You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Chayei Sarah.
Rabbi David Kasher
From Yael Levy
Adorned with threads of blue, crimson and violet
Sits in a grove of oak trees,
As we bow and enter,
A warm radiance envelops us.
We take our seats.
And the earth offers a gentle embrace.
Breathing deeply, we notice the presence of ancestors,
Ancient teachers and guides,
Some we recognize and many whose names we do not know.
Welcome, they say.
We are grateful for you.
Their light touches us with nourishment and care.
Gently they ask,
What are the prayers upon your heart?
Who do you long to be?
What do you seek?
In response to our cries, whispers, doubts and fears,
They offer encouragement
And shine with support.
We will help you.
Call on us.
See us in yourselves and each other.
Feel us in the breath of the wind and the strength of the trees.
We are always here.
May the sacred light of the ancient mothers hold and guide us all.
With love and blessing,
From Rishe Groner
…Our Matriarchs in the Torah are complex characters who deserve a lot more study than the quick peek into their lives that we take on a yearly basis when these Torah portions come around. Like the stories of the Patriarchs, they embody so many of our classic human conditions, played out in the complex web of family intrigue of inheritance and legacy that was super important in the ancient Near East, and that feels so resonant today.
Sarah holds her power as the wife of the patriarch Avraham, mother of a new nation, who struggles in her role as primary wife but barren. She grapples with her maidservant and the potential surrogate mother of the child she wishes to have, Hagar in a battle that remains unresolved to this day. And her voice is heard as a woman, through her laughter and God’s injunction to her husband Avraham, “Whatever your wife Sarah says, listen to her voice.”
Sarah is a pioneering woman of strength and subtlety, and although she is not featured in this week’s Torah portion, her presence is felt throughout. In fact, the reason this Parsha is named “Chayei Sarah” is precisely because her presence reverberates through the next actions of the Avrahamite family – as any strong matriarch is wont to do.
But then we meet Rivkah. A woman of the same family origins as Sarah and Avraham, with her own sense of strength and self. She arrives at the well and immediately begins pouring water for Avraham’s servant and his camels, fulfilling an internal ‘bet’ made by the servant to test the potential heiress to Sarah’s empire by seeing just how kind and generous she might be.
Rivkah is the one who is asked about what she’d like to do – when her father and brothers ask her consent to send her off to marry Yitzchak – and she articulates in her own words that yes, she will go.
In the ancient Near East, when women typically moved from the family unit based in their father’s house to the house of their husband, the traditions of women were passed on from mother to daughter; then shaken up when she was now in the home of another matriarch – her mother-in-law. Learning how to bake the daily bread; weave the household’s fabrics and prepare their meals and home necessities in the tradition of a different family, a different area, a different custom, was par for the course for young women – and it kinda makes sense that Avraham was so adamant to his servant that a wife for his son needed to come from back at the old family homestead.
But with Sarah already passed on, and Rivkah a new member of the household, how could Rivkah have carried on the torch of this woman, the formidable matriarch who had struggled so deeply to birth her one and only son, then passed on before she could see him settled? How was Rivkah able to come in and comfort and love this traumatized young man, who had lost his mother and undergone the deep spiritual shakeup of the Akedah – an almost sacrifice by his father, no less – all within the space of a few short weeks?
The Torah describes Yitzchak and Rivkah’s relationship with a sweetness that is rare among most Biblical couples. He loved her. He took her into his tent. And he was comforted after the loss of his mother.
The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah describes the particular ways that Yitzchak felt comforted when his new wife arrived and took on the matriarch role almost immediately.
Sarah’s home had been an open tent, filled with abundance.
Her candles had remained lit throughout the week, a home filled with light both spiritual and physical.
A cloud, a spiritual presence of the Divine, had hovered above her sleeping place, showcasing the power of her spiritual connection, even in bed, in her sexuality and her relationship.
And there was “blessing in her dough”, which the Rabbis interpret to mean that just as the showbread of the Mikdash-Temple remained fresh all week, so did Sarah’s bread.
When the rabbis quote these practices as an indication of Sarah’s legacy carrying on through Rivkah, they aren’t just any random practices.
These are the practices which the rabbis also attribute to women suffering in childbirth when they aren’t executed properly – a painful text, let’s just say, but a fascinating way of understanding how these particular acts can hold a powerful place in the home, a way of honoring and embodying the matriarchal aspects of the archetypical feminine that holds down the underlying structure in the home.
What does it really mean for us?
The embodied experience, the one of transformation that comes when you grind wheat into bread that nourishes bodies; when you kindle wicks and fuel that shed light that nourishes the spirit; when you create a sacred space of Divine sexuality in your relationship that nourishes the heart.
The book of Creation, Sefer Yetzirah, delineates the cosmic structures as Olam – Space; Shana – Time; and Nefesh – Soul, or Person.
Each of these practices are another dimension, an embodied presence of the Divine Feminine, the Shechinah.
Transforming physical space into spiritual space with a commitment to sacred sexuality in bed and in body.
Alchemizing physical time into spiritual time with the lighting of candles.
Metamorphizing the physical human body into a spiritual being through the creation and consumption of spiritual and physical bread, the challah.
Each of these practices have been adopted by women over millennia as the mitzvot, the embodied rituals that are particular times to pray, to beseech, to ask and to bless. The immersion into a ritual body of water; the kneading of dough; the kindling of flames are all embodied experiences, practices once seen as less-than the intellectual power of poring over sacred texts. And now, in today’s day, practices that are integral for reintegrating ourselves with our physical and spiritual beings, aligning the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine, no matter our gender, and embodying the Divine through physical acts for a complete unification of all aspects of God.
Rivkah’s expression of Sarah’s legacy is only the beginning of a chain of transmission that began thousands of years ago and continues today, as people – women, but also everyone – light their Shabbat candles; immerse in Mikveh and create sacred space for their physical bodily cycles; and knead and bake challah. It is the practice that is the oral tradition, safeguarded and kept by women, that is awakened as we step back into that space, honoring it and embodying it, even as the traditions were lost orally and never preserved in written form.
It is the time to awaken the alchemy of Matriarchy, the secret sauce of Sarah, Rivkah and the rest of the foremothers who embodied the Divine in their homes, their tents, their communities and their households.
It is the time to take comfort from this Divine Presence of the Shechinah in our lives, experiencing the nurturing of Divine Motherhood just as we honor Divine Fatherhood in our prayers and liturgy.
It is a moment to explore our oral traditions, how we learn from one another through feeling and speaking just as much as learning and reading, and bring our rituals into the home.
Bringing our ancestors into the tent, into the home, and receiving comfort and nurturing.
In this moment of the turning of the leaves and the seasons, as the veil is at its thinnest between worlds, celebrated in so many cultures as a moment to honor our ancestors, we are present in a culture that honors ancestors year-round, through the lighting of yartzeit candles, recitation of kaddish, and of course – honoring our ancestors through the stories and oral traditions they represent, including those in the Torah itself.
May we merit to experience the magic of the Divine Presence, of the God of Sarah and Rivkah, as well as Avraham and Yitzchak, with an embodied presence of transformation and transmutation, in our homes and our rituals this Shabbat and beyond.
May it be a Shabbat of expansion, of alchemy, of creativity and warmth; as we welcome the Divine into our rituals, our bodies and our homes.
What Was Isaac Doing in the Field?
BY : JASON ROGOFF
The patriarch Isaac is one of the most passive biblical characters. He speaks infrequently and seems to stand still while other people feverishly act around him. His presence in Parashat Hayyei Sarah is no exception. After surviving the ordeal of the Akedah, and experiencing the death of his mother, Isaac is nowhere to be found. Abraham buys the burial plot and only Abraham is mentioned as present at Sarah’s burial. Abraham then sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, but again we lack any information as to what Isaac is doing or how he is feeling after successive traumatic life events. Isaac only returns to the story when Eliezer returns with Rebekah and she first sees Isaac. The Torah describes how “Isaac went out [lasuah (לשוח)] in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63). Ironically, one of the few times we hear of Isaac performing an action, the Hebrew verb’s meaning is obscure. This allows for multiple interpretations from commentators and scholars, each of which provides us with an important model for how to cope with and respond to tragedy.
The commentator Abraham ibn Ezra interprets the word to mean “go for a walk.” Biblical scholar and former JTS professor Nahum Sarna explains that this interpretation is based on the Arabic cognate, saha, meaning “to take a stroll.” We can imagine Isaac using this moment at the end of each day to have some time to himself to process the significant life events he had recently experienced. At times, seclusion from others allows us to be in touch with our innermost feelings and reflect on our own needs.
In contrast to this interpretation, Nahmanides prefers a connection to the root for talking, sihah. He explains that Isaac was out in the field with his friends chatting. That is, Isaac found comfort and support in being surrounded by friends.
Rashbam connects Isaac’s action to the word for shrub or plant, siah. He references the creation story: “when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil” (Gen. 2:5). Rashbam explains that Isaac was out in the field engaging in the creative act of working the land. The proactive deed of generating life and sustenance perhaps served Isaac well as he worked to return his life to a routine.
Rashi, citing the classical rabbinic midrash, suggests that Isaac was out in the field praying. The rabbis base their understanding on Psalm 102:1: “A prayer of the lowly man when he is faint and pours forth his plea [siho (שיחו)] before the LORD.” The Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 26b connects Isaac’s prayer to the establishment of minha, the afternoon prayer service. According to this view, Isaac turns to God in the aftermath of the Akedahand the death of his mother.
Seeking to understand Isaac’s actions, the medieval commentators offer us four models for coping with trauma and challenges in our lives. This idea takes on a modern idiom in Shirat Ha-Asavim (“Song of the Grasses”), a beautiful Israeli folk song composed by Naomi Shemer and based on the writings of R. Nahman of Bratzlav. The lyrics compare the individualized nature of prayer to the uniqueness of a single blade of grass: “Know that each and every blade of grass has its own song.” Solitude or companionship, action or prayer: there is no one way to respond to challenges. We all must choose our own path.
Returning to Isaac, the Torah tells us that he indeed ultimately finds the comfort for which he is searching. Rebekah, his new partner, becomes a source of support and love for him: “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Gen. 24:67).
From Reconstructing Judaism
Abraham’s Second Life
By Rabbi Lewis Eron
In the Stone Edition Chumash, the brief note on Genesis 25:1-11, which summarizes Abraham’s life after the death of his wife, Sarah, and the marriage of their son, Isaac, to Rebecca, reveals more about human life than, I believe, the editors intended. They tell us, “as is customary in the Torah, when a person’s role in the development of the narrative is completed, his life is summed up, even though he may have lived for many years. Once Abraham, at the age of 140, had arranged for the marriage of Isaac, the destiny of the Jewish people moved on to the next generation, even though Abraham lives to the age of 175.”
This insight explains the narrative strategy of Sefer Bereyshit, the Book of Genesis, but it also raises a disturbing question. If Abraham, the discoverer of the One God and the founder of the Jewish people, can so easily be dismissed, what does it say about the rest of us as we age? Does life really start, as in the old joke, when the children move out and the dog dies, or does it end? What will make our lives meaningful, when we, hopefully, have watched our children embark on their life journey, entered retirement, experienced the losses and rewards of human experience and, like Abraham of old, look forward to spending another quarter century or more on this side of eternity? Are we to be written out of our children’s story and our family’s history? Will we make a second life for ourselves or will we quietly fade from the world of those we hold so dear?
This is the challenge that faces each generation as the years pass on. Have the men and women of the “Greatest Generation,” those who grew up in the Depression, matured in the World War II and Korea and led us through the struggles of the rest of the 20th century, found meaning and purpose in their later years? Will the “Baby Boomers,” now entering retirement, be any more successful? What models of senior life will these generations leave to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Can we find hope and guidance in Abraham’s experience or do we see it as a sad and frightening warning?
It is not that Abraham’s second life was terrible. The little bit of information we find in the Torah suggests that Abraham achieved a sense of contentment or serenity in his old age (Genesis 25:8). He found a new wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1), and raised a family of six sons (25:2). He apparently remained prosperous enough to provide them all with enough resources to start their own lives east of the Land of Israel, in his old homeland (25:6). He remained in contact with his first two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and upon his death, the two of them ensured that he was properly buried in the cave of Machpelah, alongside of Sarah (25:9-10). Rabbinic legends do little to fill out the rest of Abraham’s story although they do tie up a few loose threads. In a number of midrashim, the ancient rabbis’s narrative expansions of scripture, there is the sweet note that Keturah was really Hagar (Genesis Rabba 61:4). Rebecca, the sages inform us, met Isaac on his way home from Beer-lahai-roi, where he had gone to escort Hagar back to Abraham after Sarah’s death (Genesis Rabba 60:14; Rashi on Genesis 24:62). At least, according to one midrash, Abraham found a retirement job. Projecting their values back to Abraham’s time, the sages claimed that Abraham, like any great teacher of Torah, established his own academy. There he had the special pleasure of having his grandson, Jacob, as one of his star pupils (Midrash Tanchuma (Buber) VaYishlach 9). At best, Abraham often appears as a “has-been.” Even in the rabbinic retelling of his story, Abraham, in his old age, has become an incidental character in the ongoing life of his family. He no longer stands at the center of the stage.
