Last winter, I took a trip with my son Shaya to Phoenix to visit a Yeshiva. It was a short day and a half trip with little time to do all we needed to accomplish. Our flight was delayed and when we arrived, we were delayed at the car rental place for an extra hour and a half.
Trying to find my way that night driving in an unfamiliar city, I got an urgent message from Rabbi Kalman Packouz, a rabbi from Miami, who was raised in Portland Oregon. His mother had just passed away, and he was in need of help. Because I was feeling a bit frantic in my travels, I felt stressed by the prospect of helping him out.
I calmed down and assured myself that I was only feeling anxious because my travel plans had gotten messed around. Anyway, it was my duty to help. I made a phone call or two and we were able to help him get set up for Shabbos. My wife and I hosted him and his family for Shabbos lunch.
I saw Rabbi Packouz many times over the years in the Shul, but never truly appreciated who he was before that weekend that we spent together. He was incredibly kind and sent a lovely note and a donation to the Shul following his days of Shiva. I wrote him back, thinking that it was the beginning of a friendship.
A few months ago, I heard the news that he had liver cancer. I sent a donation and a card from the rabbi’s fund to help out Aish Miami in his honor. This past week, I heard the news that Rabbi Pacouz passed away.
An amazing thought occurred to me. When Rabbi Packouz called me in Phoenix, my initial reaction was to feel stress because I had so much going in the moment. In reality, this call was a brief opportunity to do a Chesed. I took it for granted. Little did I know that the window to do Chesed for this person would be short lived.
Tent of Sarah
In Sefer Bereishis, human life takes on a large dimension. It is a dimension that outlives our physical lives. That dimension can be understood as legacy. It is fascinating that the name of our Parsha is “Chayei Sarah”.
Chayei Sarah—the lives of Sarah—begins with the passing of our first matriarch. Though she lived for many years, her life was in large part what came after her physical travel in this world. That is a foundational message of the Torah.
The Parsha teaches us that when Yitzchak married Rivka, he took his new wife into the tent of Sarah, and Yitzchak was comforted after the loss of his mother. What does this mean that Yitzchak took Rivka into the tent of Sarah? Was Sarah’s tent left standing after her death, in anticipation of a new wife entering the family? According to the Ramban, in fact, this was the literal tent of Sarah that was held in honor of the matriarch.
“She was Sarah”
Rashi seems to add an additional dimension to this. A bigger idea is that there is a “tent of Sarah”, that is a spiritual realm that she developed in this first Jewish home. Rashi writes:
And he brought her into the tent and she became as Sarah his mother, that is to say, she was Sarah.(Rashi, Gen. 24, 67)
Rashi goes on to describe the various blessings that came about in the tent as a result of Sarah’s accomplishments. There was the blessing of the candle, the Chalah and the cloud of G-d’s presence.
Now that Yitzhak married Rivka, he may well have taken her into his mother’s tent. But on a deeper level, Rivka became Sarah as she reintroduced these three blessings. She carried on the legacy that was Sarah’s tent. That legacy was a place in this world that is enwrapped in the presence of G-d. We still have that blessing in Shabbos candles, Challah and family purity.
So a deeper aspect of this was that there was a “tent of Sarah.” It wasn’t just a nice tarp from Dick’s Sporting Goods. It was a place, a spiritual creation that Sarah achieved during her 127 years on earth.
But in addition to building that in her own lifetime, Sarah actually created the potential for others to carry her legacy forward. When Yitzchak married Rivka, he took her into his mother’s tent and his new wife stood in the place of Sarah.
The Human Dimension
When you look at a human being, you could think that we are similar to animal life. Like the animal world, we struggle to find the resources we need to survive for the extent of our lifetime. We live on a much more sophisticated level. Instead of nests and dens, we have houses and apartments.
Yet, when human life is seen as a limited period of physical surviving, there is not so much difference between human and animal life. But the Torah focuses a lot on the idea that after our physical life we have a legacy. Something about us continues on in the world past our years. This part of us is very different than the animal world.
Not only does the Torah see a soul that lives on past this world. We make an indelible imprint upon the world. We create a spiritual place, a time of connection. It is something that can live on, and that can be our legacy.
Moments of Chesed
A telling moment of Jewish history is that when Avraham seeks a daughter-in-law, the woman performs an act Chesed is been “proven” to be the right person. Chesed was the pivotal trait for the Jewish home.
One of the things I learned about Rabbi Packouz after he passed away was that he was a profound Baal Chesed. He raised tens of millions of dollars to spearhead programs the connect Jews around the world to their heritage.
He was one of the early innovators of using technology to disseminate Torah. This began with a weekly fax to 50 fax recipients in 1992. This effort grew to a mass email that reached tens of thousands of people. Not only did his words of Torah reach people, but he was one of the early innovators of using technology for this purpose.
When his family came to my house on that weekend, I said to myself, thank G-d, I am in a position of hosting someone and it is not just a nice social experience. This family really needs a place to be while mourning for his mother.
The beautiful thing was that I felt that this was an act of a Mitzvah that I was connecting to. I still feel that I am carrying that Mitzvah with me. Though he is no longer with us, I still am connected to him. That is the power of a Mitzvah. It is something that we do that outlives and outlasts the moment that we are in.
Likewise, when Sarah passed away, the spiritual place that she built was still standing. The Jewish home still endures today. Our society gives us a message that fame and lots likes make an act significant. Perhaps we should not measure an action by the number of likes, but by its duration. A Mitzvah is noble. It stays with us, even after we go.
May we seek out those actions that we can perform, those acts of Chesed we take for granted. Their opportunity is short and fleeting. We could easily miss them in the stress or busyness of a moment. Through these actions, we build something in ourselves and in our world. Something that can never be taken away.