Just As They Are Perfect, So Are Their Years Perfect
By: Rav Itamar Eldar
In parashat Chayyei Sara, the lives of both Avraham and Sara come to a close. At the beginning of the parasha, we part from Sara Imenu, and at the end of the parasha, Avraham is gathered to his people. Thus ends the first generation, the first story in the building of a nation that is in the process of construction. Being pioneers, Avraham and Sara are prototypes and models for future tzadikim and leaders of the nation.
THE TRAIT OF EQUANIMITY
"And Sara was a hundred…": "The Lord knows the days of the perfect, and their inheritance shall be forever" (Tehilim 37:18) – just as they are perfect, so are their years perfect. (Bereishit Rabba 58:1)
The Midrash speaks of the correlation between Sara's personality and her years. Just as Sara was perfect in her character, so too was she perfect in her years. The Midrash tries to draw a connection between the length of a person's life and the manner in which he lives that life. This connection may be understood in several ways.
It may be argued that a person's character has a decisive effect on his health and on his physical existence in this world. To the degree that a person lives a life of greater personal perfection, so his body functions in a more fitting manner, without deviating from its perfect, natural course.
Rav Kook describes the natural repentance of the body as part of the service of the soul in the physical expanse of the body. Thus, when the soul becomes perfect, so too the body and its functioning become perfect, and when the soul's perfection is lacking, it has a physical expression as well.
Understanding the midrash from an entirely different perspective, it may be argued that a person's years on earth are given to him as a gift from God in accordance with the manner in which he fulfills his role and mission in this world. The more perfect a person's character traits, intellect and conduct, the closer he comes to fulfilling the mission assigned to him, and thus the more essential it is that he be present in the world until his work has been completed. The moment a person renounces his mission and spoils the perfection of his life, his continued presence in this world becomes more and more unnecessary. As it is stated in Rav Hamnuna's prayer: "My God, before I was formed I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed it is as if I have not been formed" (Yoma 87b).
R. Yehuda Arye Leib of Gur, author of the Sefat Emet, tries to deepen the connection between a person's soul and the length of his life, and even to broaden the canvas beyond both of them:
The Midrash states: "Just as they are perfect, so are their years perfect." And Rashi explains: "'The years of Sara's life' – they were all equally good." This is the trait of equanimity mentioned in the book "Duties of the Heart." It is a great virtue that a person should stand firm in his perfection in all that passes over him. There is a trial for one who is poor, and a trial for one who is wealthy. Sara, in her early years, lived through various difficult periods – through hunger, through being taken by Par'o and Avimelekh. And in their later years, [Avraham and Sara] had all that is good, but nothing changed in her, despite all these changes. This is what the Mishna [means when is] says: "With ten trials was Avraham Avinu tried and he stood firm through all, to show how great was the love of Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace" (Avot 5:4). This means: his great love for the Holy One, blessed be He. All the winds in the world could not budge him from his place. He stood firm in his perfection, feeling nothing whatsoever of all that passed over him. Unlike ordinary mortals who undergo several changes every day, they never changed throughout their years. About them it says: "She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life" (Mishlei 31:12), despite all kinds of vicissitudes and trials, in poverty and in wealth. (Sefat Emet, Chayyei Sara, 5656)
R. Yehuda Arye Leib refers to the trait of equanimity mentioned by Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pekuda in his "Duties of the Heart." Rabbenu Bachya writes there as follows:
Says the Understanding: The ruling principle and sum of the matter is that you assume toward him who is above you all those obligations which you would desire should be assumed towards yourself by one beneath you – presupposing that relations in both cases are equal. What seems to you good and what displeases you as evil in the conduct of the latter, do and refrain from doing, towards the former.
Says the Soul: Be more explicit.
