Parshas Chayei Sarah

God Needs Partners

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life is that he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The way the Torah characterizes his death is similar:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good too – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true!

To recap, God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children. Yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known to for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then on their travels, Sarah was twice the target of some despotic leader’s unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham endangered himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused a deep rift between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham removing Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, whether we think of the children or the land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have felt entitled to expect of God’s promises. Why does the Torah sum up their lives with the feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment?

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that to be happy does not mean that you have everything you want or everything you were promised.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how you might expect. Avraham’s story seems so trivial – it’s about his business ventures, his travels, and his family disputes. R’ Berkowitz teaches that if we had a story were about mighty heroes riding flying unicorns to vanquish their enemies and save the world, it couldn’t be more silly, and it couldn’t be less relevant. Avraham’s story matters because it teaches us that God’s mission has no fanfare, no red carpet, and no grand celebration – Avraham is our hero because God’s mission for us is in mundane things. It’s in trying to make a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The thankless and mundane ought to be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. We have a duty to do what we can to pave the way before passing the baton to the next generation.

Avraham did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish people become numerous; he had taken the first step. He had begun the task, and he knew that his descendants would continue it. He was able to die at peace because he had faith in God and faith that others would complete what he had begun. The same was surely true of Sarah.

As only Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God can promise, but humans have to act. God may promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God may promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. Avraham did all he could, with the faith, trust, and hope that others would continue what he began. Living their entire lives with that belief, they were able to die with a sense of fulfillment.

It was enough for Abraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

Show, Don’t Tell

When Eliezer set out to find a wife for Yitzchak, he devised very specific criteria. The right woman would not just look after him, but his whole entourage and animals as well.

The Midrash says that when Rivka went to draw water, the well rose towards her, saving her the effort.

Why was that not a good sign?

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz succinctly says that miracles don’t prove you’re a good person. What makes a good person are good deeds.

Rav Hirsch notes how in the conversation Rivka had with Eliezer, she said she would get him some water, and only once Eliezer had finished did she say that she would feed the camels as well.

Along similar lines, what you do says more about you than your words ever could. Rivka did not waste words promising about the good deeds she would do; she just did them! She helped him, and when he was done, she helped the rest. The story emphasises that her kindness was performed with haste – she ran in a hurry to quickly help.

Despite the fact that Eliezer was a stranger to Rivka, she treated him with incredible dignity, referring to him as “my lord,” even though Eliezer introduced himself as a slave.

The story showcases the characteristic of genuine chessed – loving-kindness. She would do, not talk. She showed extreme sensitivity to others. She treated ostensibly lower-class strangers with the dignity another human being deserves. This kind heart belonged in the house of Avraham.

It’s the kind of behaviour we would do well to emulate.

Together Forever

The Gemara in Kiddushin derives the halachic model of marriage from the transaction that took place between Avraham and Efron for the Mearas HaMachpela.

When students learn this, it is easy to misconstrue. How is getting married anything like buying a field?

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the analogy of the transaction takes place in a much wider context.

The land of Israel is indelibly woven into Jewish history and identity for eternity. This interaction was the first act, by the first Jew, on the land of Israel. The Mearas HaMachpela, and what Avraham went through to get it, is the first link in the eternal bond between the land of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Mearas HaMachpela was a double storeyed structure, and special in that it’s structure enabled our ancestors to be buried together privately as couples. Husband and wife, parent and child, remained together. The first act on the land of Israel was to secure the future of family ties.

The analogy to marriage makes far more sense in this context because it transcends a simple land transaction. The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.

Jumping Through Hoops

Eliezer was Avraham’s faithful attendant and steward. So trusted, that he was sent to find a suitable young woman for his master’s son and heir, Yitzchak. Avraham was a well established figure, presiding over a large community; having displayed his valour, skill, and bravery at war, in addition to his considerable generosity and integrity. Finding a match should have been straightforward, albeit a potentially drawn out process.

Yet Eliezer displays anxiety and worry throughout, and seems eager to complete the job as quickly as possible. He prays, as though the onus in entirely on him, as if Avraham and Yitzchak weren’t also concerned; his prayer consisted of a request that the intended girl present herself, rather than him searching for potential suitors as was his remit. But why was he so worried?

The Sochatchover teaches that when there is no pressure to succeed, a person can give up at the first sign of trouble. Every difficulty takes on epic proportions, and becomes “uncontrollable”. But if a person is challenged to succeed, he will persist and somehow manage against the odds. President Kennedy explained the goal of sending a man to the moon: “We choose to go to the moon… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organise… the best of our energies and skills…” Working at easy things means never having to fail, but it also means never fully testing or exercising one’s potential. When a person is forced to work at something hard, he uncovers all kinds of hidden and latent ability that can make the impossible into the achievable.

Years later, when the disguised Yosef instructed his brothers to bring Binyamin before him, Yehuda went to Canaan, and told his father that he would take full responsibility and liability for him, no matter what. This included accidents beyond all control; Yehuda would still be liable. Why add such a condition?

If Yehudah was charged with being responsible for Binyamin “as best as he could”, he might not have stood up to Yosef because an “accident” absolved him. But when charged with returning Binyamin, no matter what, Yehudah knew he had to rise to the challenge. The added responsibility served to bring out the extra reserves of courage and perseverance that otherwise might have lain dormant and untapped.

The Shem MiShmuel explains that for similar reasons, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Every girl he met could be declined, and on his return, he could pass off his failure as beyond his control, and then suggestively note that his daughter was marriageable. Eliezer feared that his personal biases would disturb his focus.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that this explains Eliezer’s sense of urgency, and desire for certainty. Eliezer knew that when dismissing potential suitors, he would always doubt his motivations for doing so. Eliezer asked for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and asked for Hashem to remove any need for deliberation. He prioritised his mission so absolutely to the extent that we only find out about his daughter after he completes his task and Rivka has been selected. Ultimately, these efforts not only cleared his conscience; they left Lavan and Besuel with incontrovertible proof that Rivka was meant for Yitzchak.

Likewise, Yehudah took full responsibility for Binyamin to account for “uncontrollable” things.

The eyes can’t see anything if the mind is blind. Perception is so crucial to attitude, and by changing the way you think changes what you see. When adversity presents itself, consider that the gauntlet has been lain down, to provide the impetus to force more from you; and watch yourself rise to the challenge.