As Jews, this vision of aging presents us with a particularly difficult challenge. So much of our religious and spiritual life is spent engaged in the life of our community and our world. Our basic value words often imply action and activity. We perform mitzvot. We give tzedakah. We gather for prayer. We strive for tikkun olam. We build families, communities and prepare for yemot ha-mashiach, “the coming of the messianic age.” What are we to do, when we no longer have to do, or sadly, no longer can do?
Exploring further, however, we realize that in his retirement Abraham points to another Jewish path we can follow as we enter our second life. This path may lack the drama and thrills of the road we left, but as we walk it, we discover new challenges and new rewards. As we walk down this path, we have the time to review our lives, to tie up the loose ends, and to serve as an anchor for those who are still rushing down the highway. If the old road was the “Path of Action,” this new path is the “Path of Blessings.”
Genesis 24:1 introduces the story of Isaac’s marriage, the final great event of Abraham’s life, with the notice, “Now Abraham was old, well on in years and the Eternal had blessed Abraham with everything.” In a midrash found in Genesis Rabba 59:7, the talmudic sage Rabbi Levi explores the spiritual significance of this verse. He suggests that the phrase “being blessed with everything” could in Abraham’s case be understood in three or four different, but complimentary, ways. Put together, these interpretations present us with a new way of appreciating our second lives.
Rabbi Levi’s first understanding is that God made Abraham master of his yetzer hara, his emotional life. In his old age, Abraham had achieved enough maturity not to be ruled by his passions. By gaining control over his yetzer, Abraham received the blessing of spiritual freedom and inner strength.
Rabbi Levi’s second insight is that Abraham lived long enough to see that his rebellious son Ishmael had reformed. God blessed Abraham by allowing him to see his children grow into full human beings. Abraham received the special satisfaction reserved only for the elderly of seeing one’s children and grandchildren living full and rewarding lives, the sense of pleasure, which we, in Yiddish, call “nachas.”
The third blessing is a very practical one. Rabbi Levi states that Abraham had what he needed to survive, literally, “his storehouse was never diminished in any way.” Material blessings are never guaranteed, but a life well lived, combined with the blessings of spiritual freedom and nachas, go a long way in securing this third of Abraham’s blessings.
Finally, Rabbi Levi adds one more blessing, one he learned from his teacher, Rabbi Hama ben Hanina. This blessing is the most wonderful. Rabbi Hama ben Hanina said that being blessed “with everything” means that God did not test Abraham again. Abraham’s blessing was that he no longer had to stand up front and center on the stage of life. He had passed all life’s challenges and now could enjoy the fruits of victory.
Following the interpretive trajectories implicit in the Torah and indicated by our ancient rabbis, we find that Abraham found in his second life another spiritual path. It was not the “path of action,” filled with trials and challenges, which make for a gripping story. It was another path — the quieter, and, perhaps, more rewarding “path of blessings.” This gentle path may not make a good subject for an action thriller, but has its own rewards. By telling us so little about Abraham’s peaceful second life, our ancestors did not write Abraham out of the story but gave him and us the opportunity to explore the special blessings we can find as we live our second lives.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Beginning the Journey
A while back, a British newspaper, The Times, interviewed a prominent member of the Jewish community and a member of the House of Lords – let’s call him Lord X – on his 92nd birthday. The interviewer said, “Most people, when they reach their 92nd birthday, start thinking about slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?”
Lord X’s reply was this: “When you get to 92, you see the door starting to close, and I have so much to do before the door closes that the older I get, the harder I have to work.”
We get a similar impression of Abraham in this week’s parsha. Sarah, his constant companion throughout their journeys, has died. He is 137 years old. We see him mourn Sarah’s death, and then he moves into action. He engages in an elaborate negotiation to buy a plot of land in which to bury her. As the narrative makes clear, this is not a simple task. He confesses to the local people, Hittites, that he is “an immigrant and a resident among you” (Gen. 23:4), meaning that he knows he has no right to buy land. It will take a special concession on their part for him to do so. The Hittites politely but firmly try to discourage him. He has no need to buy a burial plot: “No one among us will deny you his burial site to bury your dead.” (Gen. 23:6) He can bury Sarah in someone else’s graveyard. Equally politely but no less insistently, Abraham makes it clear that he is determined to buy land. In the end, he pays a highly inflated price (400 silver shekels) to do so.
The purchase of the Cave of Machpelah is evidently a highly significant event, because it is recorded in great detail and highly legal terminology, not just here, but three times subsequently in Genesis (here in 23:17 and subsequently in 25:9; 49:30; and 50:13), each time with the same formality. Here, for instance, is Jacob on his deathbed, speaking to his sons:
“Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebecca were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.” (Gen. 49:29-32)
Something significant is being hinted at here, otherwise why specify, each time, exactly where the field is and who Abraham bought it from?
Immediately after the story of land purchase, we read, “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything.” (Gen. 24:1) Again this sounds like the end of a life, not a preface to a new course of action, and again our expectation is confounded. Abraham launches into a new initiative, this time to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac, who at this point is at least 37 years old. Abraham instructs his most trusted servant to go “to my native land, to my birthplace” (Gen. 24:2), to find the appropriate woman. He wants Isaac to have a wife who will share his faith and way of life. Abraham does not stipulate that she should come from his own family, but this seems to be an assumption hovering in the background.
As with the purchase of the field, this course of events is described in more detail than almost anywhere else in the Torah. Every conversational exchange is recorded. The contrast with the story of the Binding of Isaac could not be greater. There, almost everything – Abraham’s thoughts, Isaac’s feelings – is left unsaid. Here, everything is said. Again, the literary style calls our attention to the significance of what is happening, without telling us precisely what it is.
The explanation is simple and unexpected. Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God promises them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you,” Gen. 13:17) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation” (Gen. 12:22), as many as “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16), and “the stars in the sky” (Gen. 15:5); he will be the father not of one nation but of many (Gen. 17:5).
Despite this, when Sarah dies, Abraham has not a single inch of land that he can call his own, and he has only one child who will continue the covenant, Isaac, who is currently unmarried. Neither promise has been fulfilled. Hence the extraordinary detail of the two main stories in Chayei Sarah: the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. There is a moral here, and the Torah slows down the speed of the narrative as it speeds up the action, so that we will not miss the point.
God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, “Jewish grandchildren.”
Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, God gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the Flood, but Noah had to make the Ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfils our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God.
That is what leaders understand, and it is what made Abraham the first Jewish leader. Leaders take responsibility for creating the conditions through which God’s purposes can be fulfilled. They are not passive but active – even in old age, like Abraham in this week’s parsha. Indeed in the chapter immediately following the story of finding a wife for Isaac, to our surprise, we read that Abraham remarries and has eight more children. Whatever else this tells us – and there are many interpretations (the most likely being that it explains how Abraham became “the father of many nations”) – it certainly conveys the point that Abraham stayed young the way Moses stayed young, “His eyes were undimmed and his natural energy unabated” (Deut. 34:7). Though action takes energy, it gives us energy. The contrast between Noah in old age and Abraham in old age could not be greater.
Perhaps, though, the most important point of this parsha is that large promises – a land, countless children – become real through small beginnings. Leaders begin with an envisioned future, but they also know that there is a long journey between here and there; we can only reach it one act at a time, one day at a time. There is no miraculous shortcut – and if there were, it would not help. The use of a shortcut would culminate in an achievement like Jonah’s gourd, which grew overnight, then died overnight. Abraham acquired only a single field and had just one son who would continue the covenant. Yet he did not complain, and he died serene and satisfied. Because he had begun. Because he had left future generations something on which to build. All great change is the work of more than one generation, and none of us will live to see the full fruit of our endeavours.
Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.
A Family Reconciles
BY RABBI NAOMI KALISH
Parashat Hayyei Sarah is bookended with the accounts of the deaths of the two first Jews, Sarah and Abraham. The early part of the text spends much time describing the process by which Abraham secured land for Sarah’s burial and then buried her. At the end of the parashah, we learn that Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham together. Though the Torah describes these brothers’ unity in concise and matter-of-fact language, they and their extended family must have worked hard to achieve reconciliation.
The last time the Torah describes Isaac and Ishmael together was the day of the celebration of Isaac’s weaning. Sarah had taken note of Ishmael, became protective of her son, and ordered Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their home. (Gen. 21:9) Early the next morning Abraham sent them on their way, and the text does not tell of the brothers having contact afterwards until Abraham’s death when they bury him together. The text is vague about how Isaac and Ishmael reunited and reconciled.
The Torah does not provide us with information about the relationship between the brothers during the intervening years. Had Isaac and Ishmael not seen each other in the years since their separation? Do they know of the traumas each had experienced? Did Isaac know about Ishmael’s expulsion by their father from his home and abandonment in the wilderness? Did Ishmael know about Isaac’s near-death at the hand of their father during the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac)? Perhaps each of them greeted their reunion with anticipatory dread, as did the next generation of brothers, Jacob and Esau, who had an even more explicitly fraught relationship that originated in the womb. Leading up to their crucial encounter after years of estrangement, Jacob was even afraid that their reunion would result in someone’s death, yet they interacted with unexpected grace. Offering gifts to Esau, Jacob tells his estranged brother that “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (33:10) Later, the twins would meet again as they came together to bury their father, Isaac (33:29).
According to Monica McGoldrick, a Family Systems Theory therapist and educator, “death and other major loss pose the most painful adaptational challenge for it [i.e. the family]—as a system—and for each surviving member. Its impact reverberates through all the relationships in a family.” When a change takes place in a family through an addition (marriage, birth, adoption) or subtraction (divorce, death), it opens up the possibility for both positive and negative change. McGoldrick writes, “loss can strengthen survivors, bring them closer together, inspire their creativity, and bring out their strengths.” Conversely, “It can also leave behind a destructive legacy of dysfunctional coping patterns.” Reading for multiple members of the extended family provides us insight into how together they experienced their grief.
The Midrash takes notes of a curiosity in the text: when Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham (and when Jacob and Esau reconcile), the younger brother is mentioned first. The Midrash interprets this to mean that Ishmael engaged in a process of teshuvah, repentance. (Gen. Rabbah 30:4, 38:12, BT Bava Batra 16b) One may read the word teshuvah as “repentance” or simply as “return.” Ishmael returned—to his estranged brother. For reasons we do not know, he gestured for his brother to lead the way.
Other midrashim assume an earlier reunion—and not only of Isaac and Ishmael but of numerous family members. After Sarah’s death, Abraham lives 35 more years, and the Torah does not tell us explicitly what he did during this period. Late in our parashah, we read that “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah (25:1). Rashi explains that Keturah is identical to Hagar: Keturah was her name, and Hagar (creatively revocalized to “ha-ger,” “the stranger”) was a description of her status within the context of Sarah and Abraham’s household. Genesis Rabbah explains that she was named Keturah “because her deeds were as beautiful as spices [ketoret].” (61:4). The descendants of Abraham and Keturah include merchants of spices (See Gen. 37:25).
The home that Hagar established is a central location at this time of change in the family. After joining Ishmael in burying Abraham, Isaac “settled near Beer-lahai-roi,” the location central to Hagar’s story, where Ishmael’s birth was foretold (Gen. 16). It was in this location that Hagar became the first woman with whom God speaks directly. Unlike her later expulsion in the wilderness, during which she cries out, in this experience she speaks out and gives voice and story to her experience (16:8). She bestows a name upon God: “You Are El-roi,” which the Torah explains as reflecting her own transformation from her encounter with God: “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!” (v.13)
Hagar is a supporting character. Not clearly identified, she hovers throughout this parashah. She is the one who was seen and felt seen. Transformed, she has the ability to see, hear, and know others. Through their relationships with her, Isaac and Ishmael experience healing from their traumas and reconciliation with each other. Jonathan Shay, MD, a psychiatrist who works with veterans, writes that “healing from trauma depends upon communalization of the trauma—being able safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community.” (Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, 4). Claiming her name as Keturah, Hagar did just this. She creates a place of refuge, where one can be seen genuinely, where strangers become known, loss can be mourned, and a family can turn toward its future.
To Have a Why
Chayei Sarah 5780
The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It is called Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” but it begins with the death of Sarah. What is more, towards the end, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called “life”? The answer, it seems to me, is that – not always, but often – death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.
