Welcome the Stranger Both Within and Outside Ourselves

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BY RABBI SHEILA PELTZ WEINBERG

PARSHAT CHAYEI SARAH

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with the death and burial of our mother, Sarah. It moves into the continuity of the first family as Abraham finds Rebecca, the “right” wife for Isaac, and she agrees to come to the new land.

Her betrothed meets her and we are told in some of the most poignant words of Torah: “And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah; he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. Thus, did Isaac take comfort after [the death] of his mother” (Genesis 24:67).

In one terse verse we touch the complex interplay of generations that suffuse the Book of Genesis. It is indeed in this same portion that Abraham dies and Isaac is now thrust into the full role as patriarch and progenitor of the sacred lineage. Toward the end of the portion, in fact, Isaac and his rival half-brother, Ishmael, join together to bury their father in the “cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, son of Zoar, the Hittite” (25:9). This is the cave that Abraham bought to bury Sarah.

Many classic Genesis, Jewish and human themes, such as the relationship to the land, the continuity of the covenant, rivalry, favoritism and reconciliation are present in Chayei Sarah. Underlying it all is the towering figure of Abraham, father, founder and man of intense faith. It is noteworthy that tradition associates Abraham with the quality of chesed, lovingkindness, symbolized by his extraordinary kindness to the strangers that appear at his tent in last week’s text.

The Chasidic master, Or HaMeir, Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir, interprets this verse in our portion, “Abraham was old, come into days” (24:1), to mean that the ancient, heavenly or archetypical Abraham, representing the highest form of love, was embodied to become a human who was a transmitter on Earth of this divine, sublime or transcendent quality.

In his words: “Abraham adorned himself wholly in the service of God through great love; his entire body became a moveable dwelling-place for the quality of love. He made people familiar with this aspect of divinity and enabled them to speak of God’s love. The sages paraphrased him as saying [to God]: ‘Until now You were only called God of Heaven. But I have made Your name known among people, so that now You are also known as God of Earth’ (Breishit Rabbah 50:8). This was because he showed everyone in the world how love flows even into physical reality.”

What do we make of this?

To me, it suggests that the quality of divine lovingkindness, which is the underlying energy that creates and sustains everything in the universe, was realized first in Abraham and then transmitted through him to guide all his descendants.

Yael Shy in her commentary on this week’s portion deepens this idea: “Rebecca’s kindness and generosity upon meeting Abraham’s servant at the well is as abundant as the water she pulls up to quench the thirst of the man and his camels. Aviva Zornberg writes, ‘As she runs back and forth at the well, eagerly providing for the needs of the servant and the camels, she resembles Abraham welcoming his angel guests — impatient, energetic, overflowing with love (chesed).’ In fact, the text uses the word chesed four times in the space of two chapters, underlining the trait in relation to Rebecca.”

Are we comfortable with all this talk of chesed in the Torah, in Judaism? Does it sound too Christian? Too New Age? Too difficult given the world we live in, after the Holocaust?

It may be hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea that Judaism is at its root a path of lovingkindness. But why else offer hospitality to the stranger, the widow and the orphan? Why else allow the needy to glean the corners of the field? Why else visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, bury the dead with dignity and attention? Why else pray for peace at the conclusion of every section of prayer? Why else even care for the well-being and education of the next generation?

I suggest that our path is a path of lovingkindness. It is a path that sees the absolute dignity within each being, which seeks to navigate, like Abraham, the very real transitions of life and death, change and vulnerability, and the very real conflicts and vagaries of this human journey with a sense of connection to the greater unity that holds and sustains us all.

Of course, there are many forces that pull us apart, that tempt us and confuse us in this world. Our human, Jewish task is to return to the sense of chesed, to welcome the stranger both within ourselves and outside ourselves. As we welcome the light and the dark, may we see ourselves as children of Abraham, ever growing into wholeness and ever deepening into chesed.

Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg is a 1986 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and her most recent book is God Loves the Stranger: Stories, Poems and Prayers. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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