This week’s parasha, Chayye Sarah, begins and ends with acts of kindness around burial. Death prompts kindness. The parasha begins with Abraham searching for a burial plot for Sarah. It ends with the formerly estranged Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury Abraham. The middle of the parasha is also a story of incredible kindness: Rebecca greets Abraham’s servant with the sort of greeting all of us likely desire - and likely rarely get - when entering a new space or location. The two acts of kindness bookending our parasha are laudable, but likely not surprising. Death is an act which tends to make people more conscious of their behavior and act with kindness towards one another. However, it is the act of kindness separated from loss and grief, which truly define who we are and make us worthy. Here Rebecca excels and becomes a model for the Jewish people and our relationship with God.
After the death of Sarah, Abraham approaches the people of Chet to purchase a burial plot for Sarah. Until the exchange between Abraham and the people of Chet and then Ephron, no person in Breishit is referred to as “adoni,” meaning, “my master.” In Abraham’s negotiations for a burial plot, he is called, “adoni,” three times. Abraham, who is a stranger in the land, is called, “my master,” by the locals. The midrash in the Mekhilta (Pascha 18) explains that the land of Canaan was named after the Canaanites because of the kindness the children of Chet - who are Canaanites - showed Abraham, particularly in referring to him as, “adoni.” Since this is the first use of that term and also the first public burial we have in the Torah, I assume the two go together: the death of Abraham’s wife prompts extra kindness.
The death of Abraham prompts unusual kindness as well. Ishmael and Isaac, who up until now seem to have been apart and non-interactive, come together to bury Abraham. The Rabbis teach us that Ishmael repented for his previous sins (though what those sins might have been is itself confusing). This explanation displays shock that Ishmael and Isaac, of all people, would come together. Perhaps, like the generosity of the people of Chet in the wake of Sarah’s passing, death motivates kindness between brothers who were previously estranged.
Which is where most of us, Jews and non-Jews, stand one week after the horrific murder at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. At the moment, we are showing incredible kindness to one another. I am moved by the massive number of people who came to the memorial on Monday night and the incredible words of the many speakers. That night, ministers of different cloths and politicians put aside their differences to show solidarity. In this, we all followed the model of the people of Chet, of Isaac and Ishmael. It is a laudable model. I wish everyone in the world would show such kindness in response to tragedy.
But we need a model for continuing to show kindness one week from now, one month from now, one year from now when the pain of Pittsburgh begins to fade. For this our parasha presents us with Rebecca. Abraham’s servant comes to Aram Naharaiim, knowing no one and praying to God for a person to show him incredible kindness. Rebecca arrives and shows the exact kindness he requests: she offers water to him and his camels. She goes further: her offer of water to the camels comes unprompted. She does not walk back and forth to the well; she runs. She never asks the servant to help her. The servant never reveals his name and does not reveal his origin until after she has invited him to her family for room and board. The servant responds to Rebecca’s kindness by giving her gifts, including two gold bracelets weighing ten shekel. The Rabbis see these two bracelets and their weight of ten units as an allusion to the two Tablets and the Ten Commandments engraved on them (Genesis Rabbah 60:6). In response, several commentaries attempt to explain why Rebecca, as opposed to any of our other ancestors, is given a gift that alludes to the central piece of a contract between God and Israel.
Perhaps Rebecca receives a gift which alludes to the Ten Commandments because she most deeply embodies the characteristic necessary for receiving the Ten Commandments. Israel merits receiving the Torah (and the revelation at Sinai) because, unlike the other nations, it accepts the text unconditionally without reading it first (Mekhilta Chodesh 5). Israel willingly creates a relationship with God without preconditions or asking questions. Similarly, Rebecca creates a relationship with Abraham’s servant with no questions asked or preconditions. This is the ultimate kindness, and it exemplifies the quality necessary to inherit Torah.
Which is what we need to show one week, one month, one year, and one generation from the tragedy at Tree of Life. Let us not only show the kindness we have shown already, the kindness of Ishmael, Isaac, and the people of Chet immediately following death. Let that kindness lead us to the kindness of Rebecca, kindness shown with no preconditions and which appears both at times of good and times of bad. Kindness which makes us truly worthy of Torah and God’s covenant.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb. Joel Goldstein