Parashat Chaye Sarah
November 13, 2020
70 Cheshvan 5781
Parashat Chaye Sarah opens with the death of Sarah and closes with the passing Avraham. The Torah relates how Avraham acquired an ‘achuzat kever, title to land to bury Sarah, and how he then prepares for the continuity of Yitzchak’s family by sending an emissary to Haran in Ur Kasdim, Aram Naharayim, to find a wife for his son. Avraham understood that Yitzchak’s life must include something from the family’s primal journey. Yitzchak’s life must continue the legacy of envisioning a future, living for its manifestation, and yearning for its redeemed actualization. The future orientation of the moment is captured when Avraham directs his servant to place his hand on Avraham’s loins, literally the embodiment of hope for the world’s future. Vision language is embedded in the text: the servant stands by the wellspring of water, nitzav ‘al ‘ayn hamayim, waiting and watching for the right woman to arrive. (24:13) The word, “standing,” is nitzav. That word always portends an event of cosmic significance. It is the word for “standing” that appears during covenantal episodes between God and the nation at Sinai and then again in the plains of Moav before Moshe dies. That phrase literally means, “standing in anticipation of a revelation from God, by the all-seeing source of water.” In verse 24:12, the servant prays to God, asking for chesed. The word chesed means, “love,” but it signifies love in a covenantal relationship between two parties, as in the phrase, chesed v’emet, “a binding commitment to love and truth.” For example, in Bereshit 47:29, the dying Ya’akov asks his son Yosef, the Vizier of Egypt, to swear that he will take his bones back to Canaan for burial (to the Patriarchal burial ground of this parasha.) Ya’akov asks Yosef to place his hands on his father’s loins, just like Avraham and his servant, and asks him to swear with the phrase, chesed v’emet.
Throughout the story at the spring, drinking and slaking thirst prefigure. The servant hopes the right woman will offer him water to drink, and then offer his camels. Rivka hurries to carry water. From 24:14-22, different forms of the word, “to drink,” lishtot, repeat five times. They also alliterate with the words shoket, “trough,” mishta’eh, “he waited [to see what would happen],” and mishkal, the weight of the gold jewelry the servant presents to Rivka. Rivka constantly ran back and forth. The narrative is filled with movement and alacrity. The Torah actually recounts the event twice. First, as the events unfold, and then again, as an oral narrative in the house of Betuel. The Torah repeats a tale of pure chesed, twice. The story is so simple. It is so clear. Rivka, from amongst all the other women, sees a thirsty stranger with a thirsty caravan of ten camels. Nothing else is important. She scurries about, to slake all of the thirst. She acts with pure, unadulterated chesed. There is a need to fulfill, and she had the means to do so. There were no complications.
The servant offers her gold. Money is mentioned in the three sections of this parasha. Avraham uses money to acquire land for burial. The servant presents gifts to Rivka as a way of expressing gratitude and to assure her that her future will be dignified with her future husband. Finally, money is mentioned at the end of the portion, 25:9-11, when Yitzchak and Yishmael bury their father.
However, there is another mention of money: Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Lavan. Lavan ran out to the man at the spring—when he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms, and when he heard his sister Rebekah say, “Thus the man spoke to me.” He went up to the man, who was still standing beside the camels at the spring.“Come in, O blessed of the LORD,” he said, “why do you remain outside, when I have made ready the house and a place for the camels?” (24:29-31) Commentators rightly note the significance of these verses. These verses that introduce Lavan form the bridge between the servant’s direct experience and his narration in Betuel’s tent. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz in his work, Shenei Luchot haBerit wrote: Lavan was motivated by money. “As soon as Lavan saw the nose ring and bracelets on the hands of his sister, he ran towards the man” (24:30). Lavan realized that Eliezer had come to propose a שידוך, a match, He whispered to Eliezer that for a large sum of money he would side with him and agree to the match. However, if Eliezer refused, Lavan would oppose the match. He was the most influential member of the household. Rashi noted that Lavan “cleared the house of idols” to make room for the camels. Sforno wrote that Lavan did not come to invite the stranger home, but to stare at the “wealthy traveler.” In the Midrash Lekach Tov the rabbis wrote: וַיָּבֹא אֶל הָאִישׁ וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל הַגְּמַלִּים עַל הָעָיִן. הָיָה מַעְיָן בְּעַצְמוֹ. אִם יָכוֹל אֲנִי לוֹ אוֹ הוּא יָכוֹל לִי. Lavan approached the man who was still standing by the camels near the spring. The word, “spring” also means, “see” or “look.” Lavan was looking at Avraham’s servant, sizing him up, and wondering who could overpower whom. According to the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, only a miracle saved the servant (called Eliezer in rabbinic sources): Lavan ran over to kill the man. The servant immediately saw that he was in danger, so he held onto all ten camels at once and pulled the caravan into the air and stood, in the air, on top of the ten camels. When Lavan saw that, he changed his tune and announced, “Blessed one! Why stand outside? Come into my home!” In another version, Lavan still considered how he might kill the man by poisoning him at a meal, and therefore he welcomes him. (See, Torah Shelemah, Chaye Sarah, fn. 124)
