If I were an Essene...Ya ha diya diya...: Chayei Sarah 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 10/28/2013 - 9:48am -- AJ Blog

Everything is anticipated and/yet permission is granted.

            ---Rabbi Akiva, Pirkei Avot 3:19


What does this mean? If everything is predetermined, how can we still have free will?  The rabbis have played with Rabbi Akiva’s paradox for centuries. Although our portion includes a great example of God’s will helping to cement a match for our Patriarch Isaac, I’d like to concentrate on the purchase of a burial ground for Sarah as an example of Abraham practicing an early version of Rabbi Akiva’s pithy philosophical paradox.  It’s worthwhile noting that in the wake of the discovery and study of the Dead Sea scrolls that Rabbi Akiva represented a middle ground in early Judaic philosophy.

The Essenes, the most likely candidates for the Kumran sect described in over a third of the documents found, were determinists, early Hebraic Calvinists. They felt that God’s will decided everything that has happened and will occur. Their calendar was a solar one of 364 days which, because it was divisible by 7, every Jewish holiday occurred on the same day of the week every year.

At the opposite end of the Jewish Sect Spectrum, the Sadducees believed that everything was determined by Free Will. Being the Priestly and largely wealthy class, they seem to have been the party of their time that felt they deserved their good fortune. Ironically, they were the ones who most 'deterministically' earned their well-being by being born into the right families. They also lost most of their status when the Temple was destroyed for the second time. 

Finally, the Pharisees -- the sect represented by Rabbi Akiva, flowered after the Temple was destroyed -- struck a middle ground. They were the Goldilocks of Jewish Sects.  So why in last week’s portion did Avraham bargain God down to 10 good people to avoid destroying Sedom and Amora but won't shave a shekel off the burial ground for his wife Sarah in this week’s portion?  As my brother, who owns a thriving business, told me once, 'No one pays list price!'  And yet, that's exactly what Avraham does in buying M'arat haMachpela the Machpela Cave in Hevron.

If Avraham were a Sadducee, he would have bargained for the land. He is free and can do what he wants, after all.  If Avraham were an Essene, he would have accepted the land as a gift as offered by the Hittites or he wouldn't have bothered and simply buried her in land he was currently occupying. After all, what was going to happen was in God's hands.

But Avraham is a truer ancestor of the Pharisees. When God tells him his descendants will inherit the land, Avraham's attitude is somewhat like Ronald Reagan's "Trust but Verify:"  He understands that God will come through with the promise but also that the nature of the Divine's relationship with Avraham and his descendants is one of partnership. Thus Avraham chose a public forum in which to make his claim and buy the land at full price so no one could ever challenge it.

I heard another kind of answer to the central question of the portion this past Thursday morning at the Louisville Orchestra’s coffee concert. Toward the end of the contemporary  Christopher Theofinides Rainbow Body, I could swear I heard the musicians shouting and wondered whether this was part of the piece or my imagination. As the conductor confirmed it WAS part of the piece. When Theofinides first wrote the piece, the musicians hailed it vocally and he decided to make it part of the piece. Similarly, and more familiar to most is the opening glissando of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Apparently Gershwin had written a simple scale but when the clarinetist improvised the glissando at rehearsal, the composer decided to make it a signature part of the composition.

Most music that stands the test of time has the characteristic of seeming inevitable. And yet, it couldn’t have been created without the many free will decisions and craft and learning of the composers who penned them. 

The life of the Jewish people is similar. There is a feeling of inevitability, as seen in the experience of Abraham’s servant when he goes to get a wife for Isaac from the ‘old country’ of Haran. God is clearly involved in making sure he finds the right match for our second patriarch, but the servant is the one who creates the 'test' whereby she is found.

Shabbat too is to be enjoyed as if everything that is going to happen will occur in God’s good time. In order to allow us that freedom, the preparation necessary involves a painstaking attention to detail. 

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp