Weekly Torah: Chayei Sarah

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giving-food-kindnessLove and Kindness Save the World (2016/5777)

The world’s continued existence rests on three pillars: Torah study, worship of God, and acts of loving kindness. — Pirkei Avot (Foundational Principles of Jewish Ethics, c. 200 CE) 1:2

Each pillar honours the legacy of a Biblical hero. Moshe channeled the Torah. Aharon implemented formal rituals of worship. Avraham passed on a legacy of loving kindness. The Talmud names some of their female disciples, e.g. Beruriah the scholar; Martha the mother of high priests; Imma Shalom, always rushing to feed the hungry.

This week’s Torah establishes “loving kindness” as Avraham’s legacy. Avraham instructs Eliezer to travel to Avraham’s home town, seek out Avraham’s family, and bring home a young cousin for Avraham’s son Yitzchak to marry. But Avraham offers no information on the qualities he wishes for in a daughter-in-law. So, Eliezer decides.

“God,” he prays, “I will know you have acted with loving kindness towards Avraham if, upon my arrival, you send a young woman who offers water to me and to my camels.” Rivkah appears, pouring out loving kindness like water. Eliezer recognizes in her actions the divine quality he prayed for.

Recently I attended an interfaith forum on love. Speakers represented ten faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Indigenous Canadian, Bahai, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Scientology. We spoke on all facets of love, ranging from eros to compassion, from family kinship to support of oppressed strangers.

A participant challenged us. “If love in all its forms is so important to all religious traditions, how come the world has so much war and violence?” Together, all ten of us offered a single answer: Wherever you find those catastrophes, you also find acts of compassion, resistance, relief, support, kindness and risk. These actions do not dominate the news, but their power saves the world.

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Recognition (2012/5772)

According to the Orthodox Stone Edition Chumash, we should be careful about identifying too closely with our ancestors. Our ancestors were more spiritually elevated than we can ever hope to be.

According to the Conservative Etz Chayim Chumash, we should be careful for a different reason. Our ancestors did some things we find upsetting. But we cannot judge them using today’s values. We have to learn about their historical time period, and judge them with an eye to their own time.

Neither of these views seems correct to me. It’s not wise to idealize those we love. Nor is it wise to judge them. It is best simply to recognize them.

Recognizing that our ancestors are our kin can be enormously healing. Their families fell apart, and their families reconciled. They became wiser as they matured. No matter where they were in their journey towards wisdom, they prayed and made offerings. If we are spiritual seekers, we can recognize the journey and take comfort in its wandering path.

Recognition is an important theme in Parshat Chayei Sarah, where Yitzchak and Rivkah meet. Brooding Yitzchak mourns his mother, while adventurous Rivkah can’t wait to leave her family home. Yet when Rivkah meets Yitzchak, she covers her face, as if afraid to let her insecurity show. Somehow, Yitzchak’s inner yearning to love recognizes Rivkah’s fear of being judged, and he accepts her whole person.

And in all the stories Torah tells about their lives, even when they disagree about important matters, we do not get a single story about marital strife or hear of an unkind word exchanged between them. In this unflagging mutual recognition, they are unique among Torah’s famous families.

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Compassionate Camels (5772/2011)

After the death of our ancestral mother Sarah, Avraham decides he would like his son Yitzchak to marry a relative. So Avraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to their hometown. Eliezer travels with a caravan of 10 camels loaded with gifts.

At the town well, Eliezer prays for the ability to discern the right wife. He decides that any young woman who says, “Drink, and I will water your camels, too” will be the right one. Rivkah says the magic words, cares for the camels, and receives the gifts.

Eliezer goes down in Jewish tradition as a gifted matchmaker.

The Zohar invokes the spirit of Eliezer in a parable teaching how we might match spiritual qualities with the demands of everyday life.

The Zohar begins with a traditional story: at the time of the coming of the Mashiach, the bodies of all humans who ever lived will be reunited with their souls. The world will experience a great spiritual revitalization.

Even if you grant that this could happen, practically speaking, it seems impossible. How does God accomplish it? God recruits the gifted matchmaker Eliezer to match souls with newly resurrected bodies.

But Eliezer’s task is immense; what will he do first? He will do a metaphorical version of what he did when he matched Yitzchak and Rivkah. He will make use of a caravan of ten camels. These ten camels represent the ten sefirot, ten divine attributes of God that live inside us: a good head, wisdom, understanding, compassion, judgment, balance, endurance, gratitude, groundedness, and spirit.

