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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5778 — 11/11/2017

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5778 — 11/11/2017

Bereishit 23:1-25:18

The bulk of our parashah is taken up with the story of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, and his quest to find a wife for Yitzchak. The Torah, which is often extremely terse, spends a great deal of time describing what happened, and then describes how Eliezer recounts the tale to Rivka’s family. Many commentators learn lessons from the differences between the two tellings, for they give us an insight into the righteous Eliezer’s mind, and, by extension, into the mind of his master, Avraham. Here is one of the points of difference that Abarbanel notes:

24:14 … her You will have designated for Your servant, for Yitzchak, and may I know through her that You have done kindness with my master. [My highlight]

24:44 … She is the woman whom Gd has designated for my master’s son.

Abarbanel goes on to explain:

It would not be befitting to the honor and stature of his master Avraham if Gd’s action were to be seen as merely a kindness.

A kindness is something that Gd performs for individuals regardless of their spiritual accomplishments. Eliezer wants to make sure that they [i.e. Rivka’s family] understand that Avraham deserves to be rewarded with someone special because of his special accomplishments.

Apparently Abarbanel is implying that Avraham deserves to have good things happen to him because of his spiritual level. It is not clear, however, that Avraham thought himself worthy of anything, as he describes himself as “dust and ashes.” Indeed, the idea that any one of us deserves anything is somewhat problematical in Jewish thought.

Our Sages identify two main Divine Attributes by which Gd interacts with the world: the Midat haChesed / Attribute of Kindness (or Mercy) and the Midat haDin / Attribute of Strict Justice. The Attribute of Strict Justice is associated with the physical world and its laws – if you jump off a cliff it doesn’t really matter to gravity how much charity you’ve given or how active you are in the synagogue, you are going to fall. The Attribute of Kindness, on the other hand, is more forgiving – if we sin, Gd withholds the consequences for some time, until we can raise our spiritual level and do t’shuvah to the point where we no longer need external force to correct our direction in life.

Needless to say, there has been much discussion in the Rabbinic literature about the relationship between these two Attributes. We learn, for example, that Gd created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one, and that the reason He destroyed the previous “tries” was that there was an insufficient supply of the Attribute of Kindness. Perhaps what the Sages are telling us is that if you want to have creatures with free will (that’d be us) who can grow towards perfection, then you can’t slap them down hard each time they make a mistake, which is what Strict Justice would demand. In a world that has free will, Justice has to be tempered with Mercy or the world will destroy itself.

Traditionally Avraham is associated with the Attribute of Kindness and Yitzchak with the Attribute of Strict Justice. Avraham was the paragon of giving, of the flow of love from his infinite inner fullness. Yitzchak, on the other hand, is described as taking the path of utmost stringency with himself in order to perfect his character. The third of the Patriarchs, Ya’akov, was the one who was able to integrate and harmonize the two Attributes in his personality.

Interestingly, the Sages identify Ya’akov as one of the very few individuals in history who actually could have lived solely under the Attribute of Justice, as he never sinned. I don’t know how to reconcile this idea with two other Rabbinic teachings: First, that Ya’akov shouldn’t have gotten angry with Rachel when she told him, “Give me children or I’ll die.” Maimonides tells us that one should never get angry, and the Sages criticize Ya’akov for not treating Rachel with more compassion. Second, there is a list of 4 individuals who died “… from the poison of the serpent…” – that is, because death was decreed on humans due to Adam and Eve’s sin, and not through any sin of their own. Those four are: Binyamin ben Ya’akov, Amram (Moses’ father), Yishai (David’s father) and Kil’av ben David (one of David’s sons). Note that Ya’akov was not among them.

However, perhaps we get a hint how this might work by analyzing the structure of the first blessing in the Amidah, Birkat Avot. It seems to me that the structure of this blessing follows a 3+1 pattern. The 3 corresponds to the three Patriarchs and the 1 to Gd, or alternatively, the 3 corresponds to the three ways Gd interacts with the world as embodied in the Patriarchs (i.e. Kindness, Justice and the integration of the two) and the 1 is Gd in His transcendent nature. Thus:

Baruch atah H’ Elokeinu v’Elokei avoteinu (1), Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak v’Elokei Ya’akov (3)

HaKel HaGadol, HaGibor v’haNorah (3), Kel Elyon (1)

Gomel chasadim tovim (Kindness, Chesed), v’konei hakol (Justice, Gevurah), v’Zocheir chasdei avot (Union of the Two) (3), uMeivi go’el livnei v’neihem, l’ma’an sh’mo v’ahavah.

