A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Chayei Sarah
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This week’s Torah portion opens just after the trauma of the Akeida, that is, the binding of Isaac on the altar by his father Abraham. It is very difficult to imagine the effect of such an experience upon Isaac who, while tied down upon an altar, watches his father lift the knife above him. Of course, his life is spared at the last moment, yet this experience must have left an indelible mark upon him and upon his mother, Sarah. There are in fact, several rabbinic legends that link Sarah’s death at the opening of this week’s Torah portion to her receiving the news of the near-sacrificial killing of her son Isaac by his father.
As the narrative proceeds, the Torah guides us on a path toward healing. After trauma and grief, the Torah seeks out the only possible path for healing and that is the experience of hesed, loving-kindness. It is the path that will enable the survivors of such trauma and loss to re-engage with life and move forward.
After mourning Sarah’s death, Abraham performs his final act of hesed for her, by seeking and acquiring for her, a burial place. He then sends out his servant Eliezer to find a worthy wife for his son, Isaac. Eliezer is on a mission to find a woman who embodies the qualities of hesed, lovingkindness and compassion. He asks for God’s help in finding a woman who will not only offer him water after his long desert journey but who will possess the compassion to recognize the thirst of his camels as well. He seeks a woman whose loving-kindness knows no distinctions and embraces all.
Water is the universal symbol of life-giving hesed/lovingkindness. And it is this quality of hesed that will be a comfort to Isaac, a source of healing for him after the traumas of his life. As the Torah recounts:
Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her and found comfort after his Mother’s death. (Gen, 24:67)
Whether in this narrative form or in the poetry of the psalms, or in the mystical texts of Zohar and Hasidism, we discover the same truth. The world is founded and built upon loving-kindness, and it cannot be maintained without this quality. Eliezer cannot find a wife for Isaac without it. Isaac cannot move forward in his life without it. Torah’s unfolding narrative cannot move forward without it. History cannot move forward without it. Every act of hesed each of us performs is not only healing but potentially transformative. Taking but a moment to greet someone with warmth, eye to eye, can be a transformational moment. Every drop of water shared with one who thirsts for connection is healing. Like Rebekah, we are, each of us, bearers of life-giving water. Know that every one of us has the power to build a new world through the sharing of hesed. Olam hesed yibaneh– the world is built on a foundation of hesed.
Kedushat Levi, the Berditchever Rebbe, further expands this idea. He suggests that whenever we perform a mitzvah that reflects the attribute of hesed, lovingkindness, it reverberates in the entire cosmos, awakening this quality throughout the world. He is saying that one act of kindness initiates a ripple effect and causes the awakening of kindness in the hearts and actions of others. Kindness, then, can be contagious. Of course, so too can cynicism, fear and anger. This is why we must become ever more mindful of our emotional lives and how we communicate, because all of these qualities reverberate in the world. As much as we might imagine that we live in a private bubble, our energy knows no boundaries and flows freely into the world.
Here in our Torah portion, we see an intense focus on the reverberation of hesed that began with Abraham welcoming in the three strangers and which now continues through Eliezer, Abraham’s devoted servant, in his quest for a woman who will embody this attribute. Finally, we see it manifest in Rebekah as she rushes to bring water to Eliezer and all of his camels.
In our times and in our land we have seen a resurgence of hate in many forms. We have witnessed a kind of cultural permission to publicly express hateful ideas and beliefs. And yet, through all of these shadows, the light of hesed, of kindness and compassion, burns brightly as communities of differing backgrounds come together in loving support to express their shared humanity. This is groundbreaking and heart-opening and a profound new expression of hesed in our world.
Tonight I share my prayer that just as Eliezer actively sought out Rebekah, a bearer of hesed, so too may we each become seekers of hesed, opening our eyes and our hearts to recognize the many simple expressions of kindness that abound in our world. And may we all merit to participate in its ever-flowing expansion.
Ken Yehi Ratzon- May it be so.