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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 23 Nov 2018 07:59 PM and ends Sat 24 Nov 2018 09:00 PM
כ"ב חשון ה' אלפים תשע"ג
A Word of Torah for Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis, 23-25:18) The parashah before us may stand as a testimony that G‑d is somehow able to keep an impossible promise to us all. I will answer this question, says our parashah: How is it that G-d can promise anyone reward or redemption when the outcome should be determined by human choices? Are we ultimately going to be forced to succeed despite our dismal failures?
The Book of Bereshit itself demonstrates this cycle: The human beings cannot be trusted to make good choices. G-d takes them out of the Garden of Eden so that they can do less damage. They start to be violent and dangerous. G-d steps in and scoops up the saving remnant of his human experiment.
In literature, there is a device known as "Deus Ex Machina", used to save the main character when we don't want him to die or disappear. We rather want him to learn his lesson and scrape by unscathed. The writer makes "a chance occurrence" that would not happen in "real life." This is our parashah in a nutshell.
Avraham and Sarah have made no provision for their family's future as they have not yet found Yitzchak a wife. Yitzchak himself appears to have made no effort nor taken any initiative. The passing of Sarah forces Avraham to see the urgency of rectifying this mistake. Avraham himself, by normal accounts, should be in the next world! Only now, as a last-ditch effort, does Avraham send his trusted servant 500 miles away on a camel to make a crucial life choice, a future determining "head-hunting" expedition to find a partner for his son in leading the budding Jewish people.
Eliezer himself asks Avraham, in essence, 'How do you know I will be able to pull this off?' Avraham tells him the answer to the puzzle: G-d is promising this. He did not get me this far just to end the story here!
Our success is tied up with Hashem's own story.
"Hashem will send His angel before you and you will take a wife for my son from there." (Genesis 24:7)
"Awaken, Awaken! Don Strength, O arm of Hashem. Are you not the One who decimated the haughty, who terrified the sea serpent? Are you not the One who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a path for the redeemed ones to cross?" (Isaiah 51:9-10)
Isaiah provides comfort in a passage made famous by its inclusion in the Havdalah ceremony:
"You can draw water with joy from the springs of salvation; I shall trust and not fear. For G-d is my might and my praise - Hashem - and He is a salvation for me. (12:3)
The Psalmist declares:
"For He has yearned for me and I will deliver him; I will elevate him because He knows my name." (91:14)
"Hashem is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth." (145:18 - the Kuf verse in 'Ashrei')
Eliezer called for an omen - something later forbidden by Jewish law. He asked G-d to play out his specific prescriptive formula of events and G-d did what Eliezer said, to the letter. Eliezer recounts this miracle twice to emphasise the fact that it is not part of the regular course of human events for us to order G-d to do a magic trick. We know this also from scenes from the Ten Plagues in Sefer Shemot. It is not G-d's normal behaviour to use Deus Ex Machina.
Or is it? Consider this verse from the Book of Ruth:
"Let me go to the field and glean amongst the ears of grain, behind someone in whose eyes I shall find favour." (2:2)
The harvesters had "coincidentally" informed Boaz of the action of this Moabite girl who had accompanied Naomi back to Israel after Naomi's multiple tragedies. They also are aware of how hard she had been working in Boaz's field.
The Bible itself uses the same words to express that this meeting of Boaz and Ruth was no "chance occurrence" as it uses in the case of Eliezer. Compare the two phrases:
"So she went. She came and gleaned behind the harvesters and her fate made her 'happen upon' a parcel of land belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech." (Ruth 2:3)
"Hashem, G-d of my master Avraham, may You so arrange it for me this day that You do kindness with my master Avraham... And it was, when he had not yet finished speaking, that suddenly Rivka was coming out - she who had been born to Betuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Nachor, brother of Avraham - with her jug upon her shoulder." Genesis 24:12
What we should note and hopefully take to heart, in my view, is that when we are "carrying our jugs" and "gleaning behind the harvesters," G-d is working on "arrangements." Everyone we meet we should meet with a smile. Every situation is put before us as a circumstance sent from G-d in which to prove our mettle and an arranged opportunity to teach us painful lessons. It is not meant to utterly destroy us.
My grandmother, whose life I celebrated by naming my daughter Minette, would always say: "It does not cost you any extra to be nice" or "you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar." I never understood why one wanted flies but I got the point! There is reward in behaving like a mensch, behaviour that Rivkah was exhibiting when fate stepped in and made her a Matriarch.
That is a Cinderella story, you say? Look at Esther and Ruth. They were not sure everything would turn out great. In fact, their stories look grim at first. "Making the best of it" pays in any case, my grandma would say.
I would add: Believe that G-d is as close to you as your breath and it will get you through a lot of pain and heartache. I want to testify that I must actively engage in that belief for, on the contrary, the world is designed to seem haphazard. Proof of G-d's existence must never exist or faith is no trick. G-d Himself warns in Parshat Bechukotai:
"If, despite this, you will not heed me and you behave towards me with casualness, I will behave toward you with a fury of casualness." (Leviticus 26:27)
The world can seem like a "casual place" where G-d is nowhere to be found. We are warned not to behave like this is so. But why not believe that G-d is arranging "chance encounters" in order to redirect our lives not towards our destruction but rather to our reconstruction.
A story that I heard related in the Shiur we receive on the daily Page of Gemara from Israel. The Gemara was discussing the limit of human control over events: This rabbi got into the cab and noticed that there was a steering wheel in the front passenger side that looked identical to the steering wheel in front of the driver. The rabbi asked the driver what this extra steering wheel was doing there. The driver told him that he has a son who is mentally handicapped. Ever since he was little, the boy wanted to drive a car like his father but would never be able to do so. The father had a special steering wheel fitted in that is not connected to anything mechanical in the car. The boy, now nearly grown, turns the wheel and feels he is doing something when, in fact, he is playing with a toy. The rabbi said that this is the concept of Divine Providence that the Gemara was elucidating: At any time, Hashem can take over the steering wheel of history and drive the car to where it is destined to go. Our behaviour does impact something: While we think we are in control, we are shaping our own legacy--not destiny. The simulation is precise. We will be presented tests of our character and in our responses, we reveal our true selves. Will we be poised and humane in difficult situations or will we be cruel and ruthless? What about when we win? Are we gracious and humble? Are we patient with people and really listen. Do we have a stock of pre-prepared answers and are just waiting for our chance to make a point? The great people in the Torah such as Avraham and King David were tested in horrendous ways on their pathways to discovering and revealing a path of life. The sin of Bathsheba will forever hang over the legacy of King David. But it is through his grave sin that we see that repentance is possible for us as well.
Even death is not the end. The worst ending we can imagine, the death of the leading lady, has already happened as the Parsha begins. Death is not the worst thing and it is not seen as the end. It is about faith in the continuation of a religious and moral culture and philosophy. Truth, righteousness and peace live on as long as they are values that are ingrained by example and by education to those who are left behind. This way, the torch is passed on. The thing is to ignite as many torches as possible in the next generation.
Parasha Summaries for Children:
The Haftarah is also about King David's death. The Parasha may be seen as sad for the number of people who pass away but it must also be noted that it is the continuation of goodness in the tradition of our people, as represented by Rebecca and her acts of kindness, graciousness, modesty and faith.