Monday, November 1, 2010

Chayei Sarah Sermon

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of both Sarah’s and Abraham’s deaths. In particular it tells the tale of the purchase of the burial cave in Hebron, Maarat Ha-Machpelah, where all of the matriarchs and patriarchs are buried with the exception of Rachel who is buried in Bethlehem.  It is where Abraham buries Sarah and where Isaac and Ishmael stand together to bury their father, Abraham.

In between the deaths and burials of Abraham and Sarah is the story of finding a wife for Isaac.  It is an interesting and detailed story.  Here is that story in more detail and of course, with my spin and interpretations.

Abraham tells Eliezer to go back to his homeland to find wife a wife for his son, Isaac.  The journey from Canaan to Aram-Naharaim was not a short one.  It was the distance between the modern State of Israel and the present border region between Turkey and Iraq.

Eliezer arrives there in the evening and goes to the town’s well.  It is there that the women go to gather water.  He offers this prayer and develops a test.  He says, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham:  Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”

Rebekah immediately appears.  We are told she is very beautiful.  The Hebrew literally states: “She was really good to look at.”  Rebekah of course fulfills his prayer and passes his test.  By the way, think about how many jars of water it would take to satisfy a camel after such a long journey.  10 camels would apparently each drink 15 gallons!  Now that is a lot of jugs of water for Rebekah to carry back and forth from the well.

The Torah states that Eliezer stood gazing at her.  Now this could be because she was really hot, or it could also be because she was running back and forth for hours watering the camels.  This task was no easy job.  When she finally finished Eliezer offered her gifts of gold.  After showering her with gold bracelets and jewelry, he asks about her family.

Rebekah of course offered for Eliezer and his entourage to stay with her family in their home.  The servant gets even more excited when he realizes that he has stumbled upon Abraham’s kinsmen.  The family in turn gets really excited when they hear Rebekah’s story and see all the gold she is now wearing.  They offer him food.  But he refuses to eat until he tells them about his errand.  Of course the family states almost immediately that Rebekah can go with him.  (Oops, maybe we should ask Rebekah!)

Finally they ask her if she wants to go and she says, “Elech—I will go.”  After the long journey back to Canann she sees Isaac for the first time.  It is love at first sight.  The Torah says that she falls off the camel when she sees him.  Isaac was apparently quite a hunk.  They are quickly married.  And then the Torah says, Isaac loved Rebekah.  It goes on to say that because of this love he found comfort after his mother Sarah’s death.

I really like this story.  It is so rich in details.  It makes one think about the question I posed in my weekly email.  How do you measure a person?  How do you size someone up when you first meet him/her?

Given the text’s emphasis on both Isaac’s and Rebekah’s physical beauty, as well as its mention of all the gold and Abraham’s wealth, it is fascinating to see that the reason why Eliezer chose Rebekah was because of her compassion to animals and her extension of hospitality.  Eliezer, although I should add that in the text he is unnamed and called only the servant, sees the truth.  Where everyone else seems focused on looks and wealth, Eliezer sees inside the soul.  He is the unexpected and surprising hero of our Torah portion.

Eliezer sees into Rebekah’s compassionate heart.  Still today, it is too often about the outer rather than the inner.  Too often we look at the outside rather than the inside.  We talk about a person’s clothes rather than his/her soul.

The good person is the person who pays attention to the seemingly mundane and small.  It is about something as seemingly secondary as feeding animals.  It is about friendliness and extending hospitality to strangers.

It is easy to be friendly and welcoming to friends.  It is much harder to do so to those who are outside our circle.  Being helpful to those in need, especially to those we don’t know, is the true measure of a great person.

Think about these questions: Do we always tip those who work for us?  Do we always pay those who do our chores on time?  When we see someone searching for directions do we stop?  Do we step over the homeless and poor as we rush to the theatre?  Do we pretend these hungry and cold people do not exist?  Do we stop to help strangers when it is apparent they are in need?

The law does not demand all these things of us.  We could say, “I can’t fix all these problems,” and we would be excused.  But like Rebekah greatness is not measured in doing only what is required.  Greatness is measured by going above and beyond the law.

It is these extra tasks that are the evidence of a good soul.  It is to these that we must look when we are measuring others.  It is to these that we should look when measuring ourselves, and when reaching for greatness. 

May God give us the strength to remember the little details that make for greatness and compassion.  May God help us to live by Rebekah’s example.

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