Which brings us to a deeper paradox. The first sentence of this week’s parsha of Chayei Sarah, is: “Sarah’s lifetime was 127 years: the years of Sarah’s life.” A well-known comment by Rashi on the apparently superfluous phrase, “the years of Sarah’s life,” states: “The word ‘years’ is repeated and without a number to indicate that they were all equally good.” How could anyone say that the years of Sarah’s life were equally good? Twice, first in Egypt, then in Gerar, she was persuaded by Abraham to say that she was his sister rather than his wife, and then taken into a royal harem, a situation fraught with moral hazard.
There were the years when, despite God’s repeated promise of many children, she was infertile, unable to have even a single child. There was the time when she persuaded Abraham to take her handmaid, Hagar, and have a child by her, which caused her great strife of the spirit. These things constituted a life of uncertainty and decades of unmet hopes. How is it remotely plausible to say that all of Sarah’s years were equally good?
That is Sarah. About Abraham, the text is similarly puzzling. Immediately after the account of his purchase of a burial plot for Sarah, we read: “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1). This too is strange. Seven times, God had promised Abraham the land of Canaan. Yet when Sarah died, he did not own a single plot of land in which to bury her, and had to undergo an elaborate and even humiliating negotiation with the Hittites, forced to admit at the outset that, “I am a stranger and temporary resident among you” (Genesis 23:4). How can the text say that God had blessed Abraham with everything?
Equally haunting is its account of Abraham’s death, perhaps the most serene in the Torah: “Abraham breathed his last and died at a good age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people.” He had been promised that he would be become a great nation, the father of many nations, and that he would inherit the land. Not one of these promises had been fulfilled in his lifetime. How then was he “satisfied”?
The answer again is that to understand a death, we have to understand a life.
I have mixed feelings about Friedrich Nietzsche. He was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the modern age, and also one of the most dangerous. He himself was ambivalent about Jews and negative about Judaism. Yet one of his most famous remarks is both profound and true: He who has a why in life can bear almost any how.
(In this context I should add a remark he made in The Genealogy of Morality that I have not quoted before. Having criticised other sacred Scriptures, he then writes: “the Old Testament – well, that is something quite different: every respect for the Old Testament! I find in it great men, heroic landscape and something of utmost rarity on earth, the incomparable naivety of the strong heart; even more, I find a people.” So despite his scepticism about religion in general and the Judaeo-Christian heritage in particular, he had a genuine respect for Tanach.)
Abraham and Sarah were among the supreme examples in all history of what it is to have a Why in life. The entire course of their lives came as a response to a call, a Divine voice, that told them to leave their home and family, set out for an unknown destination, go to live in a land where they would be strangers, abandon every conventional form of security, and have the faith to believe that by living by the standards of righteousness and justice they would be taking the first step to establishing a nation, a land, a faith and a way of life that would be a blessing to all humankind.
Biblical narrative is, as Erich Auerbach said, “fraught with background,” meaning that much of the story is left unstated. We have to guess at it. That is why there is such a thing as Midrash, filling in the narrative gaps. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the case of the emotions of the key figures. We do not know what Abraham or Isaac felt as they walked toward Mount Moriah. We do not know what Sarah felt when she entered the harems, first of Pharaoh, then of Avimelech of Gerar. With some conspicuous exceptions, we hardly know what any of the Torah’s characters felt. Which is why the two explicit statements about Abraham – that God blessed him with everything, and that he ended life old and satisfied – are so important. And when Rashi says that all of Sarah’s years were equally good, he is attributing to her what the biblical text attributes to Abraham, namely a serenity in the face of death that came from a profound tranquillity in the face of life. Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey on which God had sent him and Sarah, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that God was with him. That is what Nietzsche called “the strong heart.”
In 2017, an unusual book became an international bestseller. One of the things that made it unusual was that its author was ninety years old and this was her first book. Another was that she was a survivor both of Auschwitz, and also of the Death March towards the end of the war, which in some respects was even more brutal than the camp itself.
The book was called The Choice and its author was Edith Eger. She, together with her father, mother and sister Magda, arrived at Auschwitz in May 1944, one of 12,000 Jews transported from Kosice, Hungary. Her parents were murdered on that first day. A woman pointed towards a smoking chimney and told Edith that she had better start talking about her parents in the past tense. With astonishing courage and strength of will, she and Magda survived the camp and the March. When American soldiers eventually lifted her from a heap of bodies in an Austrian forest, she had typhoid fever, pneumonia, pleurisy and a broken back. After a year, when her body had healed, she married and became a mother. Healing of the mind took much longer, and eventually became her vocation in the United States, where she went to live.
On their way to Auschwitz, Edith’s mother said to her, “We don’t know where we are going, we don’t know what is going to happen, but nobody can take away from you what you put in your own mind.” That sentence became her survival mechanism. Initially, after the war, to help support the family, she worked in a factory, but eventually she went to university to study psychology and became a psychotherapist. She has used her own experiences of survival to help others survive life crises.
Early on in the book she makes an immensely important distinction between victimisation (what happens to you) and victimhood (how you respond to what happens to you). This is what she says about the first:
We are all likely to be victimised in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control. This is life. And this is victimisation. It comes from the outside.
And this, about the second:
In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimisation. We develop a victim’s mind – a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries.
In an interview on the publication of the book, she said, “I’ve learned not to look for happiness, because that is external. You were born with love and you were born with joy. That’s inside. It’s always there.”
We have learned this extraordinary mindset from Holocaust survivors like Edith Eger and Viktor Frankl. But in truth, it was there from the very beginning, from Abraham and Sarah, who survived whatever fate threw at them, however much it seemed to derail their mission, and despite everything they found serenity at the end of their lives. They knew that what makes a life satisfying is not external but internal, a sense of purpose, mission, being called, summoned, of starting something that would be continued by those who came after them, of bringing something new into the world by the way they lived their lives. What mattered was the inside, not the outside; their faith, not their often-troubled circumstances.
I believe that faith helps us to find the ‘Why’ that allows us to bear almost any ‘How’. The serenity of Sarah’s and Abraham’s death was eternal testimony to how they lived.
On Judaism and Islam
The language of the Torah is, in Erich Auerbach’s famous phrase, “fraught with background.” Behind the events that are openly told are shadowy stories left for us to decipher. Hidden beneath the surface of Parshat Chayei Sarah, for example, is another story, alluded to only in a series of hints. There are three clues in the text.
The first occurs when Abraham’s servant is returning with the woman who is to become Isaac’s wife. As Rebecca sees Isaac in the distance, we are told that he is “coming from the way of Be’er-laĥai-ro’i” (24:62) to meditate in the field. The placement is surprising. Thus far we have situated the patriarchal family at Be’ersheva, to which Abraham returns after the binding of Isaac, and Hebron, where Sarah dies and is buried. What is this third location, Be’er-laĥai-ro’i, and what is its significance?
The second is the extraordinary final stage of Abraham’s life. In chapter after chapter we read of the love and faithfulness Abraham and Sarah had for one another. Together they embarked on a long journey to an unknown destination. Together, they stood against the idolatry of their time. Twice, Sarah saved Abraham’s life by pretending to be his sister. They hoped and prayed for a child and endured the long years of childlessness until Isaac was born. Then Sarah’s life draws to a close. She dies. Abraham mourns and weeps for her and buys a cave in which she is buried, and he is to be buried beside her. We then expect to read that Abraham lived out the rest of his years alone before being placed beside “Sarah his wife” (Gen. 25:10) in the “Cave of Machhpelah” (Gen. 25:9).
Unexpectedly, however, once Isaac is married, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has six children by her. We are told nothing else about this woman, and the significance of the episode is unclear. The Torah does not include mere incidental details. We have no idea, for example, what Abraham looked like. We do not even know the name of the servant he sent to find a wife for Isaac. Tradition tells us that it was Eliezer, but the Torah itself does not. What then is the significance of Abraham’s second marriage and how is it related to the rest of the narrative?
The third clue to the hidden story is revealed in the Torah’s description of Abraham’s death:
And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Het. There was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. (Gen. 25:8–10)
Ishmael’s presence at the funeral is surprising. After all, he had been sent away into the desert years before, when Isaac was young. Until now, we have assumed that the two half-brothers have lived in total isolation from one another. Yet the Torah places them together at the funeral without a word of explanation.
The sages piece together these three puzzling details to form an enthralling story.
First, they point out that Be’er-laĥai-ro’i, the place from which Isaac was coming when Rebecca saw him, is mentioned once before in Genesis: It is the spot where Hagar, pregnant and fleeing from Sarah, encountered an angel who told her to return. It is indeed she who gives the place its name, meaning “the well of the Living One who sees me” (Gen. 16:14). The Midrash thus says that Isaac went to Be’er-laĥai-ro’i in search of Hagar. When Isaac heard that his father was seeking a wife for him, he said, “Shall I be married while my father lives alone? I will go and return Hagar to him.”¹
Hence the sages’ answer to the second question: who was Keturah? She was, they said, none other than Hagar herself. It is not unusual for people in the Torah to have more than one name: Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, had seven. Hagar was called Keturah because “her acts gave forth fragrance like incense (ketoret).”² This indeed integrates Abraham’s second marriage as an essential component of the narrative.
Hagar did not end her days as an outcast. She returned, at Isaac’s prompting and with Abraham’s consent, to become the wife of her former master. This also changes the painful story of the banishment of Ishmael.
We know that Abraham did not want to send him away – Sarah’s demand was “very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). Nonetheless, God told Abraham to listen to his wife. There is, however, an extraordinary midrash, in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, which tells of how Abraham twice visited his son. On the first occasion, Ishmael was not at home. His wife, not knowing Abraham’s identity, refused the stranger bread and water. Ishmael, continues the Midrash, divorced her and married a woman named Fatimah. This time, when Abraham visited, again not disclosing his identity, the woman gave him food and drink. The Midrash then says “Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things. When Ishmael returned, his wife told him about it, and Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.”³ Father and son were reconciled.
The name of Ishmael’s second wife, Fatimah, is highly significant. In the Koran, Fatimah is the daughter of Mohammad. Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer is an eighth-century work, and it is here making an explicit, and positive, reference to Islam.
The hidden story of Chayei Sarah has immense consequence for our time. Jews and Muslims both trace their descent from Abraham – Jews through Isaac, Muslims through Ishmael. The fact that both sons stood together at their father’s funeral tells us that they too were reunited.
Beneath the surface of the narrative in Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Hagar on the one hand, Isaac and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.
Bereishit Rabbah 60:14.
Bereishit Rabbah 51:4.
Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer
From Brian Yosef Schacter-Brooks
“V’ayavo Avraham – Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and weep for her…”
This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Hayei Sarah, which means, “The Life of Sarah,” and it begins by declaring that Sarah’s life was one hundred and twenty-seven years. Then it says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Vatamat Sarah – Sarah died – Vayavo Avraham – Avraham came – lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah – to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her.”
So, first Sarah dies, then Avraham comes and eulogizes her, then he weeps. It’s a strange verse. Why does it say that Avraham “comes?” Where is he coming to? And if he’s coming to Sarah after she dies, wouldn’t he weep first, and then eulogize her? And to whom is he eulogizing? Isn’t a eulogy something you deliver to others? But this verse doesn’t mention any other people. It just says that he comes – doesn’t say where he’s coming to – then he eulogizes, then he weeps.
To answer, let’s reflect first on the question, what is death? Death means the end of a continuity; the end of something or someone that came into being, that was born, that had some span of life, and then expires. And when a loved one that plays a major role in your life dies, it’s not just the person that dies, it’s a continuity in your life that dies as well. Our lives contain all kinds of continuities – the place we live, the bed we sleep in, and so on. And part of that tapestry of continuity is composed of our relationships. If one of those relationships comes to an end because the person comes to an end, then something of ourselves as died as well; the tapestry, or the form of our lives gets torn. And of course, the experience of being torn is pain.
So, at this deeper level, we’re talking about pain. And what’s the normal response to pain? AAHH! Crying out. But that’s not what Avraham does. – Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah. First Avraham comes, then he eulogizes, then he cries out. Why?
Normally, we cry out in pain because we don’t like the pain. In fact, that’s the whole reason for pain to exist. Pain is there as a signal for danger, so it has to be unpleasant; you’re supposed to not like it. You feel your hand burning, you’ve got to get it out of the fire fast. If you only noticed intellectually, “oh, my hand is in the fire, that’s dangerous,” you’d already be burned. You need something to force you to get out of the fire immediately, and that’s pain. So, crying out is a venting of that impulse to get away from the thing causing you pain, and get yourself to safety. It’s also a signal for others to help you, just as when a baby cries out, and the parent immediately tries to see what’s wrong and help. That’s the ordinary way we operate.
