25 Cheshvan 5773 / Nov. 9-10, 2012
This week’s portion, Chayei Sarah (which literally means “the life of Sarah”), begins by telling us that Sarah died -- an odd way to open the portion. Abraham purchases a burial plot, buries Sarah, and mourns her loss.
As people often do when reflecting on a loss, Abraham seeks a mechanism by which to infuse new life in the world. In that spirit, he sends his servant Eliezer to go find and bring back a bride for his son, Isaac.
After a journey, Eliezer pronounces to the heavens that he’ll look for a sign in order to determine which woman will be most suitable for Isaac: “Whomever offers not only me water, but my camels as well, will surely be the one.”
Enter Rebecca, who does just that.
After Eliezer negotiates with her family, Rebecca is given the choice of whether or not to return with Eliezer to wed Isaac. Rebecca decides she’ll take the leap of faith.
At the end of her journey, Rebecca sees Isaac from afar and lowers a veil over her face out of a sense of modesty (Jewish brides have been doing this ever since!). Isaac and Rebecca immediately consummate their union, and the Torah tells us that Isaac loved Rebecca and was comforted after his mother’s death.
We shortly thereafter learn of Abraham’s death (after he married another woman and had a few more children of his own). The portion closes with Isaac and Ishmael burying Abraham with Sarah, in the Cave of Machpelah.
Needless to say, there’s a quite a bit of action taking place in this week’s portion. We learn of the death of the first Jewish couple. We see the precursor to JDate – which interestingly looks a lot like TheJMom. We see positive examples of taking a leap for love, modesty, and honoring one’s parents when they pass on.
It’s this last piece that I want to focus on this week. Needless to say, Abraham was far from an ideal parent. I have to imagine that Isaac was scarred for life when he saw his father raise his hand with a knife in it in order to sacrifice him (Ya think that just MIGHT have caused some psychic damage?!). So too must Ishmael have been scarred knowing that Abraham was willing to have him be cast out into the wilderness with his mother at Sarah’s (jealous) request. And yet, when it came time for Abraham to be buried, both of his sons were there to ensure their father’s body was taken care of.
We see here a prime example of honoring one’s father – one of the Ten Commandments (which were given to the Israelites much later).
Relationships are incredibly complicated – particularly those involving family, who we don’t electively choose to have in our lives. Some of us are blessed with wonderful parents, while others don’t make out so great in the parent lottery. What is it to honor one’s parents? The Talmud tells us that “honoring” includes making sure our parents are fed and clothed. [Bab. Talmud Kiddushin 31b] In this sense, honoring our parents is at its core about preserving their dignity.
Abraham was the standard-bearer for monotheism and was the first Jew, and he was a terrible parent any way you look at it. Was he deserving of being honored by his sons? Arguably not. But note that the commandment is not to love your parents or to get along with them – but rather, to honor them. And even if according them such honor during their lifetimes is made impossible due to their own actions, it remains a Jewish imperative to ensure their dignity is preserved upon their deaths.
This Shabbat, reflect on your relationship with your parents. Strive to seek out ways to honor your parents while they are living, even if they are not necessarily deserving of your love or affection. Commit now to ensuring that when the time comes to say a final goodbye, that the dignity of your parents is preserved – just as you hope yours will be one day too. In this way we can not only emulate our ancestor Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael, but also recognize that we, like Abraham, are imperfect beings, and need to constantly strive to be better than we are.