The parsha this week is Haye Sarah, the life of Sarah. In fact, the topic of the Torah reading is the death and burial of our matriarch Sarah. The text begins with the words:
“Va-yihiyu chayay Sarah maah shana v’esrim shana v’sheva shanim shnai chayey Sarah” – “The span of Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred and twenty and seven years.” Commenting upon the unusual wording to express the age of Sarah at her death, the Rabbis suggest that the reason for this was that Sarah’s years were truly filled with life.
“Va-yihiyu chayey Yitzhak Rabin shivim shana v’shalosh shanim shnai chayey Yitzhak.” “The span of Yitzhak Rabin’s lifetime was seventy and three years.” We recently observed the yahrzeit of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, our martyred leader, whose years were also truly filled with life. Unlike Sarah, who at the end of a long life died of natural causes, Rabin was taken from us not by God but by a murderer; not in old age but in the prime of his life; not by the lung cancer that many friends feared would one day strike this chain smoker; not by the hand of an Arab terrorist, but by the cancer of the soul that Jewish tradition calls sinat chinam, baseless hatred.
In my sermons and columns I have spoken often of the danger of sinat chinam. The assassination of Rabin – for whom I was privileged to work from 1982 to 1983 – by a fellow Israeli, Yigal Amir, is for modern Jews the tragic definition of the societal cancer. Amir seems to have felt that he was doing a mitzvah – that Rabin’s policy of seeking peace with the Palestinians represented a danger to the Jewish People and the State of Israel and thus it was right to murder him.
Last week at Fort Hood, Texas, an American soldier opened fire on unarmed fellow soldiers as he alledgly screamed “Allah Akbar,” “God is Great.” Maj. Nidal Hasan, like Yigal Amir 14 years ago, seems to have felt that he had the right and responsibility to express his disagreement with his government’s policies by killing others.
The lesson of these two tragedies is tied to the story of the death of Sarah by the simple truth that blind fundamentalism, whether it be expressed by Jews, Christians, or Muslims, is antithetical to the biblical text upon which all three Abrahamic faiths claim their religion is based. Sarah’s death immediately follows the aborted sacrifice of Isaac. Our tradition suggests that Sarah died from the shock of hearing that her husband had taken her son out of the family compound to sacrifice him upon the altar of his blind faith. After the Akeda, the binding of Isaac recorded in the last chapter of last week’s Torah portion, God never again speaks to Abraham, and Sarah dies in the very next chapter, with which our Torah reading this week begins.
Sinat chinam – which is best translated into English as the hatred of Jews for their fellow Jews with whom they have a philosophical, religious, or political difference – lies at the root of some of Judaism’s greatest disasters. Conversely, when we have acted as a result of reaching a broad consensus, we have accomplished miracles, such as the establishment of the State of Israel, the exodus of Soviet Jewry, and the immigration and absorption of Ethiopian Jewry.
The same is true for us as Americans. When hatred of others has prevailed, we Americans have failed. When we choose to respectfully disagree politically and even religiously, our nation has been strengthened by partisan give-and-take. Hasan’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was legitimate. As an American he had a right to oppose the war; as a soldier he had a right to refuse to serve, though that would have come with consequences. What he had no right to do is to murder others.
On this the 14th anniversary of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and during this week of mourning for the soldiers of Fort Hood, we are again poignantly reminded that hatred emanating out of blind fundamentalism stands today as the No. 1 threat to Jewish continuity, and the No. 1 threat to the survival of America.
The Rabbis comment that Sarah’s age is expressed as 100 years 20 years and 7 years to signify that she lived every year of her life to the best of her ability. Conversely, Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, and Nidal Hasan, the accused murderer of our soldiers at Fort Hood last week, chose to try to change history through violence justified by a perversion of their faith. The lesson of the deaths of the soldiers of Fort Hood and of Israel’s greatest soldier is that we cannot stand passively while people teach hate in the name of God. The true believers are not the Muslim, Christian, or Jewish fundamentalists who proclaim that God has ordered them to kill in His name but rather those who hear the commanding voice of God as expressed by the Prophet Micah: What is it that God asks of us? Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.