But there’s another way to relate to pain, and that is instead of trying to get away, to deliberately bring yourself into connection with the pain, to come to the pain. Vayavo Avraham – come to the pain that is arising and be with it on purpose; that’s the practice of Presence, of being conscious with your experience, rather than be taken over by your impulse to escape. Again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that impulse. If your hand is burning, you should certainly escape by moving your hand out of the fire. But when we feel emotional pain, the impulse is the same; you want to get away from it, vent, blame and so on. But if instead you become present with your pain, then you use the pain to strengthen your Presence, to dis-identify from your impulses, and to ultimately know yourself ever more deeply as the space of consciousness within which your experience in this moment is arising.
So, on this Shabbat Hayei Sarah, the Sabbath of Life, may we remember to come ever more deeply into the truth of this moment, both in pain and joy, and through Presence with whatever is, grow in our experiential knowledge of the radiant awareness that we are. Good Shabbiss!
From My Jewish Learning
Praying in the Fields
For Isaac, praying in nature was a crucial element of worshipping the Divine.
BY DREW KAPLAN
Since Isaac went to the field to pray in this week’s Torah portion, the world has not been the same. The Talmud offers two sources for our requirement to pray three daily prayers; one is the prayers of the three forefathers of the Jewish people. Abraham is credited with instituting shaharit, the morning prayer; Isaac grants us minhah, the afternoon prayer; and Jacob gives us ma’ariv, the evening prayer.
The Talmud cites a verse from the Book of Genesis to establish each prayer. For Isaac, on whom we will concentrate, it is written (Brahot 26b):
“Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer service, as it is said, ‘And Isaac went out to su‘ah in the field before evening’ (Gen. 24:63); and there is no sihah except prayer, as it is said, ‘A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and pours forth his supplications (siho) before God’ (Ps. 102:1).”
Si’ah and Su’ah
The Sages saw these verses as being connected in the linguistic similarity of the word siah, and they saw in them that what Isaac was doing was praying. However, this claim is made on the seemingly ambiguous meaning of su’ah found in the verse related to Isaac. From where does this connection come?
One Talmudic commentary, Tosafot, suggests that the reason this word is used in both places is that while one might have thought that Isaac simply went out to speak with someone in the field, he actually went out to pray.
However, the term evokes a striking similarity to a word of the same root found earlier in Genesis: “Now all the trees (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for God had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5)
The use in our verse relating to Isaac may now take on an additional dimension–it seems there may have been an agricultural element to Isaac’s outing in the field. Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) suggests that what Isaac was actually doing in the field was planting trees as well as checking up on his agricultural efforts.
What was it that the Talmudic sages saw in our verse to understand that Isaac was praying? Is it possible that the Torah would make sure to tell us that Isaac was engaged in mundane agricultural activities?
The connection between these two verses in their use of this same word is deeply meaningful when one considers that on the second verse–“Now all the trees (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for God had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil”–Rashi, the eleventh century medieval scholar, comments:
“For what is the reason that God had not yet sent rain, because there was no man to work the land and there was no one to acknowledge the goodness of the rain, and when man came and knew that they (the rain) are a need for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and grasses sprouted.”
The use of the term in this verse may be about agriculture, but the verse is telling us that human beings are needed in order to pray!
But that is not all. The verse preceding the above one states: “These are the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created on the day that God made earth and heaven.” (Gen. 2:4) There is a direct connection between God’s creating of the si’ah and to the tending of the si’ah done by man. In other words, God created the earth in order for man to tend to it. Being involved with the earth is an act whereby one connects with God’s handiwork.
In line with this, Rabbi Yohanan, the late third century Talmudic sage, said that one may not pray in a house without windows (Brahot 34b). According to Rashi, Rabbi Yohanan said this because looking outside causes one to focus towards heaven, and one’s heart will be humbled in this way. More than just simply focusing towards heaven, however, one will be able to see the natural landscape–God’s handiwork. By praying in a house without windows, one would be surrounded by man’s handiwork, which does not strike one with as much awe and appreciation for God.
Rebbe Nahman of Breslov instructed his followers to engage in hitbodedut–to speak with God in the field for an hour every day. In explaining Rebbe Nahman’s teachings, Rabbi Natan Greenberg stated that real prayer involves conversation with the natural world around a person. Indeed, the strength of prayer comes from the Divine, spiritual energy flowing from nature. A person needs all the spiritual energy of the earth to give strength to his or her prayer.
Isaac first manifests this type of prayer through his connection to nature. He comes to prayer because he finds it difficult to relate to the world around him. He wants to be in a simple world, God’s world, so he walks and prays in the field.
For Isaac, praying to God in nature was a central part of his Divine service, and it can be for us as well. As Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig wrote,
“It is interesting that in this week’s parashah, when it is reported that Isaac daven s (prays) Minhah, it says, ‘Vayetze Yithak lasu’ah basadeh‘–Isaac went out to supplicate in the field. He left behind all of his worries, and put everything aside so that he could focus on Hashem. And we must do the same–not only every day, to daven Minhah–but throughout our busy, busy lives. We must find the time to leave our worldly cares behind, and venture out into the fields where we will encounter Hashem.”
The natural world is an excellent setting for praying to God. While the Sages call for daily prayer within the walls of the synagogue, Rebbe Nahman calls for daily conversations with God in nature, also leaving open the possibility of occasional prayers to God beyond the walls of the prayer hall. By both our going out and working with God’s creation, and by praying within this creation, we seize the opportunity to grow closer to God.
Our ability to connect to our Creator in the world He created is an indication of our ability to live in balance with that natural world. A primarily urban, post-industrial Jewish people that is alienated from God’s Oneness as manifested in the natural world will certainly misuse that which God has given us.
The litany of ecological problems in Israel–from air and water pollution to species extinction and urban sprawl–testify to the Jewish people’s disconnect from the natural environment which God gave them. Reconnecting to the inspired outdoor prayers of our forefathers can help us regain a sense of the grandeur of God’s world and of our responsibility to live in balance with it.
Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
May I share with you all a short section from my book “Kabbalah and
Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World” related to Chayyei
Sarah? It deals with the verse, “And Isaac went out to reflect in the
field” (Gen 24:63). ~ David Seidenberg
On Chayyei Sarah — from “Kabbalah and Ecology”, pp.330-1
The Midrash teaches that the more-than-human world is full of conversation:
“And every growth/si’ach of the field” (Gen 2:5) — All the trees as
it were (k’ilu) are conversing/m’sichin, these with these. All the
trees as it were are conversing with the creatures (`im hab’riyot).
All the trees were created to give pleasure to the creatures…All the
conversations of the creatures are about nothing except the land…and
all the prayers of the creatures are about nothing except the land.
(Genesis Rabbah 13:2)
Nachman of Breslov claims that true speech, as exemplified by prayer,
is actually a gathering up of this speech of the more-than-human
Know that when a person prays in a field, then all of the
grasses/plants together come into the prayer, and they help him, and
give him strength within his prayer. And this is what it means when
prayer is called “conversation/sichah”: it refers to “the growth of
the field / si’ach hasadeh”, [meaning] that every shoot from the field
gives strength and helps his prayer. And this is [what the verse means
when it says,] “And Isaac went out to reflect in the field / lasu’ach
basadeh” (Gen 24:63): that his prayer (sichah) was made with the help
and strength of the field (si’ach), that all the plants of the field
gave strength and helped his prayer. (Likutey Moharan 2:11)
Prayer, which Hasidic thinkers often take to be the essence or
purification of human language, is rooted in the earth itself, in the
conversation of the plants. One could say that human beings are not
the creators of language but tools of the creatures to fashion their
language into prayer. We enter into sichah, conversation, which is
also prayer, as Rebbe Nachman and the Midrash teach, and find that the
creatures are already m’sichin, in conversation.
Nachman calls the conversation of the grasses “song” in another teaching:
Know that every shepherd has a unique melody/nigun according to the
grasses and the place where he herds. For every animal/b’heimah has a
grass unique to her that she needs to eat, and also a shepherd isn’t
always in one place, and according to the grasses and the place where
he herds, so he has a nigun. For every grass there is a song/shirah
which it speaks . . . and from the song of the grasses is made the
nigun of the shepherd . . . And this is the dimension of “From the
edge/wing/kanaf of the earth we heard songs/z’mirot” (Is 24:16) — [it
means] that songs and nigunim come out from “the wing of the earth”,
for by means of the grasses growing in the land a nigun is made. And
since the shepherd knows the nigun, by means of this he gives strength
to the grasses . . . and there is pasture for the animals. (Likutey
Nachman seems to be describing his lived experience, even if he props
up his thinking by scripture. Embedded in this teaching is the
recognition that each ecosystem or place might make its own unique
contribution to human prayer and melody, and so uniquely reveal
Note that the shepherd creates melody out of song. The difference
between shirah or song and nigun or melody is that a song has words
but a nigun may not. There is a paradox in this teaching: humans
extract melody from the song of the grass, but not the “verbal” part,
whatever that may be. Elsewhere, Nachman teaches that song and prayer,
encumbered by words, cannot reach the highest levels, but that nigun,
without words, can even cross the empty space that separates the
universe from God, reaching all the way to Eyn Sof, to the infinite,
primordial source. (Likutey Moharan 1:64, Bo’ El Paro`)
Together, these passages describe a kind of ecosystem of language and
song in which the human being is an essential organ of a complex
cycle that nurtures Life and divinity.
Understanding that we are in dialogue with the world around us –
understanding this not just as metaphor but as phenomenology – opens
new dimensions of experience. It is more than just psychological
projection to say that the world has language. Rather, human language
emerges from the rhythms and fluidity of a world that is constituted
by relationship. In this sense, the challenge is not to learn to speak
with the more-than-human world, but to realize that we are already
speaking with it.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE ECONOMY OF CHARACTERS – Parshat Chayei Sarah
My friend and I have a long-standing debate over what he calls the “Economy of Characters” principle in rabbinic interpretation. That is, when the rabbis of the Midrash are confronted with two figures in the Torah who play similar roles, they will often just fold the two characters together into one person. My friend hates when they do this; but I think it’s great. He says that it flattens the story, takes two separate, interesting narratives and shoves them, unnaturally, into one. He sees it as sacrificing complexity for an obsession with harmony.
But I find it exciting, the idea that there are hidden connections between two seemingly separate stories. We are then compelled to take what we know about the earlier story read it into the later one, and this adds a new layer of meaning – a backstory.
I guess it just depends on what kind of narrative you prefer.
But there are two different versions of “economizing characters,” actually, and they both appear in this week’s parsha. The first version is when you have an unnamed character whom the rabbis identify as an earlier, named character.
So, for example, the bulk of Parshat Chayei Sarah follows the journey of the anonymous “Abraham’s servant” to find a wife for Isaac. That’s all he’s ever called in this chapter: “the servant.” But two weeks earlier we read Abraham refer to “the one in charge of my household, Eliezer of Damascus.” (Gen. 15:2) And then this week, Abraham’s servant is introduced as “the one in charge of all that he had.” (Gen 24:2) So there’s the connection, and most interpretations then just assume that this servant is Eliezer.
But the other version of the Economy of Characters principle is even stranger.
That is when the rabbis take two different characters, with two totally different names, and claim that they are actually one and the same person. And here the classic example comes from a story towards the end of this week’s parsha when, after Abraham has mourned the death of his wife, and made sure his son was to be married, finally settles down in his old age and:
Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. (Gen. 25:1)
Ok, so Abraham got married again in his old age. It happens sometimes, people suddenly finding new love again in their golden years. Good for him!
But not so fast. The Midrash jumps in and gives us a backstory:
Her name was Keturah – Rabbi Yehuda said: this was Hagar. (Bereshit Rabbah 61)
Hagar? Well, now that changes the dynamics of the story completely! Because Hagar isn’t just some new woman Abraham happened to meet at the retirement home. This is his wife Sarah’s maidservant. And this is the woman whom Sarah, when she was barren, told him to sleep with instead of her. Abraham did just that, and had a child with Hagar – his first son, Ishmael, whom he apparently loved and expected would be his heir.
But then, predictably, things pretty quickly turned ugly in that complicated love triangle. As soon as Hagar had conceived, Sarah became increasingly angry, feeling that she had become lowered in Hagar’s esteem, and began to torture Hagar until she fled into the desert and took refuge beside a well.
But an angel of God called to Hagar, out there in the wilderness, and told her to return, and that she would have a son called Ishmael, “for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering.” (Gen. 16:11) So she calls out to God in gratitude for having seen her affliction. And that is why, the Torah says, the well was called, Be’er Lehai Roi, the ‘Well of One Who Lives and Sees Me.’ And she returns to Abraham and Sarah’s house and gives birth to Ishmael.
But it doesn’t last. When Sarah finally does have a son of her own – Isaac – she drives Hagar and Ishmael out again, this time for good. And this time, Ishmael almost dies of thirst in the desert, until Hagar begins to cry and again, an angel of God hears her, and saves them. They head out into the Wilderness of Paran, accompanied by divine promises that they will one day become a great nation, and that is the last we hear of Hagar.
