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Chaye Sarah

04/06/2015 07:00:00 AM


Chaye Sarah
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Who was the first Jew? All of us learned in Sunday school that the first Jew was Abraham. It was our father Abraham who detected the presence of the one true God and championed monotheism in a pagan world. It was with Abraham that God established the Covenant, defining our identity, our mission, and our destiny. All that's true. But the first Jew wasn't Abraham. The first Jew was his son Isaac.

In Jewish prayer, we address God with the expression, "elohaynu v'elohay avotaynu -- our God and God of our ancestors." We recite these words easily, oblivious to the dynamic tension buried in the phrase: Is my God the same as the God of my ancestors? What of my faith is received and what is discovered? What is of tradition, and what is my own?

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was asked why the Amidah, the central prayer of the daily services, begins with the triple iteration: "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob." Why not just say: "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?" He answered: The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God of Isaac was not the God of Abraham. Each grasped God in his own way. Each offered the world his own unique testimony of God. There is a constant need in Judaism for the individual, for the new, for the revolutionary. The personal religious adventure -- the individual's search for God -- is the very life-force of faith. Without it, our religion stagnates and dies. This is the radicalism of the Baal Shem Tov's teaching.

But the same Baal Shem Tov woke each morning, donned his tallis, wound his tefillin, and recited this prayer, just as his ancestors had done. In so doing, he affirmed his spiritual continuity with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the generations of Israel down to his own. The personal religious quest brings energy, life, creativity and renewal. The loyalty to Tradition offers wisdom, depth, and the words and symbols in which we share and shape our religious lives. We need them both. Denying a place for personal spiritual seeking leaves us stagnant. Cutting off tradition leaves us with a terrible sense of weightlessness and a painful hunger for authenticity. In my most significant moments, I crave a wisdom older and deeper than my few years on this planet.

Responding to this hunger, so many of our contemporaries seem to patch together their own eclectic religious expression -- mixing a little Native American mythology, a little Buddhist meditation, a little Christian morality, a little Sufi passion into the Shabbos challah. In the end, they will find the mixture tasteless and unsatisfying, because it transcends neither the self nor the now. There is no nourishment in spiritual noshing.

The spiritual dynamic of Judaism embraces the personal religious quest while at the same time affirming loyalty to the continuity of our historical tradition. It is a dialectic fraught with conflict and tension. But in this tension is the secret of Judaism's spiritual vitality and its survival. And its father is Isaac.

Isaac, not Abraham, is the first Jew. For Isaac is the first to know the tension between "my God" and "the God of my father". He is the first to know the struggle between the faith of his father and the truth of his own religious experience. He is the first to know that we must do more than simply receive, affirm and repeat tradition. We must make tradition our own. We must find a place for its wisdom in our own life situation, express its truth in our own idiom, remake its symbols to speak to our own souls, but never lose its message and its meaning. Our father Isaac was the first to know the challenge of receiving tradition and passing it on to those after him. And he was the first to stay up nights worrying about whether he'd have Jewish grandchildren. Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah was the first Jew.


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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780