Parshat Chayei Sara

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This week’s parsha discusses the very first Jewish marriage – that of  Yitzchak and Rivka (Isaac & Rebecca). In fact one of the blessings we give a bride until today – Achotenu, at hayi le’alfei revava – is a quote from today’s parsha. We read in the parsha how Sarah passes away and Avraham begins to search for a wife for his son, Yitzchak. He sends his servant Eliezer on a long trip to his hometown of Charan to find a suitable daughter-in-law.

They tell of a young Jewish girl who also travels far to find a shidduch (marriage partner).  She is doing charity work in the Congo and eventually returns home to her parents after two years away, bringing with her the man of her dreams. Into the house walks a tall man wearing just a grass skirt, black as ebony and with an arrow through his nose. He starts to chant and sing and the mother faints to the floor. The daughter is distraught – she rushes over to her mother with a glass of water and asks, “Mother, what is wrong, this is the very man you have always been begging me to marry since I was a little girl?”

“Oy, mein tochter!” replies the mother, “I said find a RICH doctor – a RICH doctor!”

Back to our story … Eliezer travels with his men by camel and they arrive in Charan. Now where do you go to meet a nice Jewish girl and you don’t have access to JDate – to the well of course! So he waits at the well and sets up the “Camel Test,” a kind of speed dating system. He decides he will ask each girl to give him water, and the one who offers water not only for him and his men, but for his camels as well will be the right one. He prays to G-d to help him, and his prayers are answered – he immediately spots the beautiful young Rebecca walking towards the well.

So far so good – Eliezer asks the question and gets the right response. But then something very strange occurs – he not only accepts her offer of water, but also allows her to do all the hard work for him as he sits and watches! He is there with a team of strong adult men, and he allows this young woman to shlep and toil to give water to their thirsty camels. How could he just sit and watch? (Now, if he was already married maybe we would understand)

Let us look briefly at another story at the beginning of the Parsha where Avraham is looking to bury his deceased wife Sarah in Hebron (Chevron). The owner is Efron the Hittite, who initially makes a good show of generosity by offering the land for nothing. When Avraham insists on paying, however, Efron manages to slip in how much it is worth, “Ah,” he says, “sure, what’s 400 silver coins between friends” and of course Avraham pays up in full. Efron had no trouble accepting the cash. So – kindness in words but not in actions. He talked the talk, but when he saw the glint of the coins he couldn’t walk the walk.

Avraham was the opposite. He talked little and achieved a lot. He was a man of true and genuine kindness. Look at how he rushed to find and feed his guests only a few days after his circumcision. Look at how he went head-to-head with G-d in an attempt to save the wicked people of Sodom. Avraham’s kindness to others remained even if he himself had to suffer or lose out. That is  true kindness.

Perhaps now we can understand why Eliezer showed such a lack of chivalry – allowing Rivka to toil and schlep – instead of just accepting her word that she was prepared to give the water.

Eliezer was looking for a wife for Yitzchak, mother of the Jewish people. He was looking for a woman who would fit into the extreme kindness culture in the house of Avraham. In order toguarantee that Rivka would fit the bill he needed to make sure she would follow through on her offer – even though it was physically difficult for her to do so.

The message for us is clear as descendants of Avraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivka: The Jewish people are meant to be Gomlei Chassadim – people that exemplify kindness. We cannot be happy with just talking – we must be kind to others even when it is demanding of us and even when it is painful to us – because that is true kindnessMany of us are moved and compassionate when we hear of those less fortunate than ourselves. Families with no homes, no clothing or hot food; brides who cannot afford a wedding and those unemployed and struggling – but how many of us would consider giving up on our summer holiday to help those people, how many of us would consider selling our car or downsizing our house in order to help others?

The answer is that none of us would – but that is what we should at least aspire to – to do kindness even when it demands of us more than we are comfortable with.

Here is a wonderful story I heard about true kindness done for no reward, just for the kindness itself.

A fellow was visiting his parents’ grave in a cemetery in New York and he saw a Jewish funeral taking place with only nine men attending, one short of a minyan (quorum). He offered to be the tenth so they could recite the kaddish, but they were not interested. He tried again, and asked them to humour him and make a minyan so the burial would be done according to time honoured tradition, with a Mourner’s Kaddish, and they eventually agreed. After the kaddish was recited they left without filling the grave, leaving it for the ground staff to do. So he filled it himself. He was not a young man, it was a hot day, and it took him two difficult hours to do. An anonymous mitzva for a person he did not know.

Once home he asked his rabbi if he recognised the name of the man they buried. After some research the rabbi told him an interesting fact: “When you came here as a refugee from Europe our community needed funds to help you stay, to feed and clothe you and give you a Jewish education. By “chance” the man you just helped to bury and said kaddish for was the very man who sponsored you when you arrived! One kindness repaid with another.

Let’s try and emulate the Avraham’s of this world, and the Rivka’s of this world, finding ways to do kindnesses for others. When we do that, slowly but surely we will find the around us will respond in kind. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and  director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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