Hagar is back. Hagar and Abraham are back together – this time as husband and wife. Abraham, it seems, never stopped thinking about her, all these years. And finally, now that Sarah – whom he also loved dearly – is gone and cannot be wounded by jealousy, Abraham and Hagar can reunite, and spend their last years rediscovering a long-lost love. It’s all quite romantic, actually.
But how does the Midrash get away with this? It makes for a great story, sure, but what justifies the merging of these two characters, Hagar and Keturah?
Well, there is one connection. Just a few lines before we hear about Abraham’s new wife, when Isaac is about to meet Rebecca for the first time, we are told that:
Isaac had just come back from Be’er Lahai Roi… (Gen 24:62)
Does that place sound familiar to you? If not, let Rashi remind you where you’ve heard it before:
From Be’er Lahai Roi… Because he went to bring Hagar to his father Abraham, so he could marry her.
So that’s the clue the rabbis have that Hagar is back. Because where did we last see Be’er Lahai Roi? That was Hagar’s well, the one she named when God first saved her. Now suddenly, for no particular reason, we hear that Isaac has come back from Be’er Lahai Roi. So what was he doing there? And why do I care what the place was called?
It must be a connection to Hagar. He was going to find Hagar. And when we read a few lines later that Abraham married again – now we know why he wanted Hagar to come back. Now that Isaac’s mother was gone, now that he would soon have a wife of his own – he didn’t want his father to be all alone. Sarah may not have been able to tolerate Hagar, but Isaac could put the family feud aside, and simply wish for his father to be able to live out his last years in happiness, with someone to love – someone Isaac had the sensitivity to realize his father had never stopped loving.
But wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. It’s all so very sweet, but before we get carried away… what would my friend say about all this? He would remind us – very simply – that this new woman has a different name!! Keturah, remember?! It’s not Hagar, it’s Keturah. That’s that. The plain words of the text are clear. It’s a different woman! Imagine any romantic new beginning you wish, but you can’t say this is Hagar when her name is Keturah! There’s that old Economy of Characters principle for you, mixing up two stories that ought to be separate.
Now, I don’t know. The truth is, there is some precedent for characters in the Torah explicitly having two names. Jacob was also called Israel. Joshua was once Hoshea. Even Abraham and Sarah got small name changes. So why not Hagar? Maybe taking a new name was common practice in those days.
But let’s assume my friend is right. Hagar was Hagar, and Keturah is Keturah. They’re two different women, with two different stories, and two different relationships with Abraham. Hagar’s ended a long time ago, and wherever she is, she’s not coming back. So we can get rid of the whole dramatic backstory of long-lost love.
If that’s so, there’s still one question that we have to answer. What was Isaac doing at Be’er Lahai Roi? If he wasn’t bringing back Hagar, why did he specifically go to the place we only know because of her?
There’s only one other reason he might have gone there: to bring back his brother Ishmael.
And that possibility is actually borne out by the plain words of the text. After Abraham marries, has more children, and finally “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented,” we then read:
His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron… (Gen. 25:9)
Where did Ishmael, gone all these years, suddenly come from? Maybe, the text is hinting to us, Isaac brought him back. That was the gift he gave his father in his old age. Not finding him a wife, but reuniting him with his other son, his firstborn son, whom he had not seen for decades. If that is so, Isaac wasn’t putting aside his mother’s honor – he was putting aside his own. He, who had the place of privilege in the family lineage, brought back the older brother who was once seen as a threat to his birthright.
And why? For his father’s happiness, certainly. No wonder Abraham died “old and contented.” He was surrounded, finally, by all of his children.
But also, perhaps, Isaac did it for himself. He had been raised an only child. But he had a brother, somewhere out there in the wilderness, estranged. And now, his mother was gone. His father would soon be gone. It was Isaac who would be alone in the world. Where was Isaac’s family?
At Be’er Lahai Roi. So he went there, looking for his brother. He took it upon himself to make the overture, to be the first to extend his hand in peace. And despite what had happened all those years ago, and whatever bitterness had grown in the many years they had been apart, Isaac managed to bring his brother back.
And then, after Abraham had been buried, where did Isaac go from there? The very next line tells us:
And Isaac settled near Be’er Lahai Roi. (Gen. 25:11)
He was welcome there.
From Rabbi David Ingber
From Brian Yosef Schachter- Brooks
Coming Today to the Wellspring of Nothingness
Parshat Hayey Sara
We have so many needs and desires- from food and shelter to companionship to livelihood to enjoyment- the list goes on. But at the root of all that we want and aspire toward is this common simple adjective: “good”. We want a delicious meal because it’s “good”, right?
But what is “good”? You might think that the delicious food is the cause of the goodness you experience. But if you look more closely you will see- besides the sensuality of the food itself, there is a deeper goodness that is not from the food. It is a goodness that arises from your appreciation, from your openness and presence with the food. While it is true that the food may have elicited this experience, it isn’t the cause of it. This goodness is the basic quality of what you are. In fact, it is the basic quality of what everything is- it is simply Being Itself. Beneath your thoughts and feelings, there is this wellspring of nourishment, of bliss without a cause. The mind thinks it needs this and that in order to have goodness- but let go of all the conditions and you will see- the goodness is there, shining forth from everything.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Hayey Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent out on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Eliezer finds Rebecca by a wellspring of water after praying for a sign. He prays that the one he seeks should give him water to drink and also water his camels. Immediately, Rebecca appears by the spring and fulfills his prayer.
In the symbolic language of Torah, both the wellspring and Rebecca herself represent the Divine as the simple goodness of Being, shining forth from everything. In Kabbalah, this goodness is the feminine Divine Presence- the Shekhinah. When Eliezer recounts how he came upon Rebecca, he says, “va’avo hayom el ha’ayin”- literally, “I came today to the spring.”
The Hebrew of this phrase is so rich- “ayin” means “spring”, but it also means “eye”- hinting that the way to “come to the spring”- to tap the wellspring of goodness within- is to come into your senses, to come out of your mind and into what your senses are receiving. Coming into the senses brings you into “today”- hayom- the present!
Even deeper- the word for “to” in the phrase “to the spring” is “El”, which also means “Divinity”. So come into your senses, enter the present, and drink from the wellspring of Divinity that offers Herself to you constantly. Like Rebecca, she is generous, and her waters are unceasing.
There is another word with the same sound as ayin but spelled a little differently. This other ayin means “nothingness”, hinting at the stillness needed to receive Her ever-present flow. The mind must give up its activities, its obsessions, its busyness. Then, into that space flows the life giving waters, nourishing not only our spirit, but healing our bodies- our “camels” as well. May this Shabbat open a true space in our lives and may we all be nourished by the goodness that flows into that space!
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Hayyei Sarah
By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Torah Reading: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
Haftarah Reading: 1 Kings 1:1-31
In this week when I also mark the second yahrzeit of my beloved mother, Geraldine z”l whose Hebrew name became Sarah when she had no Hebrew name, it is a fitting reflection and attempt to honor her memory that I share and dedicate these words of Torah.
As I read this Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah (the life of Sarah), I am focused on the very title of the portion and the opening words. Many before me have pointed out the contrast of the title, The Life of Sarah, with the content of the parashah which is all about her death. The portion itself opens: And Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years old: These were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiryat Aba…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her .” (Genesis 23:1-2)
At first glance, it seems strange that we would account for her life by speaking of her death. Certainly in our lifetime, we would agree that our goal is to live life to its fullest and to celebrate what we have accomplished and not focus on the day of our death. From time to time, as a values clarification and/or goal setting exercise, I have asked people to write their own eulogy. And, for many this is a really difficult exercise, and one that somehow causes great anxiety in acknowledging that their life would become described through their death. Yet, in the moments following someone’s death, we take extra efforts to speak of their life, to reflect on how they lived, and to acknowledge how much they will be missed.
Truthfully, people have said to me: “Rabbi, all that is comforting and beautiful. But, sometimes it feels like our tradition tries so hard to force us to accept that death is real, unchangeable, and irreversible that it relegates the relationship and the person to something within my past and is simply no longer.” Through my own grief and memory I am coming to realize, however, that there really is no end to the relationship we have with our loved ones and those relationships continue even across the borders of this world and the next.
Do the dead know what we are thinking about or what we are feeling? Is my deceased loved one able to empathize with my travails? Can someone who has passed away see what I do? Can I communicate with the dead? These are not new questions introduced by some new age spiritual revolution. These are the age-old questions asked explicitly by rabbis of the Talmud.
You will be happy to know that in characteristic Talmudic fashion, there are three answers: The first, ascribed to Rabbi Hiyya, holds that the deceased know everything that is going on in this world. A second opinion comes from a second unidentified sage, and implies that the dead know nothing of our deeds. And a third, borne out of a discussion between the sons of Rabbi Hiyya (the same Rabbi Hiyya whose opinion it was that the dead do indeed know what it is happening in the life of the living) argues that the deceased know of their own suffering, but are unaware of the pain of those in this world. Within this discussion there is recorded a happening that is as humorous as it is profound when we think about our own connection to those who have passed.
A rabbi, Zeiri, apparently had some money which he entrusted to his landlady. While he was away studying, she died and he didn’t know where she put the money. He went to the cemetery and said to her… where is the money? Eventually she responded: ‘under the pivot of the door in such and such a place.’ And, then she added… (do me a favor), tell my mother to send my comb and make up with so and so who is dying and will come here tomorrow. She not only could communicate with him to tell him where to find the money, but she knew what was happening in the world, and what would happen to so and so tomorrow. And, from the other side, she had a message for her own mother. (I could well imagine my own mother sending such a message!!!)
As this sweet story illustrates, death is not the end of the relationship and somehow we find ways to continue the connection and the communication. We carry on impacting one another, even across worldly boundaries. In moments of memory (be they on the anniversary of death, on the occasions we recite yizkor, or personal moments of connection), we create sacred space and time to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of a genuine connection with our mother, father, brother, sister, child, grandparent – who has died. An opportunity to say ‘guess what happened to me this year’? Or, ‘I have one more story I wanted to tell you.’ Or, ‘I never got to tell you why I was angry at you.’ Or, simply to be together – to sit together, to mark special moments together.
So, in this week of remembering Sarah immeinu, Sarah our matriarch, I pray that I am blessed with a moment of this type of interconnectivity with my own mother as I remember her in love. And, I bless each of us that we experience ongoing relationships with our loved ones that transcend the boundaries of this world and the next.
The Kindness of Strangers
In 1966 an eleven-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family to a white neighbourhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here . . .”
As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realise, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.
The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called “chesed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.” Civility, he adds, “itself may be seen as part of chesed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.” To this day, he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.”
I never knew Sara Kestenbaum, but years after I had read Carter’s book I gave a lecture to the Jewish community in the part of Washington where she had lived. I told them Carter’s story, which they had not heard before. But they nodded in recognition. “Yes,” one said, “that’s the kind of thing Sara would do.”
Something like this thought was surely in the mind of Abraham’s servant, unnamed in the text but traditionally identified as Eliezer, when he arrived at Nahor in Aram Naharaim, northwest Mesopotamia, to find a wife for his master’s son. Abraham had not told him to look for any specific traits of character. He had simply told him to find someone from his own extended family. Eliezer, however, formulated a test:
Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness [chesed] to my master.” (Gen. 24: 12-14?)
His use of the word chesed here is no accident, for it is the very characteristic he is looking for in the future wife of the first Jewish child, Isaac, and he found it in Rivka.
It is the theme, also, of the book of Ruth. It is Ruth’s kindness to Naomi, and Boaz’s to Ruth that Tenakh seeks to emphasize in sketching the background to David, their great-grandson, who would become Israel’s greatest king. Indeed the sages said that the three characteristics most important to Jewish character are modesty, compassion and kindness. chesed, what I have defined elsewhere as “love as deed,” is central to the Jewish value system.
The sages based it on the acts of God himself. Rav Simlai taught: “The Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness. It begins with God clothing the naked: “The Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them,” and it ends with Him caring for the dead: “And He [God] buried [Moses] in the Valley.”
Chesed – providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor, visiting the sick, comforting mourners and providing a dignified burial for all – became constitutive of Jewish life. During the many centuries of exile and dispersion Jewish communities were built around these needs. There were hevrot, “friendly societies,” for each of them.
In seventeenth century Rome, for example, there were seven societies dedicated to the provision of clothes, shoes, linen, beds and warm winter bed coverings for children, the poor, widows and prisoners. There were two societies providing trousseaus, dowries and the loan of jewellery to poor brides. There was one for visiting the sick, another bringing help to families who had suffered bereavement, and others to perform the last rites for those who had died – purification before burial, and the burial service itself. Eleven fellowships existed for educational and religious aims, study and prayer, another raised alms for Jews living in the Holy Land, and others were involved in the various activities associated with the circumcision of newborn boys. Yet others provided the poor with the means to fulfil commands such as mezuzot for their doors, oil for the Hanukkah lights, and candles for the Sabbath.
