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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.

But despite Abraham’s orders to follow his exact script, a pivotal moment in the story happens as if outside the script, when the servant finally sees Rebeccah. The Torah reads:

The man stood staring at her, silent, in order to learn whether or not YHVH had cleared the way for him. (Gen. 24:21)

Although the events unfolding in front of his eyes exactly match Abraham’s words to him, and although he knows, intellectually, what he is supposed to look for, still, the servant pauses for a moment. Intellectual knowledge is contingent, dependent on our own lifetime of conditioning, colored by our life experiences and our genetic makeup. The servant knows he has to get his self out of the way to ensure he fulfills his mission; to ensure his own conditioning does not influence his choice. He has to get beyond his own thoughts, his own emotions, his own desires, and also let go of his master’s story about who Rebeccah was supposed to be, in order to access that part of Self which knows at a deeper level, and awaken to the type of intimate knowing which can only arise from within silence.

His staring at Rebeccah (explicitly mentioned in our verse) seems to me akin to a type of meditation our tradition calls Hitbonenut. In this kind of meditation the practitioner focuses on an external object, a candle flame, a word or a sentence in Torah, to free oneself from the inner chatter of the mind. Through this intense outer focusing the mind becomes quiet, and out of this silence a deeper knowing is allowed to emerge at the soul level.

Perhaps Abraham’s servant is pointing us toward one of the most meaningful practices of silence. Perhaps the only way to truly know the people in our life is to move into the silence that awakens beyond the stories we have created about them in our mind, and the projections of our personal desires about who (and how) they should be. Perhaps our task, for this first week of the midah of silence, is to practice hitbonenut by bringing to mind the pictures of those we deeply care for (as we would a candle flame,) and to allow them to be known to us anew in the silence of the soul.

© 2010 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.