Torah Reflections November – 1-7, 2015

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

When Isaac Met Rebekah 

This week’s Torah portion opens with Sarah’s death. After Abraham mourns her, he sets out to accomplish his last fatherly duty before he, too, makes his transition: finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find Isaac a spouse from his clan.

As the servant arrives at the well of the city, he begins to verbalize out loud—talking to God—the mental picture he created about how meeting the right woman for Isaac would unfold, down to the specific behavior she would have to display for him to know she is the one. As he prays for success, he repeats time and again the word chesed (loving-kindness): “Act inchesed with my master Abraham.” [Gen. 24:12]  “Through her I will know that you have acted in chesed with my master.” [Gen. 24:14] And when he is finally certain he’s found the one in Rebekah, he bows down and cries: “Blessed is the Eternal, God of my master Abraham, Who has not relinquished His chesed from my master.” [Gen. 24:27]

For our mystics, Chesed is the quality (the Sefirah of the Kabbalisitc Tree of Life) associated with Abraham. Throughout his life, they affirm, Abraham embodied Chesed in his actions and his level of faith. But as Abraham’s days now come to an end, there is a fear that, perhaps, this quality was slipping away from him as these verses from his servant seem to indicate. Some commentators suggest that since the Akedah—the near sacrifice of Isaac—God had stopped talking to Abraham. It was even an angel, and not God Himself, that intervened in-extremis to stop Abraham from killing his son. Perhaps in finding Rebekah, the servant is seeking to either compel God to bestow chesed upon Abraham once again, or to be reassured that, despite the episode of the Akedah, God still holds his master in loving-kindness.

But there is another possibility. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is the one to embody this loving-kindness; the one, according to his prayer, that will give him water from the well and will spontaneously offer to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his prediction exactly. God might not restore Abraham to his former status; instead he might be transferring onto Rebekah—as the new heir to His Promise—the continuity of this quality of Chesed. And Isaac was in dire need of bringing chesed into his life. One of the consequences of the Akedah is that Isaac comes out of the ordeal embodying the qualities of restraint (of one’s impulses,) of strict justice, and of righteous power. Isaac, the Kabbalists say, symbolizes the quality of Gevurah (power, strength,) the opposite of chesed. Opposites may or may not attract but they need one another. Isaac finds in Rebekah the energies, the qualities that balance out his own. She not only consoles him after the death of his mother but keeps alive in his life, his father’s energies as well.

What about us? What would be our Sefirah on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? What is our dominant character trait, our personal “center of gravity”? What unique primary quality do we embody? Our Kabbalistic reading of Torah invites us to look for such quality and check for ourselves if it may be so dominant in us that it has become, perhaps, a stumbling block in our life, stunting our personal growth; a disabling force in our relationships. And if that’s the case, our work is to discover and practice enhancing the opposite quality. To find healing and balance in our lives we are not to disown our inner Isaac (nor let it remain single,) but to seek instead to find its counterpart at the well of our Self, and invite-in the inner Rebekah we will meet there.

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Torah Reflections – Oct. 20 – 26th, 2013

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Where Life Hangs by a Thread                            

The cry of the shofar is the tears of Sarah, says a midrash.  This midrash comes to fill-in the blank space between the end of last week’s Torah portion and the beginning of this week’s. It describes Sarah being told that Abraham had taken her son Isaac, and had slaughtered him; offering him up on an altar as a sacrifice: “Sarah began to cry and moan the sounds of three wails that are the three blasts of the shofar. And her soul burst forth from her and she died.” Thus begins our weekly reading: with Sarah’s sudden death.

I found an arresting footnote in the Etz Chayim Chumash (Torah book) on this first verse; a statement attributed to commentator Avivah Zornberg. Sarah’s death, according to the note, “is a reflection of her inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” Zornberg’s statement is one of existential nature par excellence. It points to this fragile place within us that seems to require that there be meaning, predictability and safety in our life. Sarah, faced with such dreadful fate, is robbed of all three all at once, and finds herself unable to sustain such a loss. The emotional pain is so unbearable that “her soul burst out forth from her.”

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Torah Reflections: November 13 – November 19, 2011

Parashah (portion) Chayei Sarah – The Legacy of Isaac and Ishmael
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Foreword: Since I will be in Israel for the next couple of weeks and won’t be able to write my weekly Torah Reflections, I thought you would have enough time to read a slightly longer piece this time. This was originally an article I wrote for the Seattle Jewish Transcript newspaper which you can still find in its online version here.

A surprising turn of events happens in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. We read:

Abraham breathed his last and died in good ripe age, old and satisfied, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah… [Gen. 25:8-9]

What are Isaac and Ishmael doing here together? This is the first we hear of them since each of their traumatic experiences at the hand of their father. Some seventy-three years earlier–as far as Ishmael is concerned–Abraham attempted to kill him by casting him and his mother out to die in the wilderness. He and his father had remained estranged ever since. The same holds true for Isaac after the Akedah, his binding and near sacrifice. Despite the fact that an angel intervenedin the last momentto stay Abraham’s hand, Isaac saw that his father was ready and willing to sacrifice him. Arguably, from Isaac’s perspective the angelic intervention didn’t make a difference. Even though the blade of the sacrificial knife never touches him, it may as well have, as their father-son relationship was severed for good. Isaac does not come down from Mount Moriah with Abraham; in fact, there is no record of the two having contact ever again.

[Read more…]

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Torah Reflections: October 24-30, 2010

Parashah (portion) Chayei Sarah -Seeing Through the Veil of the Mind
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

This week brings us to the second value our community selected to practice more deeply this year, the second midah, on our list of twelve: the value of silence. This week also brings us to the close of Abraham and Sarah’s journey as we read about their deaths in the verses of our weekly Torah portion. But as the story of one couple comes to an end; that of another couple –Isaac and Rebeccah — begins.

After Sarah’s death, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant is to travel back to Haran, the place Abraham had left to journey to Canaan at God’s instruction. There, he is to find a spouse from Abraham’s tribe. Abraham describes to his servant the exact series of events that he will need to witness for him to know that he has found that special wife. This story is recounted two more times in our portion, once when the servant finds Rebeccah as Abraham predicted, and once more when the servant re-tells that story to Rebeccah’s family.
[Read more…]

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