Chesed, said the sages, is in some respects higher even than tzedakah:
Our masters taught: loving-kindness [chesed] is greater than charity [tzedakah] in three ways. Charity is done with one’s money, while loving-kindness may be done with one’s money or with one’s person. Charity is done only to the poor, while loving-kindness may be given both to the poor and to the rich. Charity is given only to the living, while loving-kindness may be shown to the living and the dead.
Chesed in its many forms became synonymous with Jewish life and one of the pillars on which it stood. Jews performed kindnesses to one another because it was “the way of God” and also because they or their families had had intimate experience of suffering and knew they had nowhere else to turn. It provided an access of grace in dark times. It softened the blow of the loss of the Temple and its rites:
Once, as R. Yohanan was walking out of Jerusalem, R. Joshua followed him. Seeing the Temple in ruins, he cried, “Woe to us that this place is in ruins, the place where atonement was made for Israel’s iniquities.” R. Yohanan said to him: “My son, do not grieve, for we have another means of atonement which is no less effective. What is it? It is deeds of loving-kindness, about which Scripture says, ‘I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice’” (Hosea 6:6).
Through chesed, Jews humanised fate as, they believed, God’s chesed humanises the world.
It also added a word to the English language. In 1535 Myles Coverdale published the first-ever translation of the Hebrew Bible into English (the work had been begun by William Tyndale who paid for it with his life, burnt at the stake in 1536). It was when he came to the word chesed that he realised that there was no English word which captured its meaning. It was then that, to translate it, he coined the word “loving-kindness.”
The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, “When I was young I admired cleverness. Now that I am old I find I admire kindness more.” There is deep wisdom in those words. It is what led Eliezer to choose Rivka to become Isaac’s wife and thus the first Jewish bride. Kindness brings redemption to the world and, as in the case of Stephen Carter, it can change lives. Wordsworth was right when he wrote that the “best portion of a good man’s [and woman’s] life” is their “little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.”
 Stephen Carter, Civility, New York: Basic Books, 1999, 61-75.
 Bamidbar Rabbah 8: 4.
 Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 44-56.
 B. T. Sotah 14a
 Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London, Edward Goldston, 1932, 348-363.
 B. T. Sukkah 49b.
 Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 4.
 From his poem, ‘Tintern Abbey.’
Reb Miles Krassen
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Mishael Zion
“Giving up the Art of Laughter?”: Isaac, After the Akeidah
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | Hayey Sarah 2013
After the Akeidah. Is there such a thing? “No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Adorno – would Isaac agree?
This week’s Torah portion focuses on the finding of a wife for Isaac, but he is barely mentioned in the process, inviting us to consider Isaac’s life after the Akeidah.
The truth is that Isaac is the blandest of the Patriarchs. The Biblical spotlight barely focuses on him. He seems to always play the supporting cast to his father/wife/neighbors/twin sons. Someone else is sent to find him a wife, he spends his life digging his father’s wells only to have them blocked or stolen by others, and finally gets tricked by his son in his old age. Perhaps Adorno is right, and Issac’s life is to be understood as the poetry-less life of a survivor of patricide (interestingly, his son Jacob describes God as “the God of Avraham and the Fear of Isaac” Gen 31:42).
Elie Wiesel however presents a different take, focusing on the things which we might take for granted about Isaac:
Isaac survived. He had no choice. He had to make something of his memories, his experience, in order to force us to hope. Isaac represents defiance. He defied death. Logically, he should have pursued oblivion. Instead he settled on his land, married, had children, refusing to let fate turn him into a bitter man.
He felt neither hatred nor anger toward his contemporaries who did not share his experience. On the contrary, he liked them and showed concern for their well-being. After Moriah, he devoted his life and his right to immortality to the defense of his people. He will be entitled to say anything he likes to God, ask anything of Him.
Because he suffered? No. Suffering confers no privileges. Rather Isaac knew how to transform his suffering into prayer and love rather than into rancor and malediction. This is what gives him rights and powers no other man possesses.
And as the first survivor, he had to teach us, the future survivors of Jewish history, that it is possible to suffer and despair an entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter. (Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God. pg 92)
Isaac’s calling, according to Wiesel’s auto-biographical projection, is in transforming the most traumatic moment in his life into a resource for his community. He is to become an advocate on behalf of those who suffer in silence. Wiesel’s point highlights one of the rare moments in which Isaac takes agency. When Rebecca is barren, he prays on her behalf, turning “his suffering into prayer and love rather than into rancor and malediction”:
And Isaac entreated God in presence of his wife, because she was barren;
and God let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (Gen 25:21)
וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיי לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא; וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יי, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ.
Isaac’s behavior puts his heroic father to shame. How come Avraham, in all those years of Sarah’s barrenness, never “entreated God in presence of his wife”? Returning to Wiesel’s words above, I wonder if this is in some way connected to the “Art of Laughter”, and the connection between knowing how to pray and knowing how to laugh. Prayer is indeed laughable, in the deepest sense. Both come across as the most primal of human responses, irrational and yet totally real. They are both actions that embody full presence-in-the-moment, seemingly not representing action, but actually offering a third way. Laughter and Prayer break the evolutionary psychologist’s dichotomy of “Fight or Flight”. Avraham knew how to fight, and he know how to run. But, perhaps, he didn’t know how to laugh.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
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.
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.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
From Rabbi Avram Davis
Chayei Sara: The Difficulty of Love
From Melissa Carpenter
Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath
Now Abraham was an elder, who had come through the days, and God had blessed Abraham in everything. And Abraham said to his servant, an elder of his household, the one who governed all that was his: Please place your hand under my yareich, and I will make you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the earth, that you do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites amidst whom I am dwelling. For you must go to the land I came from and to my relatives, and you must take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1-4)
yareich = upper thigh, loins, genitals
Only two times in the Torah does someone ask another person to place his hand under the yareich and swear an oath: in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (Life of Sarah), and in Genesis 47:29, when Jacob begs his son Joseph not to bury him in Egypt.
In both cases, the person requesting the oath believes he will soon die. He won’t be there to make sure his wishes are carried out, so he deputizes a man he trusts and asks him to swear a serious oath. (Obviously Jacob won’t be around to bury himself. Abraham is 137 years old when he requests the oath, and his 127-year-old wife Sarah has recently died. Neither he nor his steward Eliezer expect him to live long enough to give further instructions if Eliezer can’t find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s old home, Aram. It turns out that Abraham lives another 38 years, but they aren’t expecting that.)
Both patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, speak to the man who will be in charge after they die, and ask him to swear an oath while his hand is placed under—where, exactly?
S.R. Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, argued that it really was the patriarch’s thigh. The thigh or buttock is the first place to touch the ground when one rests, he wrote. Therefore the man about to swear the oath shows the dying man that he can rest in peace, trusting to the power of the swearer’s hand.
Yet in other parts of the Torah, the word yareich is a euphemism for the genitals. It would be bizarre in our modern culture to swear an oath with one’s hand under someone’s testicles, but other ancient peoples besides the Hebrews may have used this ritual. In 1987 Professor Meir Malul cited a reference to a similar oath ceremony in an Akkadian letter. Others have noted that the English words testify, testimony, and testicles all come from Latin words based on the root testis, and claim that this may reflect a Roman practice of taking an oath on the genitals.
Whether this ritual was unique or common among ancient cultures, most commentators agree that each patriarch in Genesis/Bereishit is really asking his deputy to place his hand under the patriarch’s genitals, not his thigh. Why are the genitals the important spot? Because that’s the site of procreation, some commentators write. Others, including medieval rabbis Rashi and Abarbanel, write that it’s because for Jewish men the genitals are the site of circumcision, the first mutual covenant with God, and the closest thing to a sacred object at that time. (In later millennia, Jews swore by putting a hand on a Torah scroll, or on a set of leather tefillin containing tiny scrolls with passages from the Torah.)
If the male genitals are a symbol of creative power, they refer to God the Creator. If they are a symbol of the first covenant with God, they refer to holiness. Either way, the oath-taker is asked to place his hand in a position underneath, below, subservient to, a symbol of the sacred.
Throughout the Torah, the hand is a metaphor for the power to act, to do things in the world. So in this ancient ritual, the one swearing the oath places the symbol of his own power to act in a position below the symbol divine power and sanctity. In other words, he is promising he will do everything in his power to carry out the other man’s will as if it were the will of God. A potent oath!
Today, one of our most important oaths is the marriage vow, which is backed up not just by physical symbols and a wedding ritual, but (in states where the marriage is legal) by civil law. We take this mutual oath seriously, but sometimes unforeseen circumstances (such as abuse or infidelity) make it important to annul the vow and get a legal divorce. The divorce applies to both parties.
A vow made to a dying person, however, is one-sided. If unforeseen circumstances arise after one party is dead, is the other party still obligated to carry out a mission that now looks like a bad idea? Or should the survivor be free to change course to address the new circumstances?
In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s steward Eliezer has little trouble bringing back a bride for Isaac from Aram; and Joseph easily gets Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Hebron instead of Egypt. My impression is that Eliezer enjoys his matchmaking, and Joseph is glad to honor his father with a funeral procession that goes on for days. But deathbed requests are not always that easy, or that benign. Yet human nature tends to put a high value on that kind of promise; for example, people go to great lengths to carry out a deceased person’s wishes regarding burial. Considering the psychological pressure, when someone makes a promise to a dying person, is that promise really freely given?
Suppose you “knew” that a certain thing had to happen, and you doubted you would live long enough to make sure it did happen. Is it right to ask someone else to swear to make it happen? What if the person you are asking is willing to agree to carry our your mission, but does not share your belief in its necessity? And what if the circumstances change after your death?
Is it right for a living person to be bound by the desire of someone who is dead?
From Rav Kook
Chayei Sarah: Isaac’s Afternoon Prayer
“Isaac went out to meditate (‘lasu’ach’) in the field toward evening.” (Gen. 24:63)
The meaning of the word lasu’ach is unclear, and is the subject of a dispute among the Biblical commentators. The Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, twelfth century scholar) wrote that it comes from the word si’ach, meaning ‘plant.’ According to this interpretation, Isaac went to oversee his orchards and fields. His grandfather Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040–1105), however, explained that lasuach comes from the word sichah, meaning ‘speech.’ Isaac went to meditate in the field, thus establishing the afternoon prayer.
Why doesn’t the Torah use the usual Hebrew word for prayer? And is there a special significance to the fact that Isaac meditated in the afternoon?
The Soul’s Inner Prayer
Rav Kook often expanded concepts beyond the way they are usually understood. Thus, when describing the phenomenon of prayer, he made a startling observation: “The soul is always praying. It constantly seeks to fly away to its Beloved.”
This is certainly an original insight into the essence of prayer. But what about the act of prayer that we are familiar with? According to Rav Kook, what we call ‘prayer’ is only an external expression of this inner prayer of the soul. In order to truly pray, we must be aware of the constant yearnings of the soul.
The word lasu’ach sheds a unique light on the concept of prayer. By using a word that also means ‘plant,’ the Torah is associating the activity of prayer to the natural growth of plants and trees. Through prayer, the soul flowers with new strength; it branches out naturally with inner emotions. These are the natural effects of prayer, just as a tree naturally flowers and sends forth branches.
Why was Isaac’s meditative prayer said in the afternoon?
The hour that is particularly suitable for spiritual growth is the late afternoon, at the end of the working day. At this time of the day, we are able to put aside our mundane worries and concerns, and concentrate on our spiritual aspirations. Then the soul is free to elevate itself and blossom.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 56-57. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 109)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
And Isaac brought her into the tent [of] his mother Sarah (24:67)
This verse can also be punctuated “And Isaac brought her into the tent–his mother Sarah” implying that when she came into the tent she became, in effect, his mother Sarah.
For as long as Sarah lived, a cloud (signifying the divine presence) hung over her tent; when she died, the cloud disappeared; but when Rebecca came, it returned.
As long as Sarah lived, her doors were wide open; at her death that openhandedness ceased; but when Rebecca came, it 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 Rebecca came, they returned.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Chayei Sarah
Rav DovBer Pinson
This week’s Torah reading is called Chayei Sarah / the Life of Sarah. It begins with the words; “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years… And Sarah passed on” (23:1-2)
Essentially, the reading speaks of the death of Sarah and the subsequent events, and yet it is called the Life of Sarah.
This is meant to communicate to us that for life to be lived to its fullness, it must also include within it the element of death.
That is to say, life is the constant flow of inhale and exhale, on a cosmic and microcosmic level.
The inhale represents our ambition to succeed and live and our desire to attain ever more. The exhale is our serenity and surrender, the space in which we let go.
To truly live life we need to also know how to die. To take a break from the striving and just surrender.
