Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chayei Sarah and Teaching Compassion

This week we read of Sarah’s death. She dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham buries her in the Cave of Machpeleh in Hebron. This begins our attachment to this city located in today’s West Bank. All the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel, are buried there.

Following the mourning for Sarah, Abraham sends his most trusted servant, Eliezer on an errand to find a wife for his 37 year old son, Isaac. (Talk about helicopter parenting!) Eliezer travels to the country of Abraham’s birth and goes there to the town well. The well was the singles bar of ancient times because young women would go there to fetch water. So Eliezer wisely went to the well in order to find a young wife for his master.

He decided that he would choose this wife not based on her beauty but instead on her character. And how would he make this determination? He decided that whoever offered to give him water and offer as well to water his camels would be the right woman. “When Rebekah had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.” (Genesis 24:19-20) Because of this he discovered that she was a compassionate person.

Kindness to animals is a measure of compassion to humans. In fact there is whole body of Jewish law dealing with our obligations to animals. We are commanded to be sure that animals do not suffer. This is the tradition’s basis for kosher slaughtering. The Talmud even suggests that we must feed our animals (in our case our pets) before we eat. (Brachot 40a) Why? Because to not do so may cause pain to the animals. Imagine how your dog responds every time you sit down for meal. The dog becomes agitated at your feet until you fill the bowl with food.

The tradition reasons that compassion to other human beings begins with showing kindness to animals. Moses Nachmanides, a medieval philosopher, reasons that this is the very reason for the commandment regarding preventing cruelty to animals. It is to inculcate compassion toward human beings. We learn the value of compassion by caring for pets. This is what we hope to teach our children by bringing a dog or cat into our homes.

This is what the servant Eliezer must have intuited when we first saw Rebekah. This is why he brought her back to marry Isaac. I imagine that when Rebekah and Isaac first met she saw the pain in his eyes. She saw that he was still grieving after his mother’s death. I imagine that she wrapped her arms around him and said, “I am sorry for your loss. Eliezer tells me what a remarkable woman your mother was.”

And the Torah states: “Isaac loved Rebekah, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

Such traits of kindness can begin with the feeding of animals. A character founded on compassion can begin with the offering of water to a stranger.

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