Avraham was motivated by lovingkindness to bury Sarah (chesed shel emet), and his servant expressed gratitude to God for providing Rivka, a woman of loving kindness and giving. Lavan, however, saw only power and wealth. When one sees only power and wealth, one is seduced by avarice. Once greed consumes a person’s imagination and fills the person’s heart, our rabbis teach, only cruelty and falsehood follow. The Mesillat Yesharim put it this way (I paraphrase): It is very difficult for a person not to be tempted by money. It is even harder not to be tempted by fame. People always want to be greater than everyone else. And this leads to hurtful actions. (11:156) The teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirke Avot also applies to this moment: Ben Zoma said: Who is strong? A person who controls his desires, as it is said: “A person who is slow to anger is better than a powerful army, and a person who rules his own spirit is stronger than a military leader who conquers a city” (Proverbs 16:3). Lavan, driven by greed, is a duplicitous liar. The Torah tells the tale of Lavan in order to teach and admonish us. The events at the spring form a narrative of love, kindness, authenticity, integrity, and giving. Inserted into that long re-telling, however, emerges the dark figure of Lavan (“whiteness”), who personifies the human predisposition to lie, steal, abuse, conspire, and enable violence in order to grab what one wants.
This is the struggle between truth and mendacity, and between love and avarice. The Torah is profoundly optimistic about our potential for acts of goodness, love, and kindness. Kindness can become our truth. The Torah, with Lavan, also admonishes us against the temptation to lie, cheat, and enable violence at all costs simply to grab wealth, status and power. When Rashi wrote that Lavan had to clear his home of idols to make room for the camels, he was hinting at precisely this point. The servant’s journey was filled with gemalim, (camels) with living, breathing gemilut chesed. Lavan created the pretense of hospitality, as an act of lovingkindness, but his idols, his demons, his nefarious lies were there, hidden in the corner.
When Rabban Gamaliel taught that the world rests on three values: justice (din), truth (ha’emet), and peace (hashalom), I consider that teaching to reflect the struggle between love and truth on the one hand, and avarice and mendacity on the other. There can be no justice, truth or peace when driven by greed, and greed is only temporarily satiated by a constant attack on the truth. A challenging midrash identifies the place of truth in Jewish consciousness as a non-negotiable value. At the end of Genesis Ch.1, the Torah reads “Na’aseh Adam betzalmeinu, kidmuteinu – let us make humanity in our image, in our likeness” (Bereshit 1:26). The Midrash reads:
“Let US …” Why plural? There was a dispute among the ministering angels: would it be a good idea to create Adam at all. The angel representing Love said, ‘Let humans be created, because they will perform acts of love.’ [But] Truth said, ‘Let humans not be created because all of them will be liars.’ The argument continued until the Holy One threw emet, truth, to the ground. The angels said to God: “Ribbon HaOlamim, Master of the Universe,“why did You degrade your seal?” (God, You are the source of truth, the sole possessor of Truth, how can You throw it out of heaven?) A verse from Psalms comes to answer: “emet mei-eretz titzmach / let truth spring up from the earth.” (Gen. Rabbah 8:5)
The rabbis are teaching us that truth is divine, but exists primarily on earth. Our task as human beings (the midrash is notably universalistic) is to prove that the angels were wrong. It is our task to fill the world with truth, and to shun falsehood. The truth is often elusive and ambiguous, but not inaccessible. God chose Avraham and Sarah to re-create what it means to be human. In this final chapter of their lives, their legacy is to bestow upon the next generation of their family the twin values of love and truth. Anything less than that will fill our world with the violence and cruelty that springs from greed and falsehood. We are living in such a world now, filled with greed and lies. Any Jew who turns his/her back on the values of chesed and emet, love and truth, has fundamentally disassociated themselves from the inheritance of Avraham Avinu.