Life is best lived proactively, we need to work hard and be fully engaged, and still at every moment, we must simultaneously have this strong awareness that our lives are in the hands of our Creator, and at every breath we are returning/exhaling all of life back into the Source of Life.
Life, much like blood, if it is held back and not allowed to flow correctly, will begin to coagulate and clot.
The Energy of the Week:
The Surrender – Living in the Exhale
This week gives us the energy to let go, surrender and be at peace, with what we have and what we have achieved.
We are human and we constantly strive to live and grow, and while this is essential to the human condition, the need to surrender and understand that it is all in the hands of our Creator, is equally essential to our growth and success as people.
Take the time this week to exhale deeply and allow your knowledge of death and surrender to put you in a place of peace and acceptance.
Recognize that the ability to let go is equally crucial to your growth and success as your desire to strive and attain.
In your relationships, personal and professional, allow yourself to experience surrender this week, and feel how that is also part of the process.
From Reb Zalman
« The Shechinah can be Seen in the WayfarerThe Rebbe’s Prescription for Anxiety »How the Prayer Word Bestirs
The following text by Reb Zalman is for this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Chaye Sarah. Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor
“And before I had finished lidaber / speaking to my heart, behold, Rebecca came forth with her pitcher on her shoulder.” (Genesis 24:45).
The “speaking to my heart” refers to the previous line, where Eliezer, the servant of Abraham said, (ibid, 42), “And I came this day unto the well and said, ‘havaye God of my lord Abraham, etc.’“ And the prayer there was described here as a dibbur / speaking to the heart, i.e. that havaye dwells within the inside of the heart.
As explained by the holy Rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, on the section of Leviticus 26:12,”And I will walk among you,” in the holy book, Ohev Yisrael, on section bechukotai, expounding on the text, “v’hit-halachti / and I will walk,” here’s what he says:
“For on the level of a human’s inner-space is the holy neshamah. And inside the neshamah is its source and its root which comes from the holy supernal world, which is the level and secret of the holy garden as is known [by Kabbalists] and it is the category of Yesod hamluchah hakadosha haelyona / the foundation of the holy supernal kingdom.” (End of quote, cf. there for the rest).
And [speaking to the heart / speaking to God] was explained in this great reference, i.e., how it is possible to speak to havaye as though S/He is outside of a person.
On the other hand, if one worships without speaking one to an other, as an ‘I’ to a ‘You,’ then the prayer is only a thought within a person and will not effect a bringing about of God’s awe and mercy. In this case, it will be only as a heart feeling that does not fly toward on high.
So while the words are being spoken, at the same time, the intending must be in the heart, and this is how the prayer word bestirs.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat Chaye Sarah,” p. 31
From Rabbi Sholom Brodt 5770
Praying, Daavening, Pouring Your Heart Out To Hashem: Yitzchak and Rivkah
“It will be that before they call I will answer. . .” (Isaiah 65:24)
24:63: Yitzchak went out to meditate/talk in the field towards evening.
Rashi: Verse 63: To meditate. A term for prayer, as in, “He pours out his prayer.” Tehillim 102:1
The Talmud teaches that from the above verse we learn that it was Yitzchak Avinu who first established the afternoon Mincha prayer. What inspired him to ‘go out’ into the field and pray?
In the sefer Mei Hashiloach, The Ishbitzer Rebbe says that Yitzchak Avinu’s major attribute was fear and awe of Hashem; he generally was not an outgoing individual like his father Avraham Avinu, whose primary attribute was ‘Chessed’ – outgoing loving kindness. Rather than ‘go out’ and do something that he was not completely sure of, Yitzchak ‘sat’ in the land of the Negev- dry of all desires.
But now Yitzchak Avinu was inspired by Hashem to ‘go out’ and seek his soul-mate, for after all the world was not created to be left unsettled. Yet he was unsure and he feared to actively seek a wife, so he went out to pray in the field for Hashem’s help in finding his soul-mate. And Hashem answered him immediately – “He raised his eyes and suddenly saw camels approaching.” [24:63] Rivkah was riding on one of the camels; she had come to marry Yitzchak.
And here the Ishbitzer quotes the verse from Isaiah: “It will be that before they call I will answer. . .” (Isaiah 65:24)
This teaching about prayer appears a number of times in the Mei Hashiloach. I hope that I understand it correctly. Why is it that some people really pray and some don’t? Why is it that sometimes we are particularly inspired to pray? The Ishbitzer Rebbe says there are times when Hashem wants to give us something, everything is ready and all that is missing are our prayers. And it is especially then that we are moved to pray. Hashem wanted Yitzchak to get married at this point in his life so He inspired Him to do something about it. He went out into the field to meditate and to pray. Everything was ready, he just had to pray.
From Rabbi Sholom Brodt 2006
The story of Eliezer’s shlichut is one the most lengthy chapters in the Torah. This is highly unusual. Since every word of the Torah is meant to teach us how to serve Hashem and how to come closer to Hashem, we understand that the teachings about being an emissary are of great importance to each individual. After all, each of us is a shaliach of the HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One Blessed Be He. We learn that “ Rozah HaKadosh Baruch hu la’asot Lo dirah b’tachtonim”- the Holy One Blessed be He desired to have a dwelling place for Himself in the lowest of all worlds. Each one of us here is an emissary of Hashem. And our mission is to transform this lowest of all worlds into a dwelling place for Him. It is amazing to consider the possibility that we can actually do this. As enormous as this task may be, and as insignificant as each one of us seems to be, the mishna in Sanheidrin teaches, “ chayav adam lomar bishville nivra ha’olam,” each person is obligated to say that the world was created for my sake. Even though you are only one individual among seven billion others, not only are you not insignificant, but on the contrary, Gd created the world for your sake. This means that you and I, each one of us, is responsible to fulfill our mission and purpose in this world.
There’s an interesting mishna in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] that says “lo alecha hamilacha ligmor v’ain atah ben chorine l’hibatel memena” which means, You are not responsible to complete the job, but neither are you free to resign from it. On the one hand, the intent of this mishna is to prevent us from going nuts over the tremendous responsibility we’ve been given. On the other hand, it encourages us to keep moving towards the goal. Note the opening quotation of the Tanya, “ It has been taught (Niddah, end of chapter 3): an oath is administered to him [before birth, warning him] ‘be righteous and be not wicked.’” Further on, the Tanya explains that the giving of this oath is a unique way in which the soul is provided with all the strength and power that it will need to fulfill its mission and purpose in this world. Though at times it looks like I’ll never manage to overcome all the obstacles facing me, this is not a valid reason for quitting. It is not necessarily my individual role to do away with every obstacle. However, it very well may be my role to just continue doing my best. Too often we sit around judging whether or not our very beings, our existences are worth anything and how much they are worth. There is a false assumption here, namely that we are qualified to judge ourselves or others. We may judge an act, but we may not judge the person, be it someone else, myself, or you.
Chassidus emphasizes that we should move away from judging even ourselves. Rather, we should shift our attention towards the One who sent us on our individual missions. It is far more beneficial to focus on my relationship with Hashem and to consider how I can get even closer. When I make a mistake or when I crash, instead of listening to that negative voice that says I’m no good, it’s much better to consider what I can learn from my mistakes and how I can strengthen my connections.
There are three levels of schlichut- being an emissary. The first level is rather simple, I the shaliach , basically remain myself. I happen to be doing something that I need to do, but at the same time, I can do it for you too. For example, I need to make Kiddush, and you need to make Kiddush. I can fulfill my obligation and yours at the same time, should you want me to be your shaliach. The second level of shlichut is more sophisticated. This is where I, the emissary, am doing something that really pertains to you, the one who appointed me. Thus, I’m not really doing anything. Rather, it is you who is doing it through me. For example, I can be your emissary to sign a contract on your behalf. In everything else, I am my own person, but in this particular matter, I acted as you. The third and ultimate level of shlichut is where the emissary himself, his entire reality and being takes on the truth and reality of the one who sent him. At this level the Talmudic statement” shlucho shel adam kimoto” takes on its complete meaning- the emissary is exactly like the one who sent him.
Paradoxically, this third level of shlichut actually requires you to be yourself in the fullest sense. You must use your intelligence, emotions, wisdom and all your talents to their fullest. You have to be you and not someone else. At the same time, you need to be in a state of bitul-nullification of the self, i.e. that self which perceives itself to be separate from Hashem.
Our role model of the ultimate shaliach- emissary is Sarah Imeinu-our mother. This is alluded to in the opening verse of the parsha. Her desires, her ta’nug- higher sense of pleasure, her full intellectual capacity and her entire emotional being all functioned together in harmony with the One and his will. She performed her shlichut so well that we actually inherited this capacity from her.
In the sicha, the Rebbe continues by pointing out that the gematria-numerical value ooof the Hebrew word shaliach plus ten equals the numerical value of Mahiach [shaliach = 348 +10 = 358= mashiach]. The number ten represents all ten functions and energies of the soul. When the shaliach harnesses all ten attributes into the complete service of Hashem, the One who made him an emissary in the first place, he has achieved completeness and is connected to the inner dimension of everything. He thereby reveals the mashiach dimension of his own soul. At this level of shlichut, the presence of the One who sent us permeates us entirely. And, we are in resonance with the revelation of Mashiach in this, the lowest of all worlds.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer, “The Jewish Book of Days” who quotes Genesis Rabbah 60:5 about Rebekah:
“All women went down and drew water from the well, whereas for her the water ascended as soon as it saw her. The Holy One of Blessing said to her, ‘You have provided a token for your descendants: as the water rose when it saw you, so it will be for your descendants. As soon as Miriam’s well sees them, it will immediately rise.'”
Rabbi Jill also says, “It is as if Rebekah were the moon, creating a tide to pull the water upward. This gift symbolizes her connection to the Shekhinah who is also represented by the moon. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 42a)
From Avielah Barclay Soferet
This week’s Torah reading has another diminished letter – Khaf – which tells us something of the complexities of family relationships.
Depending on which Chumash you’re using, the verse we’ll look at can be found in Plaut p.156, Cohen p.118, Hertz p.80, Sforno p.115, JPS p.32, Jerusalem p.23, and Stone p. 106.
Let’s set the scene: Avraham has just come within a hair’s breadth of slaughtering his and Sarah’s only child, Yitzchak, for a sacrifice to Ha-Shem. Luckily for everyone Ha-Shem saw that our devoted Patriarch was going through with it, so sent an angel to stop the knife from cutting the lad’s throat.
However, on returning home, Avraham and Yitzchak find that Sarah has died. Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer xxxii tells us this is because the seductive Sama’el, Angel of Death, came to Sarah and told her that Avraham had killed and rendered their son a burnt offering. The shock and confusion of this grievous news finished her.
וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.
And Sarah died in Qiriat Arba – which is the same as Chevron – in the land of Kena’an; and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
“…va-yavo Avraham lis’pod le-Sarah ve-liv’kotahh.”
Khaf (כ) derives its name from kafuf, “bent”. “A kafuf” in particular means a person bowed down in humility. Also, due to it’s pictographical shape, Khaf symbolises the palm of our hand, kaf yad כַּף יָד.
After Sarah’s death, Genesis 23:2 reads, “…Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” The small Khaf in the word ve-liv’kotah tells us that Avraham contained his grief, bearing his pain in his heart and not making himself a spectacle due to his sense of modesty (Midrash: Kol Ha-Torah). You can just see him gathering his robes up to his heart with this small, tight Khaf, his kaf yad, to enclose and control his feelings. How heart-breaking.
Other reasons are given for the small Khaf: Avraham may have restrained his grief because Sarah lived a full and successful life (Ba’al Ha-Turim), or possibly because Sarah’s hearing the news of the Akeidah killed her, and Avraham didn’t wish to publicly share his regret, lest others would conclude he felt guilty for causing her death from a broken heart.
Now, if you take this small Khaf out of the word entirely, what do you have left?
Ve-liv’kotahh, “to weep for her” becomes ולבתה u-le-vatah, “and for her daughter”. Instead of “…va-yavo Avraham lis’pod le-Sarah ve-liv’kotahh”, “…and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her”, we get “…va-yavo Avraham lis’pod le-Sarah u-le-vatah”, “…and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her daughter”. What?
The Roke’ach (Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah ben Kalonymus of Worms, the husband of a Soferet Rebbetzin Dulcie*) offers the idea based on the Gemara in Bava Batra 16b that Avraham and Sarah also had a daughter, who died at the same time as Sarah.
What is a Khaf? It’s name means the palm of your hand. An enclosure. It’s shape is two similar things joined, which bend together to meet and marry.
Avraham’s hand/agency/power, home/presence, his כתר keter, crown of Torah, his כהנות kohanut, priesthood, was diminished by losing his wife. Why? Because, according to Sh’mot/Exodus Rabba i. 1, Sarah was closer to Ha-Shem and superior to Avraham in her gift of prophecy, and he knew it. This is why he pitched Hagar and Yishma’el out at her insistence, against his own wishes (Bereshit/Genesis Rabbah xlvii. 1). This is how they got so many new souls together and brought them to The Land with belief in the Holy One (Bereshit/Genesis 12:5). They were a team.
