Pulling people together
Hayei Sarah - Genesis 23:1-25:18
Abe looks for a bride.
I’m still looking for a place
to gas up my car.
– Ron Kaplan
November 7, 2012
This week’s portion is primarily concerned with transitions. The portion opens with the story of the death of Sarah, and ends with the death of Abraham. In the middle we find an extended narrative devoted to securing a wife for their son Isaac so that the continuity of the nascent monotheistic enterprise can be assured. Sensing his impending death, Abraham summons his servant Eliezar to undertake a journey to an extended clan family and make the necessary arrangements to arrange for a bride for Isaac.
After protracted negotiations, Eliezar secures the permission of the clan family and returns with Rebecca, who will become the wife of Isaac and the second matriarch of the Jewish people. “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)
The Midrash offers this interpretation of the transition: “You find that as long as Sarah lived, the cloud of the Divine Presence was suspended over her tent. When she dies, it disappeared. When Rebecca arrived, it returned. While Sarah was living, the doors of her tent were wide open; upon her death they closed. When Rebecca arrived they opened again. As long as Sarah was alive, there was a blessing on her dough, and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Sabbath until the evening of the next Sabbath. When she died, these ceased. But when Rebecca arrived, these returned.” (Genesis Rabba 60:16)
In selecting these indicators, the Midrash identifies a number of crucial areas that validate the type of leadership that ensures continuity. The first is both essential and evasive. The reappearance of the cloud of Divine Presence might suggest God’s endorsement of Rebecca. Her selection as Isaac’s wife was the result of her kind generosity in watering Eliezar’s traveling team as well as his camels when they approached the well in a foreign land. Abraham had predicted that the one chosen as Isaac’s wife would be someone who demonstrated an act of generosity. The Torah suggests that Rebecca may be playing out a role determined in advance.
While in Torah times the notion of the divine election of a person (Abraham, Rebecca, Jacob come to mind as examples) or of an entire people (apparently the self-understanding of the ancient Israelites) might have seemed a blessing, in contemporary culture such claims can seem presumptuous and problematic.
In this week just following a national election, there will be many who will claim that it is a sign of “God’s favor” for the winners, as if a supernatural script had been written ages ago and circumstances simply converged to assure that what “was supposed to happen in fact happened.” Yet even the Bible warns us that those who proclaim most loudly to be “God’s elected” are among those to be viewed with suspicion.
The Midrash cited above points us toward some of the qualities of leadership that Jewish tradition endorses, regardless of whether one seeks divine certification. The open door to Sarah’s tent, for example, implies openness and accessibility. Both Sarah and Rebecca are prepared to welcome whoever approaches, despite the fact that we can assume not everyone came in a spirit of agreement, kindness, or generosity. It is easy for a leader to welcome sycophants; it is more challenging to listen to those who disagree.
Rebecca restored the blessing to the dough. Perhaps this symbolizes the degree to which a leader must attend to meeting the basic communal needs of sustenance for all, of taking account of the needy and not only the wealthy. Before we can be challenged to come together in service to our community, we need to be assured that our basic needs are met. As the Talmud suggests, “If there is no flour (i.e., sustenance), there is no Torah.”
Regardless of how individual electoral races may have concluded, we cannot forget those most at risk of losing the basic necessities of human life, especially following an electoral season where compassion was in short supply and too many people were told that they were not only on their own, but that they were better off for being on their own.
The Midrash concludes by reminding us that Rebecca restored the Sabbath lamp, suggesting that among her first acts as matriarch was to appreciate what those who came before her had created. Rebecca understood the importance of preserving symbols and rituals that represented commonality, continuity, and community; she knew the importance of pulling people together following a time of uncertainty, of division, and of disagreement.
We may hope that in the weeks to come those who step into positions of leadership will emulate the wisdom of Rebecca, who understood the need to create reassurance, to respect what came before, to attend to the immediate needs of a community, and to remain open and available to all.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.