Says the Understanding: … run to do his service joyously and cheerfully and out of love, so as to find favor in his master's sight; strive to draw near in his behavior to his master's will; ever implore his master to be pleased with him, forgive him and love him; be apprehensive that he may be falling short in doing what he had been commanded; that he should heed the master's command, keep far from that against which the master had warned him, think of the many iniquities which he has committed in the past, appreciate the benefits he has received on account of their great number and importance and deprecate the value of what he has done in comparison with what he should have done; that he should regard his efforts as petty, compared with what he should have attempted. He should confess his own insignificance compared to the greatness of his master. He should bow to him frequently, in deep humility and lowliness. He should put his trust in his master for all his needs and be satisfied with whatever position his master assigns to him. If the master provides for him fully, he should thank and praise him. If the master leaves him hungry, he should accept his condition patiently. (Duties of the Heart, The Service of God, chap. 5)
Rabbenu Bachya puts into the mouth of Understanding – that which guides and directs the Soul - the manner in which a person should conduct himself in accordance with the trait of equanimity. This involves practicing great humility in relation to God, setting the service of God in the center of his religious consciousness, trusting in God, and acknowledging the rightness of God's actions in everything that happens to him.
Even though the Sefat Emet cites Rabbenu Bachya in connection with the trait of equanimity, it seems to me that in Chassidic thought in general and in the teachings of the Sefat Emet in particular, this trait embraces a far more sweeping outlook, such that all the actions described by Rabbenu Bachya are merely consequences of that outlook.
The Sefat Emet reviews the lives of Avraham and Sara, as they were described in the previous two parashot. They leave their home and homeland and move to a strange country. They try to resettle in their new country, but their stay is cut short by a famine that forces them to go down to Egypt. Sara is taken into the house of Par'o, and the lives of both Avraham and Sara are put in great danger. They return home with great assets and attempt once again to settle in the land. This time their settlement is cut short by a war that does not involve them, but Avraham is nevertheless dragged into. Barrenness leads at first to a maidservant behaving arrogantly to her mistress, and ends in the far from simple banishment of the maidservant's son – the son of Avraham. The story ends of course with the Akeida that we read about in the previous parasha, the ramifications of which upon Avraham and especially upon Sara have already been noted by the Midrash.
Dramatic changes and fluctuations like these have occurred throughout the generations and continue to occur to this very day. Jewish life in this world is not easy. But what is novel in Avraham and Sara is the way they relate to all these changes. As for Sara - "but nothing changed in her, despite all these changes." And as for Avraham – "all the winds in the world could not budge him from his place. He stood firm in his perfection, feeling nothing whatsoever of all that passed over him."
This behavior is liable to be interpreted as reflecting indifference, and perhaps even apathy. How can a person experience such dramatic changes and feel nothing whatsoever with regard to what has passed over him?
The Sefat Emet seems to go far beyond acknowledging the rightness of God's actions in everything that happens to a person and accepting afflictions with love. The author of "Duties of the Heart" speaks of expressing gratitude for the good and accepting the bad with love. The Sefat Emet, however, describes a psychological state in which a person does not experience agony when troubles befall him, nor does he feel exhilaration and joy in times of relief and success. Such a person does not have to express gratitude for the good and accept with love the evil, for there arises within him neither the excitement of success nor the depression of failure. Thus we find also in the ethical will of the Ba'al Shem Tov:
"I have set (shiviti) the Lord always before me" (Tehilim 16:8). Shiviti in the sense ofhishtavut, "equanimity." Whatever the occasion, it is all the same to him, whether people are praising him or they are humiliating him, and so too in all matters. And similarly with everything he eats, whether he is eating delicacies, or he is eating other things, it is all the same to him, since the evil yetzer is entirely removed from him. Whatever happens to him, he says, "Surely this comes from Him, blessed be He, and if in Your eyes it is fitting, etc." His every intention is for the sake of Heaven, but from his perspective, it makes no difference. This is a very high level. (Tzava'at ha-Rivash, 2)
The Ba'al Shem Tov describes the preparation necessary for this psychological state: "Since the evil yetzer is entirely removed from him." In the continuation of the aforementioned teaching, the Sefat Emet also tries to explain the spiritual foundation that fashions the trait of equanimity.
