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Parshas Chayei Sara (5775)

"IF"

Overheard conversation at a cocktail party in London:
Q. Do you like Yeats?
A. I don’t know, I’ve never tried any.
Q. Do you like Kipling?
A. I don’t know, I’ve never kippled.

If you’re as unsophisticated and unworldly as I am, you will likely have never “kippled” either. In which case I would like to share with you one of Rudyard Kipling’s finest offerings – a magnificent poem with a one-word title “If” – as it relates to this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Chayei Sarah:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my son!

As beautiful as this poem sounds, the cold hard truth is that all these “ifs” really don’t amount to much, so long as one has no ultimate meaning to his life. After all, why should one strive to “be a Man” by fulfilling all the virtues that are spelled out in this poem, if he believes that we are all just the products of some long-ago evolutionary accident?

Now it’s not very clear whether Kipling himself was a religious man. [He described himself in 1908 as “a G-d-fearing Christian atheist.”] Yet one thing is certain …. that the lofty ideals espoused by Kipling in his famous poem “If” are far more meaningful in a religious context, and have little or no significance for an atheist.

In a related insight, Rabbi Kalman Rosenbaum, former Principal of Torah Day School of Atlanta, shared with me the following idea: We know that the Hebrew word for life is chayim (spelled ches, yud, yud, mem). If you look at the words “life” and chayim together, you will see something amazing. The middle two letters of the word “life” are i and f, which together spell the word “if”. In contrast, the middle two letters of the Hebrew word chayim are yud and yud, which together comprise one of the Names of G-d (see the Rema in Yoreh Deiah 276:10).

A life without G-d and without ultimate meaning – explains Rabbi Rosenbaum – is filled with a bunch of “ifs”. If I die tomorrow and am gone forever. If i am just a random accident of nature. If there is any real point to my existence. If I made any difference in this world to anyone. If, if, if….and what kind of life is that? On the other hand, one who has chayim lives a life full of purpose and meaning because he has G-d in his life and an answer to all those “ifs”.

This week’s Torah portion starts out by telling us exactly how many years Abraham’s wife Sarah lived. Our matriarch Sarah, the very first Jewish woman in history, truly lived a life of chayim, a life in which every second was filled with G-dliness and spirituality and chesed (kindness to others). If anyone fulfilled all of Rudyard Kipling’s “ifs” it was Sarah. Yet those “ifs” were only meaningful because of the two yuds in the middle of her chayim, i.e. having G-d with her always as a rock of strength and an anchor of stability.

May we all be blessed with a life full of chayim.

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