  • In line 1: Gd of our fathers (transcendent value, includes all the Patriarchs), Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak and Gd of Ya’akov (3 Patriarchs, individually)
  • In line 2: Great (gedulah is a Kabbalistic synonym for chesed, Kindness), Mighty (gevurah = din = Justice) and Exalted (by the combination of the two) (3), Gd the highest (transcendental value)
  • In line 3: Giver of good kindnesses (Kindness), the Possessor of all (Justice, boundaries), Who remembers the Kindnesses of the Patriarchs (This is the salient point – see below) (3), Who brings a redeemer to their descendents for the sake of His Name and love (we are Redeemed because it is Gd’s plan and because He loves us – this comes from the transcendent)

In line 3, the part that corresponds to Ya’akov indicates that Gd remembers the kindnesses of the Patriarchs. Is this remembering a kind of judgment, in which the Patriarchs, or perhaps just Ya’akov, is found to be perfect? Or that his (or their) Kindnesses are sufficient that they can stand before the Attribute of Strict Justice?

The bottom line is this in my opinion. As we are all finite creatures, our level of intelligence is not to the point where we can know, intuitively, what Gd’s Will is in any specific situation. Nor can we count the many ramifications of our every action to make sure it is life-supporting to the entire universe. Therefore, since we are always in the position of having to act (even deciding to refrain from action is itself an action), it is inevitable that we will make mistakes. Therefore none of us is deserving of life, since Gd’s standard, at least according to His Attribute of Strict Justice, is perfection. We constantly need Gd’s mercy and kindness, Gd’s undeserved bounty that He showers on us daily. Surely Gd, Who created us imperfect, knows our nature, as we say in the tachanun prayer: Remember that we are but dust! But we have a responsibility from our side to be improving ourselves constantly. A bedrock principle of Judaism is that Gd does not demand the impossible. Gd has given us precious tools to improve our lives, and to mold our will to the point that it is perfectly and intuitively in tune with His Will. Even if we can only approach perfection asymptotically, that is what we must use our time and resources in doing.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Chayei Sarah

What qualities would we want in a servant who we send to an unfamiliar world to select a spouse for our beloved child?

What strategy would the servant use to select exactly the right spouse?

Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to look for a wife for his son Isaac.

Abraham trusts not only Eliezer’s loyalty but his competence – his competence in zeroing in on the right bride and his judgment in making sure the bride really is the right bride.

Eliezer’s strategy is not to stay within his limited ability but to ask Gd for guidance. As he approaches a well in the country he is sent to he prays in his heart that Gd will bring a woman to the well who will offer to give him not only a drink from her pitcher that he asks for but also that she will offer to provide water for his camels also. Eliezer values generosity as a sign of love and appropriateness.

Before he even finishes this prayer, a woman appears who fulfills his request.

This a sign of considerable purity in Eliezer and also in the woman, who is Rebecca and becomes Isaac’s wife.

Rebecca leads Eliezer to her family and Eliezer explains his mission: to find a bride for his master Abraham’s son, Isaac.

“Will you marry him?” his family asks.

“Yes, I will”, Rebecca replies, a sign not only of generosity but of her own judgment that Eliezer is connecting her with the love that Gd intends for her, a marriage that will enable her to be not only a good and happy wife, but a good servant of Gd.

“Will you leave tomorrow?” Eliezr asks.

“Yes, I will”, Rebecca replies, a sign of trust.

And when Rebecca meets Isaac they love each other and Isaac is comforted for the loss of his mother, proof that Eliezer was a good and competent servant, one who fulfilled his master’s wishes.

In our lives we do our best “to love Gd with all our heart and soul” and “to love our neighbor as ourself” so that we are good servants of ourselves, our families, our communities and Gd. We do our best to be trustworthy, competent, loving, generous and to welcome in the Shekinah, Gd’s bride, not only on Shabbat but every moment and to be Gd’s bride ourselves.

The sound and meaning of this parshah help us in this delightful activity.

Baruch HaShem.