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Parshat Chayei Sarah — Sign language

Are your decisions the result of deep thought or maybe a simple coin toss? Either way, it's sticking to them that's the really hard part (Chayei Sarah)
Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415, by Sir John Gilbert. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415, by Sir John Gilbert. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

It was the biggest snowstorm that anyone could remember on the day they crowned Henry of Monmouth as king of England. Some said it was a good omen, a message that the harsh winter was about to end, and that spring was on its way. But others said it was a bad sign, a portent of violence and war about to come.

And in the middle of it stood the very tall, pale 27-year-old king, who would become known by history for his tremendous military successes and decisive victories in the Hundred Years’ War against the French.

By rights, Henry should never have become king of England. He was born in Wales on September 16, 1386, (though perhaps it was August 9, 1387 — his birth wasn’t considered significant enough to record the date), in Monmouth Castle, high above the Monnow River.

His mother, Mary de Bohun, was a descendant on her mother’s side of Llywelyn the Great, who had ruled Wales for 45 years. His father, Henry Bolingbroke, was the son of John of Gaunt and grandson of King Edward III. Bolingbroke was also the maternal grandson of Philip IV of France, so he had a claim on the thrones of both England and France.

The Westminster Portrait of Richard II of England from 1390s. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

But Bolingbroke’s cousin, Richard II was king when Henry of Monmouth was born.

In 1388, Bolingbroke joined with four other noblemen and tried to impeach several people close to Richard in order to restrain what they called his tyrannical rule. Though they had some success at first, they were eventually defeated, and many of the lords were exiled or executed. However, for some reason, Richard decided to elevate Henry, making him the Duke of Hereford.

However, in 1398, Henry accused Thomas de Mowbray of treason. The two dukes agreed to settle the matter with a duel, but Richard called it off at the last minute. Instead, the king banished them both from England. Bidding farewell to his father John of Gaunt, and his son (his wife Mary, had died some years earlier), Henry Bolingbroke headed for Ireland.

But in a surprising move, Richard adopted the younger Henry. Perhaps he wanted him nearby to keep an eye on him. Perhaps he was genuinely fond of his cousin’s son. It is certainly true that after a few years, Henry was closer to Richard than he was to his own father.

In 1399, John of Gaunt died. In a move which proved to be his downfall, Richard prevented Henry from inheriting from his father, and instead took John’s lands for himself.

Illumination of King Henry IV c. 1402. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

While Richard was on a military campaign in Ireland, Henry came back to England to reclaim his inheritance. Very quickly, he gained enough popular support to declare himself not only Duke of Lancaster, but eventually King Henry IV, on October 13, 1399. It is interesting to note that Henry IV was the first king of England since the Norman Conquest who made his coronation speech in English (for 350 years the nobility had mostly spoken French).

Richard was sent to the Tower, where he died a year later, probably of starvation. Henry had Richard buried privately in Hertfordshire, but many years later, Henry of Monmouth, who became Henry V, brought his body back to be interred in Westminster Abbey.

Henry IV ruled for over a decade, but on March 20, 1413, he breathed his last, after having suffered for many years from a skin disease which may have been leprosy. According to Shakespeare, Henry had received a prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem. In fact, he died in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey, in London.

Painting of Henry V (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Which brings us to the unseasonable snowstorm on April 9, 1413, that accompanied the coronation of Henry V. Surely it was an omen of something. It was such a pity that nobody could agree what it meant.

In fact, despite his relatively short reign, Henry V went on to become one of the most successful warrior kings of medieval England.

Henry was immortalized by Shakespeare especially for his rousing St. Crispin’s Day “band of brothers” speech and subsequent victory against the odds in the 1415 Battle of Agincourt (though the Bard was writing for an audience that included Queen Elizabeth, a descendant of Henry, so it was wise to portray him as a great man).

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

Henry built a strong and peaceful England, undoing much of the division wrought by his father. He brought Richard’s son Mortimer back into favor and restored lands and titles to the heirs of the nobles from whom his father had confiscated them. He also made English the official language of government and was the first English king in 350 years to use the language in his personal correspondence. He negotiated a deal with France that almost brought an end to the Hundred Years’ War, though Henry’s sudden death put an end to the treaty.

Facsimile of letter from Henry, 1418. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Henry died suddenly on August 31, 1422, aged 35, after nine years on the throne, leaving the crown to his infant son who became Henry VI.

Surely the celebrations at Henry V’s coronation would have been so much greater had the people known what a good omen the snowstorm would turn out to be.

In general, Judaism frowns upon looking for signs and omens. Several verses forbid the practice. Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, when Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent to find a wife for his master’s son Isaac, he does just that (Genesis 24: 10-14):

The servant took ten camels… and went with all the goodness belonging to his master in his hand. And he arose and went to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nachor. He made the camels kneel outside the city, near a well of water, in the late afternoon, the time when the women who drew water came out.

And he said, ‘God, Lord of my master Abraham, send me good fortune please this day, and do kindness with my master, Abraham. I am standing near the spring of water, and the daughters of the townsfolk are coming out to draw water. May it be that the maiden to whom I say: Tip your jug that I may drink, and she says: Drink, and I will also bring water for your camels — she is the one You have chosen for your servant for Isaac, and I that way I will know that I have done kindness with my master.’

Immediately Rebecca appears, and passes Eliezer’s test with flying colors. So, after deliberation with her family, she goes back with Abraham’s servant and marries Isaac.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 4a) tells us that three people made this kind of unreasonable request of God – Eliezer, Saul and Jephthah. But only two of them were answered appropriately and one (Jephthah) was answered inappropriately.

Elsewhere, the Talmud (Chullin 95b) cites the example of Eliezer as a paradigm of forbidden divination.

Yet Eliezer nonetheless received the signs he wanted, and was able to bring back a suitable wife for Isaac.

Making decisions can be extremely difficult, sometimes even paralyzing. Especially decisions about relationships and marriage, but also decisions about where to work, where to live, and sometimes even what toppings to have on a pizza.

Coin toss. (CC BY-SA, ICMA Photos/ Wikimedia Commons)

The people behind Freakonomics ran an experiment to see if removing the decision-making process made people happier. They set up a website and offered to flip a coin (actually a random-generated computer program) to make decisions for people.

They were inundated with thousands of people who asked for a solution based on a coin flip.

And when they followed up with these guinea pigs months later, they found that:

Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo.

In many ways it is so much easier to rely on omens and signs, or even the toss of a coin, instead of making decisions.

The truth is that abdicating responsibility for the decision is not taking full responsibility for our actions.

But the even bigger truth is that having made the decision – either based on deep thought and consultation, a coin toss, or a sign from heaven – it is making that choice work that is the really hard part.

Declaring the snowstorm a beneficent sign was just the beginning for Henry. Becoming a great king was down to his dedication, hard work (and of course luck). Drawing water for Eliezer’s camels was relatively easy. Making her marriage with Isaac work was the much more difficult task.

Making any decision is difficult. Making that decision work is the challenge that can bring out the best in all of us.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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