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Home » Chayei Sara

Chayei Sara: The Inner Sarah

Submitted by on November 20, 2005 – 10:25 pmNo Comment | 2,644 views

Rise and Fall

Nelson Mandela once said that true greatness lies not in never falling down but in rising from our falls. We are all susceptible to weakness and failures of human nature. We slip and fall from time to time. The truly great ones rise from their falls by confronting their shortcomings and correcting them.

Indeed, the ability to confront shortcomings and correct them is what distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary.

King Solomon once wrote that there is no man on earth who has not sinned. (1) In a similar vein it can be said that there is no man on earth who has no vice. Whether it is anger, greed, selfishness or ego, we each know our personal beast and how it might be provoked. It is presumptuous to expect never to succumb to the beast but it is not presumptuous to expect to rise from each fall.

Abraham’s Negotiation

This idea embodies the soul and deeper meaning of the dialog described in the Torah between Abraham and the Hittites after Sarah’s passing. Abraham wanted to bury Sarah and approached the Hittite tribe to purchase a plot of land. The Hittites offered the land gratis, but Abraham refused the gift and insisted on full payment. The Hittites suggested that four hundred silver coins seemed a paltry fee. Abraham accepted the offer and delivered the silver. (2)

The Torah is not a historical narrative but a guidebook for spiritual living. In our reading of the Torah we must search for lessons applicable to our generation. How does the narrative of this negotiation inspire our quest for spirituality and G-dliness today?

Inner Sarah, Inner Hittite

Sarah’s life was a model of firm commitment. The Torah testifies that her faith and devotion to G-d never wavered throughout her one hundred and twenty-seven years. (3)

We each have an inner Sarah, an inner commitment to Torah values. While we often live up to our commitment and keep our Sarah alive, there are times when we renege on it and  allow our inner Sarah to expire. This is when Abraham, a metaphor for the soul, arrives to negotiate. (4)

Abraham addresses the Hittite within us. In Aramaic the word “Het” means to fall short. We each have an inner Hittite, a tendency to fail in our commitment and fall from our perch of spiritual achievement. Abraham addresses our Hittite and demands a plot of land. (5)

Humility

People who indulge their anger, bitterness, selfishness or corruption tend to deny this to themselves. They don’t confront their weakness because it would shatter the self-image they have carefully built. Abraham demands realism, and we cannot view ourselves in a realistic light unless we surrender our arrogant need to wrap ourselves perpetually in a false aura of self-righteousness.

Abraham demands a plot of earth. The earth, trodden upon by all, is the most humble of G-d’s creations. Abraham wants us to permit ourselves a dose of humility and acknowledge our failures, our neglect of Torah values.

The soul cannot impose humility from above. It must be stimulated from below. The arrogant must freely choose to surrender his arrogance and accept notions of humility.

In the same vein Abraham could not appropriate the land, but he could ask the Hittite to grant it. He even sweetened the deal with an offer of full compensation. Abraham offered to pay for the plot of humility in pure silver.

Shame and Yearning

The Hebrew word for silver is “Kesef.” In addition to the silver connotation, the word has two separate meanings. In Aramaic it means to be ashamed and in Hebrew it means to yearn.

Abraham informs our inner Hittite that in return for offering a little humility we will reap  rewards in silver, i.e. in shame and desire. When we permit ourselves a dose of objectivity, accept our failures and acknowledge that we have fallen we feel an abiding sense of shame, a shame that stirs the conscience, demands correction and stimulates action.

When the conscience is stirred, the soul begins to yearn. the inner sarah - innerstreamOnce we remove our resistance to acknowledging our shameful neglect of Torah values, we find ourselves yearning to return to them. This then was Abraham’s promise, “You give me humility and I’ll give you silver. I’ll provide the shame of sin and the resulting yearning for G-d.”

Four Hundred Coins

Our inner Hittite recoils from plans that demand action. He sees that Abraham is serious  so he bargains for maneuvering space. He takes a different track this time, the track of denial. He declares that the silver is unnecessary, but when Abraham insists that it is, the Hittite accepts, only he grumbles that it is insignificant. Four hundred coins. What is that between friends?

The Kabbalah refers to these coins as four hundred levels of desire for G-d. Our Hittite thus claims that Abraham is overstating the case by claiming that we have lost our connection with G-d. We are not as wicked Abraham makes us out to be.

“Four hundred levels of desire is a paltry sum between us,” says our Hittite. “We are spiritual giants who already yearn for G-d. We are way beyond the four hundred levels of yearning that Abraham demands.”

Abraham sees no further sense in negotiation. The Hittite will not compromise, so he commences a phase of action. He starts handing over silver coins, one by one. With this action he demonstrates that the work has not yet begun. The Hittite has yet to receive his first coin, his first level of desire, let alone four hundred levels of desire.

On the other hand, Abraham’s action also demonstrates that with firm commitment even the neglectful can make slow, but steady, progress. Every Jew, even one who has yet to embark on the first level of desire, is capable of reaching the highest summit and of acquiring all four hundred.

Footnotes

 

  • Ecclesiastics 7:20.
  • Genesis 23:1
  • See Rashi’s commentary, ibid. Torah teaches that Sarah was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years old. The Talmud questions why the Torah interposes the word “years” between each numeral when it should have mentioned this word only once. The Talmud concludes that these words reveal something about Sarah’s character. She was innocent and enthusiastic about G-d when she was twenty years old, as she was when she was a child of seven and she was meticulous and scrupulous in her observance when she was a hundred years old as she was she was twenty.
  • Zohar p.131a.
  • The Aramaic word “Nahat” means to descend. The name “Het,” which carries two of the three letters of the word “Nahat,” bears resemblance to it. In Hebrew the name Het is the root of the Hebrew word Hitat, which means fear. This may be an allusion to the military might of the ancient Hittites that the other nations feared.
  • This essay is based upon the commentary of Noam Elimelech on Genesis 23:14(Rabbi Elimelech of Lujzinsk 1717 – 1787).

 

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