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Parashat Chayei Sarah 5779 — 11/03/2018

Parashat Chayei Sarah 5779 — 11/03/2018

Bereishit 23:1 – 25:18

L’ilui nishmot harugei Pittsburgh

I am a stranger and a citizen together with you (23:4)

Through this declaration Avraham announces: This is who I am. I am, at once, a stranger and a citizen with you. I will participate with you, I will contribute to your culture and to your life; but I will always be separate and apart. This is the balance that I must maintain if I and my descendants are to survive and contribute as a people. (R. Goldin, p.104)

R. Goldin points out that right from the beginning of our existence as a people, we have had to play a dual role. On the one hand we have applied our formidable creativity to the betterment of society in all areas of life – in its first 100 years more than 20% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish, which is way above our proportion of the general population (even considering only Europe and N. America where the vast majority of the Prizes have gone). (If you want to kvell, go here.) The number of medical innovations coming out of Israel exceeds that of most countries with much greater levels of material resources. A quarter of the Fields medals awardees (“Nobel Prize of Mathematics”) have been Jewish.

On the other hand, we have always maintained ourselves as a people apart, separate from our host countries, either by our choice, or, more often, by theirs. Some have maintained that anti-Semitism is Gd’s way of reminding us that we are in exile, no matter how gilded our cage may be. I think I have pointed out before that all the many ethnic groups that make up America’s “melting pot” are known as, for example, African-Americans or Irish-Americans or Polish-Americans – the noun is “American” and the adjective is “African” or “Irish” or “Polish” or whatever. Except the Jews. We are American Jews or British Jews or Canadian Jews. We are Jews, and the adjective describes where we live. If I were to move anywhere else in the world I might cease to be an American, but I will never cease to be a Jew, even if I were to convert to some other religion Gd forbid.

This debate goes on between different communities within the Jewish people.  Some, like the Satmar Chasidim, argue for radical isolation. Others in our community have “voted with their feet” and have assimilated totally into their host cultures, to the point where they are completely unrecognizable as Jews. Most of us are somewhere on the spectrum in between. Like Avraham, we try to maintain a balance between being good citizens of our host countries, while maintaining our cultural integrity in the process. How often we, or others, succeed is often evaluated by our relative places on the spectrum.

It is, of course, impossible to be completely isolated and maintain oneself. Human beings are open systems and we require input from outside ourselves (e.g. food, water, air) to survive physically. In order to survive as a culture, we also need to interact with the outside world, or a kind of “Second Law of Thermodynamics” sets in and the culture atrophies and dies. In fact, Judaism has been enriched by its interaction with other cultures, east and west, by judicious borrowing and adaptation, as we discussed last week. Those who think they should live exactly the way our ancestors did, be it Biblical or 18th-century East European, are deluding themselves. Principles may remain absolute, Torah may be unchanging, but the expressions of Torah and the applications of principles to new situations will necessarily change as circumstances change and require new responses informed by ancient principles. One might ask the person walking around B’nei B’raq in 120° heat in a black caftan and a fur shtreimel why he has chosen to model his dress after his ancestors in Poland rather than his ancestors who walked the very land he is walking on. Is one more authentic than the other?

We have wrestled with these ideas as a people since the day Yitzchak wanted to go down to Egypt because of a famine, as his father had done before him, and Gd told him not to. I would like to suggest that this issue is a very general part of the human condition. We all have to balance ourselves between two worlds, spiritual and material, the unmanifest transcendental, and the manifest world of forms and phenomena. At present we are wildly out of balance in this fundamental matter, as most people have no idea that there is a transcendental dimension to life – we are stuck in a “what you see is what you get” world.

Our tradition tells us that this transcendental dimension exists, and that it pervades all of phenomenal existence, only the activity of the phenomenal world hides this silent dimension. Our job is to bring the transcendental out of “hiding.”  To do this, of course, we first have to have the transcendent lively in our own lives, in our own awareness. That of course requires retiring out of the manifest world. Sitting in the transcendent alone will do nothing for us however, nor for the world around us. It is necessary to bring the awareness back out into the world of activity. The repeated alternation of the silence of the transcendent and the activity of the world, cultures the mind and the nervous system to maintain both at the same time. This is a platform that allows us to lead a balanced life.  The transcendent is that which never changes; when it is stabilized in our awareness, nothing in the changing world can throw us off balance. We gain what our Sages called hishtavut / equanimity, the ability to remain calm and objective while the world spins around us.

From this balanced status we can bring balance into the world. By thinking, speaking and acting from the level of the lively transcendent within ourselves, we project that value into the world of action. We bring the balance from inside ourselves out into the outer world. This brings the transcendent, which is always there, out of “hiding” so to speak. It becomes manifest in better ordering of society and greater fulfillment of the individual. This is the role Gd gave us as a people. Our stepping up to the plate has never been more needed.

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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 on 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?” Eliezer 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 ourselves” 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 Shekhinah, Gd’s bride, not only on Shabbat but every moment and to be Gd’s bride ourselves.

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

Baruch HaShem.