As I have been thinking about this Torah portion, Hurricane Sandy has come through Philadelphia, leaving us safe, but still without power in my house and many others. Last night, my family prepared for bed by candlelight, and we all snuggled to sleep in one room to be closer together as the winds whipped through our trees and around our windows. I feel grateful to have a house to keep us dry, enough food to feel secure, and the company of family and friends to keep us from feeling isolated.
In Chayei Sarah, we learn of Sarah’s death, of Abraham’s negotiations to find a proper burial place for her, and of Abraham’s servant’s errand to find a wife for Isaac. We see Isaac come out to the field and it is then that Rebekah arrives and they meet for the first time.
Rebekah and Isaac retire to Sarah’s tent. The image of this tent is illuminated for me: “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
The tent is a symbol of the warmth and comfort that families and friends can cast around each other in uncertain times. In a poem titled The Tent, written by Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet who settled in Turkey (and translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks), these lines appear: “Outside, the freezing desert night./The other night inside grows warm, kindling./Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust./We have a soft garden in here.”
This poem speaks to the beauty and safety that can be created inside a home even when conditions on the outside are daunting. But this is just the beginning. The symbol of Isaac and Rebekah’s tent as a place of warmth and love spills beyond the walls.
Abraham and Sarah were famous for their hospitality. When Rebekah enters Isaac’s tent, that sense of home and hospitality is rekindled. In the midrash Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis interpret the verse in which they enter Sarah’s tent to mean that Rebekah was like Sarah. How was she like her? When Rebekah came in, the cloud of glory returned to surround the tent, the doors were open towayfarers, there was blessing in the dough and a lamp was always lit. All this had disappeared after Sarah’s death.
One could read this midrash as a comment on the special domestic talents of women. I prefer to understand it as a portrait of generosity of both material goods and of spirit. After all, Abraham’s servant is able to recognize Rebekah as the right wife for Isaac by the generosity and hospitality she shows to the servant and his camels — drawing water for them and inviting them to stay in her family’s home.
When Rebekah enters Isaac’s tent and they become a family, the Torah describes the love and comfort that resides there. The midrash makes the point that this love and comfort can be multiplied beyond the walls of the tent and seen by all. This is the true meaning of home, shelter, family, love and comfort. These things are cultivated on the inside, but they shine bright enough to reach out.
As the outdoor world grows colder in the winter months ahead, we gather inside to build our tents of love and warmth. May those of us who have that warmth have the generosity of our ancestors to offer it to others who do not, and may those of us who lack that warmth have the faith to reach out for it and know it will be shared.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]