He said: "Just as they are perfect, so their years [are perfect]." For they are above time. As they said: "I arouse the morning, but the morning does not arouse me." For while every day there is renewal and new illumination, the one is unlike the other. Thus, every day and every year is different, for better or for worse. The righteous, however, are above time, and they bring perfection in time as well. This is what it says: "Happy are you, O land, when your king is free" (Kohelet 10:17) – this is the freedom to leave nature and time. "They dine in due season" (ibid.) – this is a fixed time for them. "Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, dining in the morning" (ibid., v. 16) – this is living in time. Thus, they experience changes in accordance with the changes in the day and year. The essence of perfection is to cleave to the Shoresh Elyon, ("Supreme Source"), as it is written: "You shall be perfect with the Lord your God" (Devarim 18:13) – for everything below has a source above. And when the part that is below cleaves to its source it is perfect and whole. This is the objective of man's service, to cleave to the Shoresh Elyon. (Sefat Emet, Chayyei Sara, 5656)
Those who are perfect, asserts the Sefat Emet, are "above time." Later in this teaching, and as we shall see also in another teaching, he explains that they act upon time, but time does not act upon them. As he puts it: "I arouse the morning, but the morning does not arouse me."
The world is constantly changing; when a person looks out upon the world, he sees infinite dynamism, and even recites a blessing over it, "who renews the work of creation every day, constantly." This dynamism is what provides man with the perspective of time. The world is defined in terms of days, years, and dates. Our power of discrimination is connected to time. Yesterday I was happy, today I am sad. Yesterday I was high and elevated, today I am low. Yesterday I was ill, today I am well. We are able to distinguish between different states because they lie on different points along the time line.
One who is cut off from time loses his power of discrimination. A psychological state of this sort could perhaps be defined as an illness, but the Sefat Emet prefers to speak of a free man who succeeds in liberating himself from the chains of time and viewing the world from a perspective that is above time. The way to do this, asserts the Sefat Emet, is to cleave to theShoresh Elyon, the "Supreme Source."
WORLD, YEAR SOUL
Before we consider the deeper meaning of the concept of Shoresh Elyon, let us first try to better understand the idea of time and its relation to the finite world, by way of another teaching of the Sefat Emet that deals with the same midrash:
The Midrash states: "'The Lord knows the days of the perfect' (Tehilim 37:18) – just as they are perfect, so are their years perfect." For the only vessel that can contain a blessing is peace. Therefore it is written: "And the Lord blessed Avraham with everything" (Bereishit24:1). And the Midrash states: "Avraham blessed everything. And who blessed him? The Holy One, blessed be He." Because he contained everything, therefore God's blessing rested upon him. Now, there exist the aspects of world [olam], year [shana], and soul [nefesh], which embrace all of creation. For we find that the light of creation illuminated from one end of the world to the other, but the Holy One, blessed be He, concealed it. Therefore ashan [= olam, shana, nefesh] are vessels for the revelation of the light that was hidden by way of the contraction of ashan. Every day has a unique illumination, and so too every soul, and so too every place. And there is a time that embraces all times, i.e., theShabbat of peace and every Yom Tov, which contain a blessing from the hidden light. And similarly regarding the soul, the tzadik is called "all" and "peace." And as for place, the Temple, for there God commanded the blessing. Now there are souls that require assistance from the time and place. And there are souls that illuminate the time and place. As we find: "I arouse the morning, but the morning does not arouse me." And just as they are perfect and have the aspect of wholeness, so too they perfect their years and places. As we find: "As long as a tzadik is in a city, he is its glory and splendor." Therefore theMidrash states that Esther was queen over a hundred and twenty seven countries, just as Sara lived a hundred and twenty seven years, for it is all the same repair of time and place. Since the lives of the tzadikim are above time, their inheritance shall be forever. As so it is written: "the years of the life of Sara," implying that the illumination of these years exists even now, because they are above time, similar to the light that illuminates from one end of the world to the other. (Sefat Emet, Chayyei Sara, 5658)
The Sefat Emet refers to the light of creation mentioned by the Midrash:
R. Yitzchak bar Simon said: That light with which the world was created – the first man stood and looked with it from one end of the world to the other. When the Holy One, blessed be He, saw the deeds of the generation of Enosh, and the deeds of the generation of the flood, and the deeds of the generation of the dispersion, that they are corrupt, He stood up and concealed it from them, as it is written: "And from the wicked their light is withheld" (Iyyov 38:15). Why did He conceal it? He concealed it for the tzadikim in the future, as it is stated: "And God saw the light, that it was good" (Bereishit 1:4). (Bereishit Rabba 12:6)
The light of creation is an expression of a spiritual ideal that cannot exist in a world in which there is free choice that at times gives rise to evil. This light is set aside for a "perfect" world, all of whose inhabitants are perfect – namely, the righteous in the future, about whom themidrash is speaking.