Sarah was Avraham’s crown. And he’d lost her forever. Perhaps this is why Midrash Tanchuma Chayei Sarah 4 tells us that Avraham wrote Ayshet Chayil to eulogise Sarah.
May her memory be for a blessing.
*Rebbetzin Dulcie or Dulcina of Worms was a learned wife and mother who used to repair the Torah scrolls of her husband’s synagogue in Worms, and translate the prayers into the vernacular so that she could lead the women in their own services. She was murdered at age 26, along with her daughters, by Crusaders on their way to Israel.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Sarah dies. Abraham buries her in the Cave of Machpela. Abraham’s servant is sent to bring back a wife for Isaac. Abraham also dies.
IN THIS PORTION, OUR BELOVED ANCESTORS, Sarah, and then Abraham, die. It would seem that it is a story about loss and grieving. But the first word tells us that this story is about Life itself, perhaps the secret to the ripe, sweet harvest of Life’s bounty.
According to midrash, Abraham found the cave of Machpela (which would become the place of burial) much earlier in his life. He came upon it while chasing an ox in order to feed the three strangers who brought the good news that Sarah was to become pregnant. He followed the ox deep into a cave where he found Adam and Eve stretched out on couches, candles burning at their heads. A sweet scent pervaded the cave. The blessing Abraham received was a glimpse of the very entranceway to paradise. It held the well-preserved legacy of his ancestors. The fragrance of that cave is what Abraham remembered when Sarah died.
SARAH TEACHES US the blessing of the fullness of life, the ripening of beauty. We learn that the time of greatest loss is also the time of most abundant harvest. Even as our heart breaks in mourning, we receive (through that very-same broken heart) the legacy of our loved one, and we seek a way to secure that legacy, to plant it within us like a seed.
The blessing that comes of loss is hidden for us to find along the journey of our mourning. We are sent to our depths, to the cave of our ancestors. With courage we can walk into that cave, through the opening of our own broken heart, to where Adam Kadmon – the primordial man and woman – lies waiting surrounded by the fragrance of Eden. When we breathe in that fragrance, we come back to ourselves in an ancient memory of who we truly are.
No matter how rich the blessing is that comes to us through loss, we are still in considerable need of comfort and healing. This portion tells us how to receive the blessing of comfort that will heal us.
ISAAC, SARAH’S SON, GOES OUT from Be’er-lahai-roi, the place that is associated with Hagar, the stranger. Our grief makes us a stranger to life and we dwell in isolation and alienation until we are ready to love again.
This preparation for love is described in Isaac’s meeting with Rebecca. As prelude to that meeting, Isaac goes out into the field to meditate. The word here for meditation is la-su’ach, which refers to the practice of “conversation” with God. The field, a place of spacious natural beauty, is the setting. Here we engage in holy conversation, pouring out our grief, anger and despair, listening deeply for God’s voice. “Min hametzar karati Yah, anani vamerchavyah.”1 (From the narrow places I called out to God, who answers me with Divine expanded perspective, the expansiveness of the open field.) The spaciousness that Isaac achieves in meditation allows him to lift his eyes and behold beauty and the possibility of love. In loving again we are comforted.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THERE ARE MANY PERILS to the peace and integrity of the soul on the path of mourning. The bitterness, fear, and cynicism that sometimes accompany or follow experiences of tragedy and loss can become obstacles on the path of our soul’s journey. When we react to the feelings of vulnerability that loss brings by building up defenses around the heart and fortifying the small self, then we lose access to our own essence. That access is key to direct experience of God and to our ability to truly be of service.
The spiritual challenge at a time of loss is to surrender to the force of dissolution that grief brings, while harvesting the seeds of new life. After the seeds of legacy are planted, they are nourished by our practice and by what brings us comfort. As a gardener of the soul I want to grow compassion that will flower into acts of kindness and justice. This includes cultivating a compassion for myself that will allow me to receive comfort and be healed.
If we follow Isaac’s example we will seek the open field and develop a practice of meditation that will allow us to lift our eyes and open our hearts to love.
1 Psalm 118:5
2 Psalm 77:20
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website:http://www.rabbishefagold.com/chayei-sarah/
CHAYEI SARAH 5767
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
The Midrash says that when Sarah heard about the binding of her son Yitzhak, she immediately died. Her sudden death is attributed to the shock she experienced, when she realized how close to death her son had come as a result of a Divine command. This interpretation may seem to emphasize the humanness of Sarah: the depth of her love for her son and her body’s frailty. However, a Hasidic interpretation attributes Sarah’s death to more than human qualities. (See Or Gedalyahu, Chayyeh Sarah.)
Sarah was amazed… (Genesis 23:2.) When Sarah learned what Avraham and Yitzhak had done at the Mountain of Divine Awe, she was immediately swept up by the power of the union of Heaven and Earth that had been revealed there. Avraham and Yitzhak survived, because by sacrificing a ram instead of Yitzhak, they were able to ground their experience in a mitzvah, a devotional act that binds Heaven to Earth. However, Sarah, who was, perhaps, even more sensitive to the power of the Divine revelation, did not participate in the mitzvah and, as a result, died on the spot.
Like Avraham, Sarah was an extraordinary being. Sarah’s way of life consisted of a hundred blessings a day; in her elder years, she still had the energy of a twenty year old; her youthfulness was nourished by the integrated flows of all seven sefirot (from Hesed to Malkhut) that energized Sarah. (Genesis 23:1.)
Avraham the tzaddik (a righteous servant of Be-ing) was able to recognize Sarah as an emanation of the Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of Be-ing). In the place whence Sarah’s soul departed, four sefirot: Hesed (Unconditional Love), Gevurah (Just Power), Tif’eret (Compassion), and Malkhut (Divine Immanence) formed a complete circuit, bringing together the upper spiritual worlds and the lower world of deceptions. When Avraham the tzaddik arrived to mourn Sarah, he immediately began to honor the Shekhinah and to weep for Her absence. (Genesis 23:2.)
In order to accomplish his purpose in this world, Avraham had to clarify his special needs. Avraham got up from his meditation and told people… (Genesis 23:3.) This world is not my real home; I need a place to practice ascending to the higher worlds even while I am living here among you. (Genesis 23:4).
People love to have a tzaddik among them, even though they may not really understand the depth of the tzaddik’s practice and special needs. Listen, Divine One, you who maintain the G-dfield among us: go and do your practice wherever you like. No one will stop you. (Genesis 23:6.) But it takes extraordinary humility and devotion to find a way to establish a permanent union of Heaven and Earth in this world. Avraham accomplished this by purchasing in perpetuity a burial site for Sarah, emanation of the Shekhinah.
When Avraham wasn’t meditating, he held himself lower than even the most ordinary people. (Genesis 23:7.) Whenever he spoke with them, he had in mind how he could establish his practice for the sake of their souls… (Genesis 23:8.) If only I had access to the cave of dual realms, at the edge of the G-dfield. May I gain perpetual access to it through the merit of complete longing, so that I can leave my body and ascend to higher worlds, while I am still among you. (Genesis 23:9.)
Rebbe Elimelekh provides an awesome insight into this role and practice of the tzaddik in his sefer, No’am Elimelekh. The Midrash says that The Holy One first thought to create the world with the attribute of Divine Judgment. Recognizing that if the world were based exclusively on judgment, it could not survive, the Creator brought together the attributes of Judgment and Love to create the world. On the other hand, we have a verse that specifically says, the world was made out of Love. (Psalms 89:3.) How could the Absolute change Its Mind and why does the verse say that the world was created with Love, if it is the result of both Judgment and Love?
Rebbe Elimelekh’s answer is that there are two realms, upper and lower. The upper realm consists of the spiritual worlds that exist in the Divine Mind. These worlds, which we generally refer to as Atzilut, Beriah, and Yetzirah, are indeed based entirely in Divine Judgment. They come into manifestation as a result of a contraction of the Divine Essence (Atzmut Eyn-Sof) and they operate according to what appear to us as unchanging spiritual laws. The lower realm consists of our world and the kelippot, which can be characterized as a world of deceits and illusions. It is this lower world that can not survive if dependent on Divine Judgment alone. The Divine nature of our world is so concealed that human beings live in a constant state of confusion. Only after overcoming many challenges do we gradually discover what is of real value. Because we so often miss the mark in our perceptions and treatment of others, our world might easily be condemned, if judged by the standard of strict justice. In order to remain in existence our world requires repeated infusions of Divine Love (Hesed).
It is tzaddikim like Avraham who establish Love here in the world of deceits. In order to fulfill the role of a tzaddik, Avraham needed access to the gate of the dual realms (the Cave of Machpelah). By way of the Cave of Machpelah, the tzaddik, as advocate of Love, can ascend to the upper realm, in order to “sweeten Judgment in its source above.” The tzaddik accomplishes this by leaving the body below like a corpse entombed in a cave, while the soul travels through the higher worlds, empowered by complete longing for the Shekhinah. The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rebbe Yechiel Mikhel (the Maggid of Zlotchov) and Rebbe Elimelekh were all well known for making soul ascents. After the ascent, the tzaddik’s soul returns to the body, bearing a new infusion of Divine Love. As a result of such intimate knowledge of spiritual reality, a tzaddik sees through the deceits and feels compassion for all who are lost in illusions.
Sarah’s death enabled Avraham to perfect his practice of soul ascents. Through Sarah’s merit, the Cave of Machpelah (gate of the dual realms) was established in the Land of Israel (the Divine dimension within a tzaddik’s consciousness). Sarah’s soul permanently left her body and ascended to the upper realms, when she sensed the Divine Revelation caused by the Binding of Yitzhak. Because Avraham recognized that Sarah was an emanation of the Shekhinah, after her death he was able to make soul ascents, by visualizing her face. When Avraham died, he was buried with Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. Now, whoever joins her soul to the energy of Avraham and Sarah can enter the Cave of Machpelah and make a soul ascent, wherever one may be.
The Binding of Yitzhak was Avraham’s final test and completed his tzaddik-in-training stage. From that point, Avraham was a Divine Chariot, a vessel in the world of deceits that was filled with the attribute of Hesed (Divine Love). He was able to reach such a high level in his lifetime, because, as a re-incarnation of Adam, he was already “an old soul.” Avraham was an old soul, when he began his life… (Genesis 24:1.)
When Avraham’s training was complete, Be-ing blessed Avraham with the All (ba-kol.) (Genesis 24:1.) The Gemara says that “Bakol” was the name of Avraham’s daughter. (Baba Batra 16b.) This “daughter” was really Sarah, who remained ageless, as Avraham grew older and wiser. Sarah was called “Bakol,” because through her, Avraham was permanently connected to the Shekhinah.
In honor of Avraham’s achievement, the Torah now calls the Divine attribute of Love (Hesed) “Avraham,” and instructs the tzaddik-in-training who follows the path of Avraham.
Be-ing speaking through the Divine attribute of Love said to Its servant, drawer of Wisdom from the upper realms, who governs the flow of Divine Love in this world, through constant devotion to the Shekhinah: ‘radiate all your power into the lower realm.’ (Genesis 24:2.)
I adjure you in the Name of Be-ing, G-ding Power of the upper realms and G-ding Power of the lower realm, do not be satisfied with the energy of the world of deceits, in which I AM is concealed. (Genesis 24:3.) Ascend to My Source above and draw down inspiration from there for your delight. (Genesis 24:4.)
The tzaddik-in-training is charged with an awesome task and cannot help doubting her ability to succeed. The Servant of Divine Love speaks to Be-ing, ‘What if I am not able to draw down Divine Love to the lower realm, should I be content to remain above in the Source?’ (Genesis 24:5.) Then Be-ing, speaking through the attribute of Divine Love, answers: ‘Take great care not to ascend without intending to draw down Divine Love.’ (Genesis 24:6.)
‘Be-ing, G-ding Power of the upper realms, who emanated Me from the Source and Who is speaking through Me now, has adjured me to reveal to you that I AM is manifesting the lower realm for the sake of your descendants; I AM will equip you with a Spirit Guide so you can draw down Divine Love from above.’ (Genesis 24:7.)
‘Even if you don’t succeed in drawing down Divine Love to the world of deceits, you will be blameless, as long as you make the ascent with the right intent.’ (Genesis 24:8.)
Learning this, the servant of Avraham resolves to devote all her power to drawing down Divine Love to the lower realm and binds herself to do just that. (Genesis 24:9.)
May we be blessed with the age-defying holy energy of Sarah.
May we recognize emanations of the Shekhinah in our world.
May we learn to rise above the world of deceits
And sweeten our judgments with new flows of Divine Love.
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