Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18
The old joke about Jewish holidays and rituals is that all of them conform to the same narrative: They tried to kill us. We survived (and even flourished). Now, let's eat!
And when you think of the stories and the celebrations of Passover, Chanukah and Purim — just to name a few of the prominent features of the Jewish calendar — this characterization seems to ring true.
But that's not the whole story.
Our tradition certainly has more than its share of large-scale, blockbuster stories punctuated with lightning and thunder, plagues and earthquakes, advancing armies, divine salvation, national redemption, seas parting and other miraculous spectacles. Nevertheless, much of the beauty of Jewish life is the way that it celebrates the power of the quiet, personal moments as well.
This week, in Parashat Chayei Sarah, we read: Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She came down from atop her camel and said to the servant [Eliezer], "Who is that man walking in the field toward us?" And the servant said, "That is my master." So she took her veil and she covered herself … [Isaac] took Rebecca as his wife [and] Isaac loved her … ."
What a wonderful moment. The sea does not part. No armies clash. But, as evening falls, two people see each other for the first time across the distance of a field, and they recognize their love for one another.
Truth of the Day
In many weddings, we re-create this passage in a ceremony called the bedekken, or the veiling of the bride.
Often performed in private before the bride and groom enter into the presence of their assembled guests, the wedding party pauses, and the couple looks into each other's eyes and expresses that the truth of that day is not the pomp and circumstance of the wedding ceremony. It is the fact that when they look at each other, they see their love reflected back. Then, just as Rebecca did, the bride takes her veil and covers her face.
The book of Genesis is full of the moments that take place between two people in fundamental relationship with each other. After all, it is constructed from the interactions between parents and children, siblings and spouses.
In the very beginning of the Torah, Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040-1105) asks why God chose to begin with the story of creation and the book of Genesis, and not with the giving of the commandments in the book of Exodus.
Exodus, of course, is where all of the excitement begins. That's when we leave the land of Egypt, when God parts the Sea of Reeds and when we receive God's word from the top of Mount Sinai. Arguably, Genesis is the story of a family. Exodus is where the Torah becomes the story of the Jewish people.
Rashi's answer is that God constructed the Torah this way to teach the people of the world about God's omnipotence and authority. God created the world; therefore, it is God's prerogative to favor the Jewish people with the Torah and the land of Israel.
Then again, consider the moment when Isaac and Rebecca recognize their love for one another; that moment suggests another answer. It teaches us that perhaps God began the Torah with Genesis to teach us that Jewish history begins not with power, but with mutual recognition and relationship.
Viewed this way, our task as Jews who care deeply about Judaism is not necessarily to celebrate our victories over external threats, but to work harder to foster those times — those special moments — when we gaze into another human's face, and see love and compassion reflected back.
Rabbi Eric Rosin is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.