To a certain degree, however, the Sefat Emet offers his own interpretation to the words of the Midrash. The light, according to the Sefat Emet, was not put away permanently but only concealed. The "future" is not the end of days, but each and every moment that is still to pass over us. The tzadikim under discussion are not the tzadikim of the world-to-come, but rather thetzadikim found in the here and now.
The Sefat Emet first explains the nature of the "geniza" referred to by the Midrash. For this purpose, he makes use of the well-known kabbalistic concept: ashan – the initial letters of the words olam [world], shana [year] and nefesh [soul]. In kabbalistic thought, these three concepts constitute the three dimensions that shape the finite world. Olam – the place where the world is conducted; shana – the time along whose axis the world is managed; and nefesh – the essences, the people, the souls that invigorate the world and drive it along to its end.
What is common to all three dimensions is the idea of limits: place is limited, time is limited, and each individual is limited by his own individuality.
This is the reality that allows for discrimination, as we mentioned above: here is not there, today is not yesterday, and I am not you.
To use the formulation of the Sefat Emet, these are the vessels in which the light was concealed and in which that light has disappeared. We no longer encounter the light, but only the garments that cover and conceal it.
We do not see the light, and most of us contemplate the world by way of its three dimensions: place, time, and person. In this sense, asserts the Sefat Emet, the "geniza" is more correctly "hastara," "concealment," for we are dealing with light that is found here and now, just that it is covered and hidden from sight.
Regarding each one of these three dimensions, asserts the Sefat Emet, there exists a slit through which the concealed light is visible. When this slit comes into the world, each of the dimensions loses its particularity and assumes an all-embracing nature.
The Holy of Holies is not a particular place on the map of the "olam," but rather it embraces all places.
Shabbat is not a particular moment on the timeline of the world of "shana," but rather it includes within it all times.
And the tzadik is not a particular essence in the world of "nefesh," but rather he embraces within him all souls.
This quality stems from the fact that these three – the Holy of Holies, the Shabbat and thetzadik - are expressions of the concealed light in the dimensions of place, time, and person. Thus, they are not bound by the limitations of these dimensions, but rather they give expression to the infinity hidden and concealed within them.
From here stems also another quality that characterizes these three as opposed to all the other places, times and souls.
The vessels and limits that characterize the three dimensions of ashan are of a passive nature. A vessel "contains blessing," bearing the blessing within it and waiting for its appearance. Light, on the other hand, is active in nature; it gives, influences, and fashions.
The Shabbat, the tzadik, and the site of the Temple constitute a source of nourishment for all times, all people, and all places. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes in similar fashion:
We must always appreciate the lights of holiness that shine in a particular point, how they spread in concealment throughout the expanse, proceeding along hidden paths and secret streams, until they become revealed in that illuminating point.
The sanctity of man found in a Jew is hidden in every man, in all of humanity, deeply hidden, and it streams forward, by way of various paths that are deep, complicated, and concealed, until they reach the revelation of illumination in the soul of Israel.
The sanctity of place fills the entire world, but it is concealed and hidden. The torrents of holiness that are hiding and striving to reach the place of their revelation proceed until they reach revelation in the land of Israel, the head of the soil of the world, and from there to the point of holiness, the Temple, the foundation stone. Out of Tziyyon, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth.
The sanctity of time spreads across the entire length of time. Blessed is the Lord every day. The rays of the lights of holiness radiate in a concealed manner until they reach expression and revelation in the sanctified times, in the sanctity of Shabbat, the first of the holy assemblies, having innate sanctity, which bestows sanctity upon the world and upon Israel, and in the sanctity of the festival days, which receive the profusion of sanctity by way of Israel who sanctify the times. (Orot ha-Kodesh, II, p. 305)
Rav Kook also speaks of the concealment of holiness, and he too may be alluding to the same concealed light and to the same light that spreads from the center to the entire expanse. This light has a source and from there it pours forth. Thus, Shabbat appears as an original sanctity in the expanse of time, as opposed to the festival days that receive the profusion of sanctity and give expression to the expansion of holiness and light.
