October 22, 2019

Chayei Sarah: Work Left Undone

Once again, and in the midst of contemporary turmoil, a commentary on this week's parashah. This is actually an old one I'd written for something else a long time ago, but I think it's still pertinent to today, because it's about the uncertainty in every big effort; how one task gives way to another and there few projects are ever quite finished when we think they are. Also, we are all so imperfect, riddled with flaws, and subject to huge disappointments and still obligated to go on.

And Rivkah raised her eyes and she saw Yitzhak and she fell off her camel.” (Genesis 24:64).  We can’t ask for a better meet-cute than that.

This week, we encounter a great romance of the Hebrew Bible, that between Yitzhak and Rivkah.  According to the Baalei Ha-Kabbalah, the mystic teachers, those two were perfectly suited.  Yitzhak embodies and symbolizes the trait of gevurah, strength and restraint, while Rivkah (usually) embodies and stands for hesed, active kindness.  These aspects are said to balance one another—but not in the stereotypical ways we might expect.

We encounter Rivkah in the text when Avraham’s steward Eliezer has been charged with finding a wife for Yitzhak from among his ancestral people.  After praying for God’s direction, Eliezer leads Avraham’s camels to a well in the Mesopotamian city of Nahor where the young women come to water their flocks.

Rivkah proves herself to be vigorous and self-confident, unafraid of physical labor and instinctively generous.  When Eliezer requests a small drink of water, Rivkah addresses the servant courteously as ‘my lord’ and insists that he drink deeply from the pitcher she has just filled.  Unasked, she hurries to the trough again and draws enough water for all ten of the camels.  She accepts the betrothal gifts offered by Eliezer before she brings him home to “her mother’s house”. (Genesis 24:28).  It is she who decides to contract the marriage and she who announces to her nervous parents that she will not delay but will set out eagerly (as did Avraham and Sarah) for a place where she has never been.

If robust Rivkah is a potential role model for today’s women, then gentle, hardworking Yitzhak emerges as a relevant example for today’s men.  Yitzhak reconciles with his brother Yishmael after their mothers’ falling out.  The brothers bury their father together.  Yitzhak creates no new projects but dedicates himself to repairing the wells that his father dug.  He knows how to adore the women in his life, mourning his mother’s death deeply and then devoting himself to Rivkah.  Unlike the other patriarchs, he will have all his children with one woman and never take another wife or concubine.  Yitzhak is not a macho male hero. Why then will the mystics identify him with the trait of gevurah?

We might find answers in the work of Rabbi David ben Josef Abudarham (Spain, fl. 1340).  His extraordinary Sefer Abudarham, annotates the Jewish liturgy with relevant references from the Tanakh and Rabbinic writings, allowing us insight into intellectual world of the rabbis who compiled our siddur.  His work on the Gevurot prayer, the second blessing of the Amidah, offers a Jewish approach to strength that stands as a counter-example to the ruthless action heroes of popular culture.

In the Gevurot prayer, God is praised for mighty acts of kindness.  God demonstrates strength by freeing the prisoner, supporting the fallen and bringing the life-giving rain.  The traits of gevurah and hesed are united here, as God is praised for sustaining the living with kindness and reviving the dead with compassion.
Abudarham cites Taanit Bavli 7a: “R. Abbahu said: The day when rain falls is greater than [the day of] the Revival of the Dead, for the Revival of the Dead is for the righteous only whereas rain is both for the righteous and for the wicked…Rav Judah said: The day when rain falls is as great as the day when the Torah was given, as it is said, My doctrine shall drop as the rain: and by ‘doctrine’ surely, Torah is meant as it is said, For I give you good doctrine, forsake not my Torah.”
By bringing this text, Abudarham reminds us that the Gevurot prayer is not a blessing in praise of martial heroism but of God’s endless capacity to extend salvation and restore life.  Torah is our water and our tree, nourishing and beautifying, a gift of love.

Just as strength and kindness meet in the Gevurot prayer, Yitzhak and Rivkah are presented as perfect complements to one another.  Rivkah is portrayed as Sarah’s worthy successor in Yitzhak’s heart and in the story of our people.  Yitzhak takes Rivkah into his mother’s tent to make her his wife. (Genesis 24:67)  Midrash Rabbah teaches, “You find that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud hung over her tent; when she died, that cloud disappeared; but when Rivkah came, it returned. As long as Sarah lived, her doors were wide open [in hospitality]; at her death that liberality ceased; but when Rivkah came, that openhandedness returned. As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough, and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Sabbath until the evening of the following Sabbath; when she died, these ceased, but when Rivkah came, they returned.”

Rivkah takes up Sarah’s work, because the older matriarch is gone.  Our parashah, named “The Life of Sarah,” actually begins with her death.  The commentator Rashi (France 1040-1105) suggests that we read of her passing immediately after the binding of Yitzhak, because it was that shock which killed her.  Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe (1889-1943) wrote from his own bitter experiences in the besieged Warsaw Ghetto that Sarah’s death might even have been a kind of deliberate remonstrance.  “One can also say that even our Matriarch Sarah herself, who took the Akeidah so to heart that her soul departed, did it for the benefit of Israel, to show God how it is impossible for the Jews to tolerate too much suffering.” (Eish Kodesh)

Sarah, who set out in confidence with Avraham to build a new way of life in a new place, died of a broken heart.  But she did not fail.  Few things turn out exactly as we plan. People dedicated to God are still only human.  Great work is riddled with fractures and disappointments and much is left unfinished.  Would any of us attempt anything we care about if we could see the cost? Thank God for generations who will carry it forward.

Let us leave Yitzhak and Rivkah, then, while they are young and eager, rushing toward their future.  She spots him and falls off her camel, they embrace in an open field. (He will go blind, she will deceive him, he will break a son’s heart.) For now, the world is gleaming and fragrant all around them and everything is possible.