- Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.
Avivah Zornberg, in her wondrous book The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, zeroes in precisely on the existentialist interpretation of the Bible that I have been discussing recently. Her discussion of this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is a jarring example.
The name of the Torah portion is ironic. Chayei Sarah, "the life of Sarah", begins with her death. Though the death of Sarah begins a new Torah portion, the story of her death and burial comes immediately after the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. The Midrash (ancient rabbis seeking out the deeper meanings of the Torah), saw the two events as connected. Sarah died because of the Akeidah.
How so? The Midrash, a vast library of rabbinic interpretation, has three different narratives in different books. One tradition holds that Satan, frustrated that Abraham did not actually kill Isaac, comes and tells Sarah that her son was, indeed, murdered by his father. Another tradition holds that Satan actually came and told her exactly what happened - Abraham intended to kill his son, but was stopped by an angel. Another tradition says that Satan impersonated Isaac, coming to tell his mother what her husband had just done. In each case, Sarah is struck dead.
Struck by what? Most interpreters assume grief. That answer, however, seems only to make sense if Sarah is informed that Isaac is dead. That Sarah should die even when told that Isaac lived through the gut wrenching and mind bending horror seems odd. Zornberg finds those narratives, that Sarah dies even when told that Isaac lived, to be a key to the deeper terrain of the story, the existentialist terrain.
Let's remember the concerns of existentialism - a mode of thinking, not really a philosophic school. Existentialism rises out of the human encounter with the dizzying contemplation of our existence, especially our non-existence. Perhaps you can remember coming face to face with the idea that the world could exist without you. "What if my parents had never met? I wouldn't be here. And the world would churn along without me."
Even if we suppose that it is true, that each of our lives are meaningful, not only to us, but to the Divine, we each, nevertheless, can have flashes of the darkness of non-existence.
That flash of non-existence generates a cascade of thoughts and feelings, if one allows oneself to stay in that moment. I don't recommend staying in that moment. But some of us can get trapped there. Existentialist thought describes that moment as "vertigo" - a dizzying, perhaps nauseous moment, when meaninglessness permeates our being.
That moment of vertigo can claim us when existence itself becomes devoid of meaning. In Sarah's case, to square reality with the fact of a God who would command her husband to murder her child was too much. What does it mean that this God, who called her and her husband out of their homeland, who dragged them from one trial into a new tribulation with the promise that some blessing awaits at the end - what can it mean that that was all a lie? She thinks, perhaps, "I have not been living a lie. I have been living in truth to a lie that I could not possibly imagine." Life's meaning was shattered. There would be no blessing. And even if not a murder, then some horrible, twisted game.
The vertigo, that nothing is what is seems, that the "seemingness" of the world hides a reality too horrible to contemplate, can strike us dead. Perhaps not literally. Perhaps this narrative shapes an archetype of that moment that leads to a spiritual death, a deep depression, a path to asking the question "to be, or not to be." "Not being" can seem to be the only real authentic answer.
"Life has not turned out my way. Not only did I not achieve what I wanted, it was not achievable to begin with. The whole structure was just a façade" - this is the existentialist crisis.
Isaac does not die. Sarah does.
Is that the answer?
No, and here is why. To choose "not to be" is to give too much meaning to the vertigo. The vertigo arrives because the world is not what I thought.
In a phrase: so what? So what that existence did not line up with what I thought? I am not God, especially if there is no God.
There is "no exit", no authentic exit, from encountering the meaninglessness of existence.
Now one sees the world as it is. The answer is courage, not death, the "courage to be."
Courageously standing up to the void of meaninglessness opens within us a door to a reality unconceivable, indescribable to anyone who has not stood up to the void.
One does not find an exit, one finds an entrance.