This fundamental distinction between that which pours forth and that which receives is exceedingly important, appearing in the teachings of both Rav Kook and the Sefat Emet. For theSefat Emet, the tzadik who gives expression to the essence of the light is bound neither by place, nor by time, nor even by his own person, each of which he can breach and then influence. Once again the Sefat Emet cites the rabbinic formulation: "I arouse the morning, but the morning does not arouse me." The tzadik fashions time from within it. He establishes the nature of the place while he is in its midst: "When the tzadik leaves [a city], its splendor leaves." He establishes and perfects all the souls resting in his shade.
The tzadik and the tzadeket, concludes the Sefat Emet, have no private lives, and therefore the years of their lives illuminate all times and all years. The tzadikim are the light that God concealed in the expanses of time, place, and person. Their lives are the source of inspiration and nourishment for all periods, for all places, and for all people.
REFLECTION ABOVE TIME, PLACE AND PERSON
Let us now return to the quality of equanimity discussed by the Sefat Emet in the first passage. It too follows from the same idea – the fact that the tzadik lives above time.
Cleaving to the Supreme Source of reality, which, according to the Sefat Emet, is a condition for attaining the quality of equanimity, is the tzadik's ability to join himself to the concealed light. To turn from one who receives the profusion to one who pours it forth. The "perspective" of the root that pours forth is not the same as the "perspective" of the branch that receives. Equanimity is the recognition that place, time, and even person are merely garments that clothe the source of reality, the concealed light that pours forth upon all the worlds.
This is true both on the experiential level and on the cognitive level.
On the experiential level, the moment that the tzadik cleaves to the supreme light, his mind is diverted from the transient events connected to his particular circumstances; his entire being engages in communion that is not bothered by those circumstances. This may be compared to a person who reunites with his beloved after many years of separation. They join in an embrace, failing to notice the rain that is falling all around them, the sun beating down upon them, the car honking at them, or even the siren that is blasting right next to them. The recognition that the supreme light may be found in every finite thing and reality and that the ability exists to touch this light turns the path to this light into something arbitrary. It is no longer important whether it is an obstacle course or the king's way, for what we long for is the encounter.
This is also true on the cognitive level. From the moment that the tzadik understands that the entire world is proceeding step by step along the path to revealing the hidden light, to understanding the meaning of the world, to unifying all the particulars into one all-embracing process, that of uncovering the name of God in the world - good and evil regarding the manifest world turns into a matter that is visible only "from our perspective," to those of us who look upon the world through the spectacles of the finite dimensions. From the perspective of eternity, which does not bind itself to a particular segment along the time line, we are talking about another very small section of a long road that paves the way to the mountain of God. Thus, a particular relationship – positive or negative – to a particular reality becomes arbitrary and hopeless.
It would seem that the state of equanimity should give rise to indifference and alienation from the material world around us. A person who reaches such a state must be severed from the world in which he lives. But in light of what has been said above, it may not be necessary to view things in this manner.
The tzadik who fails to rejoice over his riches or grieve over his poverty does not ignore reality. Rather, he exposes God's manner of conducting the world that is hidden in that reality. This is what the Sefat Emet wrote about this midrash in a different year:
The Midrash states: "'The Lord knows the days of the perfect' (Tehilim 37:18) – just as they are perfect, so are their years perfect." For the tzadikim are above time and nature. As [the Sages] have stated that when a tzadik is in a city, he is its glory and splendor, so too regarding time. For surely the Holy One, blessed be He, renews the work of creation every day. And the renewal of the days correlates with the people of the generation, as it is written: "Do not say that the former days were better than these, etc." (Kohelet 7:10). And Rashi explains that the days are good according to the merits of the generation (see there). This is the meaning of "just as they are perfect, etc." For the essence of perfection is cleaving to the source that is above nature, as it is written: "You shall be perfect with the Lord your God. For these nations… to soothsayers." (Devarim 18:13-14) – this time is good, etc. For their wisdom is in time and in nature. And certainly there is wisdom found in the creation. But "the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. A prophet from your midst, etc." (ibid. vv. 14-15). For the people of Israel were created in order to rise above nature and clarify and testify that the Holy One, blessed be He, leads the world and nature and time, as it is written: "Your are My witnesses and I am God." And Chazal say: "When you are My witnesses, I am God." This means: The Holy One, blessed be He, created the world so that man should have free choice. To the degree that the people of Israel testify and clarify the power of His leadership, blessed be He, so does the power of His leadership become revealed in the world. Therefore Shabbat is called testimony. Through it, all of nature rises and the illumination of the extra soul becomes revealed in the world. (Sefat Emet, Chayyei Sara, 5649)
The laws of nature are the rules according to which the dimensions discussed above – place, time and person – operate. Wisdom on this level provides man with a limited perspective, which is merely the garment clothing the manner in which God leads the world.
