 9, 2009

Week 313, Day 1

22 Cheshvan 5770



Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
Keeping Our Cool: What Sarah Can Teach Us
Evan Moffic

President Obama is known for his even temperament. Whether in speeches, interviews, or press conferences, he has a calmness and deliberateness in speaking and acting. In Hebrew we might call this temperament hishtavut hanefesh, “equanimity, inner calmness, maintenance of an even keel.” The origins of this quality remain elusive. One could point to genes, faith, life experience, and so on. Yet for our Sages, it was a desirable quality, and one that they equated with faith. We see an example of this way of thinking in a beautiful commentary on the opening verse of Parashah Chayei Sarah.

Our parashah opens telling us that Sarah lived for 127 years. The text then states again, "such was the span of Sarah’s life." Every repetition is an occasion for commentary; this one has generated an array of interpretations. One was offered by Rabbi Aaron Levin, a nineteenth century Chasidic rav (in Hadrosh Ve-Haiyun, on Chayei Sarah; an English translation of his commentary can be found at Rav Levin begins with a quote from Rashi noting that all of Sarah's years were for the good. What does this mean? It means that Sarah experienced all of life's ups and downs. She left her homeland with Abraham. She was passed off as Abraham's sister and went briefly into the harem of a king. She suffered through attempts at having a child and grew jealous of her handmaiden Hagar. Finally, she had a child in her old age, yet she died before that child married, made a life for himself, and had his own children. Despite all of these ups and downs, Sarah's character remained unaffected. Her wisdom and righteousness abided through every moment of life. She had the quality of hishtavut hanefesh.

Throughout Rabbinic literature, our Sages place a high value on this quality of character. Perhaps it was necessary in facing difficult times of persecution. Perhaps it reflected the emphasis on moderation—Maimonides called it the "middle ground," m’chuvanot b’emtza-ut—that characterized the Rabbis' view of emotions (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dei-ot 2:7). Yet it is evident in a surprising commentary. In the Book of Micah we find a verse often seen as a summary of our Jewish faith: "Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:8). These words were inscribed prominently in the sanctuary of the Reform synagogue where I grew up. Commenting on the last verse, the Rabbis asked, "What does it mean to 'walk humbly with thy God?' " It means, they said, "to escort the dead to the grave and lead the bride to the bridal chamber" (see Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 49b).

What unites these two examples is that they are peak emotional experiences. Accompanying one to the grave can cause grief, while escorting a bride is a great joy. "To walk humbly" in each circumstance is to do so with an inner equanimity and stability, a recognition that life is filled with moments of great happiness and sadness. That is not to say that we should not cry at a funeral or dance at a wedding—far from it. Rather, it is to understand that emotions have their proper time and place. To become endlessly consumed in grief is to lose hope in the future, and to become giddy with joy is to lose touch with the reality of life's difficult times. It is no accident that we break a glass at a wedding and eat maror on Passover.

The Rabbis’ wisdom in assigning such a high value to hishtavut hanefesh reflects an early recognition of what scholars today call "emotional intelligence." When we are emotionally intelligent we are attuned to our feelings, but we are not dominated by them. We can look at them and evaluate them and judge them appropriately. If we do so, we are less likely to behave irrationally or say something damaging or hurtful. Several figures in the Bible acted in emotionally unintelligent ways. Moses, for example, lost his temper and let his anger at the rebellious Israelites dominate his behavior when he struck the rock to produce water instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20:2–13). Joseph's brothers let their hatred of him overwhelm their brotherly ties and sold him to slave traders (Genesis 38:18–28).

Sarah, however, never lost her cool. According to the sages, she lived every day with the same quality of character. It is notable that the Rabbis draw this midrashic conclusion about Sarah. Consistent with the way it approaches other female characters, the Bible reveals very little about Sarah's personality and emotions. It is Abraham who is grieved greatly (21:9–12) when Sarah asks him to cast out Hagar and Ishmael (a decision that the text makes clear God intended, and a subject for another d'var Torah!), and it is to Abraham that God constantly speaks. Sarah's life is described in the context of Abraham's needs and journeys. Yet the Rabbis turn this lacuna into a positive trait. Her equanimity needed little elaboration, and it made all of her days l'tovah, for the good.

Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.