Friday, October 25, 2013

Chaye Sarah

Sorry I missed last week.  I was busy in New York with a group of teens.

Chayye Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, actually recalls the death of the matriarch and comes just after the binding of Isaac.  In this Torah portion we see Isaac begin to take on a bigger role in the narrative as Abraham calls his servant, Eliezer to travel back to Abraham's hometown to  find a wife for Isaac.  Going with wealth of Abraham he travels until he comes to the public well.  Resting there he has a moment to think about the important task and says this:

 "O God, 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. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master."  He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham's brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder.

Rebekah of course will do as Eliezer predicted and she will become the wife of Isaac.  This plea to God, a prayer, is ridiculed by the Rabbis of the Talmud and to this day.

In Tannit it says:
How could Eliezer have asked God for this favor using such careless language?! This is not the way to speak to God! Eliezer's master, Abraham, sent him on a long journey,  back to his kinsmen in Haran, to find a bride for his son Isaac. When Eliezer got to the well of Haran he said to God, "If You will show me the right woman,  I will know who I should bring back to Canaan as Isaac's bride. Let the woman  You choose come here to the well and let down her pitcher of water for both me and my camels. That way I will know who the right woman is." God forbid, what  if a perfectly horrible, ugly, shrewish woman had come to the well and given  water to Eliezer and his camels?!

Ibn Ezra, a 12th century commentator on Torah said, 
"Eliezer was completely wrong in his approach to God, forcing God to perform a miracle for him this way. If the woman who answered him in the way he expected had been physically blemished with an artificial leg or blind, it would have been Eliezer's fault.  Eliezer should have been more specific in his request to God. He should have told God to make sure the woman was not only kind and generous, but physically perfect as well. Unquestionably, God would have arranged the right match for Isaac, but one should not depend on miracles for they certainly do not happen everyday or just because one asks God for them, no matter how prayerfully or sincerely."

Rabbi Sampson Raphel Hirsch, a 19th century Torah scholar said,
The method of petitioning God and then expecting specific signs to occur that Eliezer used is certainly not recommended for the rest of us! This is not a way to talk to God or to choose a wife! Only an Eliezer, sent on a mission with the confidence and  faith of an Abraham, told by Abraham that one of God's angels would accompany  him and help him, only such a person could act as Eliezer did and speak to God the way Eliezer did.

While some contemporary commentators like Nahum Sarna do indeed see Eliezer as doing no wrong, the idea is that this is foreigner giving a foreign prayer to the God of his master.  This is a prayer from the heart.  A prayer of petition but a prayer of emotion.  Unsure of himself, Eliezer seeks to define what he sees a good wife.  Actions speaking louder than beauty or formality.  I find the prayer remarkably Jewish.  It is what I think the connection to Godness should be.  The interaction of Eliezer and Rebekah are crucial in understanding what kind of person would be good for Isaac.  Her kindness to a stranger and his animals brings holiness to the moment.  Eliezer didn't need an angel to understand his role in making the interact a holy thing.

Too often when we pray in our culture we are looking for a miracle.  Something to happen apart from us.  Something to solve a problem that we can't seem to wrap our hands around.  But miracles are not something that we simply have happen to us.  Miracles are the result of the on-going partnership we share with the divine.  We must seek out the miraculous by creating the possibility of miracles.  We must find a way to bring God into the equation.  Eliezer did by looking straight into the eye of the problem and realizing that if the woman he seeks was among the women of Haran, then she would have to posses certain character traits measurable by her actions of kindness.  His prayer called on God not to produce a miracle, as Ibn Ezra suggests,  but to show he is seeking the miracle, like all miracles, that are around us every day.

I recently read an article that questioned the roll of God in the modern world.  It recalled how a parent might use God as a boogyman, always seeking to find us doing something wrong.  What I call the celestial hall monitor.  This is part of the Western concept of God, but is not really how we should expect Judaism to see God.  God can't simply be a concept designed to find wrong doing, but should by the light on the horizon that guides us to good.  Our prayers should focus on how best to understand the light.

What is all our prayers were coupled with actions that would help us focus the Godness we seek into our lives.  Might we then spend less time waiting for the repair of the world and more time repairing it?  What if we find out.

Shabbat Shalom.

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