Eliezer will match the first few bodies with souls that carry all ten attributes in abundance. These souls will be his helpers, as they use their skills to revitalize others.

How do these souls reach out to others? The answer lies in a Hebrew pun. The Hebrew word for “camel” is gamal. The Hebrew word for “acts of lovingkindness” is gemilut chasadim. The ten “camels” will infuse spirituality into the everyday world through acts of lovingkindness.

May this be a week of giving and receiving.

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Queen Mother (5771/2010)

The name Sarah means “princess.” From Torah, we learn that Sarah is wealthy, powerful, and greatly desired by kings as their consort.  Midrash adds stories of her physical beauty and her power as a spiritual teacher. Perhaps she is a princess with a role similar to a tribal Queen Mother in Africa today: a wise advisor, motivator, problem-solver, diplomat, and group leader.

The Haftorah tells the story of a more familiar royal figure: Batsheva, Queen Mother in Israel’s royal court. The young Batsheva is famous for her beauty. With it, she captures the heart of King David, who commits egregious crimes in order to marry her, even though he already has seven wives. Immediately after these crimes, David performs formal acts of teshuvah: confessing, fasting, praying, and asking that he alone suffer the consequences. And over time, David changes deeply through his relationship with Batsheva. He learns to love, and lives as the husband of only one wife. Their intimacy births four sons. They become close political allies. When David’s enemies grab for power, David and his advisors seek Batsheva’s insights. After David’s death, Shlomo secures Batsheva’s continued support by officially appointing her Queen Mother.

Among political women in the Tanakh, Batsheva stands out. While Sarah appears in three different books, Batsheva appears in four. While Devorah’s political contributions as prophet and judge are told in 54 verses, Batsheva’s contributions as soul-maker and kingmaker are told in 130 verses. Batsheva is squarely in the running as one of the great women in our early history. Her story offers a marvelous role model for the inner maturation of a woman through many roles – lover, wife, mother, political advisor and Queen.

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Unselfish Prayer (5770/2009)

In Jewish tradition, we think of prayer as tefillah, self-examination; shevach, praise; and bakashah, request. Traditional bakashot are unselfish general requests that benefit many: healing, world peace, good weather for the planet.

But when Avraham’s servant Eliezer sets out to find a wife for Avraham’s son, he offers a rather self-serving and specific bakashah. “God,” he prays, “send me a young woman who will offer water to my camels, because that’s the kind of person I’m looking for.” Understood literally, Eliezer’s bakashah does not seem to fit the model offered by most Jewish prayers. How can we understand it more deeply?

Our sages said, “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven” (Talmud Berachot 32b).  The 10th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides interprets the saying: all the physical characteristics of creatures in the natural world are in the hands of heaven. But everything else – our thoughts, actions, and feelings – is motivated by “the fear of heaven.”

If we follow Rambam’s line of thinking, Eliezer is expressing his hope of finding a young woman who is motivated by the fear of heaven. Eliezer prays, “God, reach out, so that the younger generation may know your presence, and be motivated by that knowledge to choose compassion for all creatures. I want to entrust the future to this kind of person.” To this unselfish, general request that benefits many, Amen!

Inspired by Rabbi Marc Wolf

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Honouring Outstanding Women (5767/2006)

About 1500 years ago, our sages paired each weekly Torah reading with a specific reading from the prophets. The reading from the prophets is called the haftarah, or completion, because it comments on or updates the ideas in the Torah. This week’s Torah-haftarah pair offers a wonderful example of “completion.”

This week’s parashah is Chayei Sarah, literally translated as “the lives of Sarah.” It records the death of Sarah and the search for an appropriate wife for her son Yitzchak. Jewish tradition describes Sarah as a princess and as a  great spiritual teacher revered by women of the region. Thus, many readers puzzle over the failure of the Torah to honour this great woman appropriately:  the parashah called “Sarah’s life” is about her death; her husband mourns her but gives no eulogy; her legacy is described solely in terms of marriage and heirs.

For the haftarah reading, our sages chose the first chapter of the Book of Kings. This story notes the impending death of King David, the political strategy of his wife Batsheva to convince him to crown her son Shlomo as king, and the installment of Batsheva on the throne of the Queen Mother by King Shlomo. It seems the sages are saying: this is how we should honour a great woman. We speak of her national influence; her husband fulfills her wishes during her lifetime; and her son recognizes her with a public seat of honor.

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