A person can see the shining sun and speak of cosmological and astronomical processes. A person can look at a flower that has just began to blossom and speak of biological processes. The common denominator here, in the words of the Sefat Emet, is that "their wisdom is in time and in nature."
There is, however, a perspective that disregards the cosmological, biological, chemical, and physical dimensions. Each of these disciplines has adopted time, place and person as the basis for understanding. Disregarding these dimensions does not imply indifference to the natural world. A person who ignores the scientific aspects of the world does not necessarily reduce the dialogue that he conducts with it. Such a person exposes the power of God's leadership of the world which is the aspect of the illumination of the extra soul in the world.
This is an "egalitarian" perspective that does not allow the illusion of place, time and person to divert attention from the soul.
This applies when reflecting upon man. One's aspiration should be to see his soul, not his garments, deeds, or behavior.
The same applies when reflecting upon sunrise. One should aspire to see the hidden Divine appearance that is concealed and clothed in the laws that revolve around it.
And the same applies when reflecting upon anything that happens to a person. The ability to look inwards to his essence and source provides a person with the amazing freedom to free himself from the chains of time and place, and sometimes even the chains of the person himself, locked in the pillory of education, heredity and culture.
The good and evil that characterize every event always follow from the limiting and confining perspective upon the world. Even from this perspective, we sometimes succeed in lifting up our heads and looking a bit down the time line itself, and our judgment changes regarding whether a particular deed is good or evil. This teaches us that good and evil belong to the restricted world of the dimensions of ashan. The recognition that everything is from God and that all revelations are merely expressions of all-embracing Divine leadership and Divine action, cancels the limited value of that event, and it becomes in its entirety God's leadership and nothing else. All the rest belongs already to the world of limitations and contraction.
From the time that a person succeeds in seeing things in this manner, he changes from one who receives into one who pours forth. The world no longer impacts upon him, but rather he impacts upon it. He exposes its light, he provides it with direction, and he guides those who follow in his footsteps toward the destination lying beyond the ashan that conceals and covers the great light.
This is perfect life – not seeing only part of the picture. This is the perfection about which the Sefat Emet speaks, the perfection that expresses itself in the ability to survey the world from beginning to end, and thus to fashion it.
Such were the lives of Avraham and Sara. It is from the hundred and seventy five years of Avraham and the hundred and twenty seven years of Sara that we derive our nourishment to this very day.
 R. Yisra'el Ba'al Shem Tov, the Besht (1700-1770), son of R. Eliezer and Sara. Born on the 18th of Elul and died on the 7th of Sivan. The Besht was the founder of Chassidut. The Besht himself did not write anything, but various Chassidic works are replete with sayings reported in his name. Shivchei ha-Besht is a collection of stories that describe his life. Tzava'at ha-Besht is a collection of selected sayings reported in his name. Many of his statements are found in the basic Chassidic texts (Degel Machane Efrayim, Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, and others). A volume entitled "Ba'al Shem Tov al ha-Torah u-Mo'adim" was recently published, which collects selected sayings of the Besht found in the various Chassidic texts, arranged in the order of the weekly Torah readings and the holidays.
 Almost every year that the Sefat Emet said Torah, he related to this midrash from one of its various angles. Juxtaposing the various teachings dealing with this midrash, one alongside the other, provides us with a fuller and more complex picture.
 In Greek philosophy, we find a distinction, slightly reminiscent of this distinction, between the active and passive intellects.
 In many places in the teachings of R. Nachman of Breslov, the tzadik is likened to a tree or a root, and the entire world to branches.
(Translated by David Strauss)