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Chayei Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

“Seeing Through the Veil of the Mind”


The unfolding of the biblical narrative brings us to the close of one chapter—that of Abraham and Sarah’s journey—and the opening of a new one—that of their son Isaac and soon-to-be wife: Rebekah. After Sarah dies, Abraham sends his servant to find a fitting life-partner for Isaac. The instructions are precise: the servant is to travel back to Nachor in the land of Haran, the place Abraham had left to journey to Canaan at God’s instruction, and there he is to find a spouse from Abraham’s tribe. Abraham describes the exact series of events that his servant will need to witness in order to know he has found that special someone. This story is recounted two more times in our portion, once when the servant finds Rebekah as Abraham predicted and again when the servant re-tells that story to Rebekah’s family.

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 Rebekah. 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 Rebekah is 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 that can arise only from within silence.

His staring at Rebekah (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 themselves 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 lives, to truly meet them—as the biblical expression has it—panim el panim, presence to presence, inwardness to inwardness, is for us to move into the silence of hitbonenut. Like Abraham’s faithful emissary, to metaphorically stare deeply at them that we might pierce through the calcified image we have painted of them, awaken beyond the stultified stories we have boxed them in, liberate them from the projections of our personal desires about who (and how) they should be, and allow them to be known to us anew in the silence of the soul.