Change My Mind – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5782

Has anyone ever offered to “pray for you” because they sincerely believed you were going to hell for being Jewish and not following their beliefs? It happened to me in Texas. Or maybe someone of another faith has come knocking on your door trying to spread the “good word”? It’s frustrating enough when someone insists that their way is the right way, but even more so when it’s about religion. I love Judaism (I’m a rabbi, after all), but that doesn’t mean I think Judaism is for everyone or that it’s the only right answer.

In 2017, Rick Gervais, famously an atheist, had a fascinating and friendly debate with devout Catholic Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. As a point to challenge Colbert’s belief in God, Gervais retorts, “So you believe in one God, I assume? Okay, but there are about 3,000 to choose from. Basically, you deny one less God than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 gods. And I don’t believe in one more.”

In other words, who’s to say that they are absolutely right when it comes to religious belief? As a rule, Jews don’t proselytize. We don’t seek to convert others to Judaism. Like me, this is one of those Jewish facts you’ve probably known your whole life. This is why it puzzled me when, as a teenager, I saw representatives from the local Chabad standing on the sidewalk outside my public high school on Friday afternoons trying to teach the boys how to put on tefillin. I also clearly remember going up to them one week when I was feeling very brave, having my own tefillin with me, and showing them that I could do it too.

What was Chabad doing outside my public high school? They would argue that they weren’t proselytizing because, of course, they wouldn’t ask people of other faiths to put on tefillin; instead, they were trying to help other Jews fulfill the obligation. If that’s true, though, why stand outside the public high school? Why not stand outside a synagogue before daily minyan

Perhaps the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which makes the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekkah, the list of Abraham’s descendants, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all, the family continues to push their way from experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

As Abraham is trying to find land for burial and also a wife for Isaac, we read in chapter 24, verse 2: “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth . . .” By using the phrase “the God of heaven and the God of earth,” our midrash suggests that Abraham was bringing awareness to the fact that God does not only rule in heaven, but also on earth. Throughout this passage he refers back to the fact that God rules both in heaven and on earth.

So what does this have to do with proselytizing or not proselytizing? Midrash teaches that Abraham was the first individual to recognize this and to try and teach it to others. However, Abraham didn’t go out looking for others to join him on his journey of following God. He didn’t go out and preach to everyone of God’s truth. Rather, he shared this special connection, this special teaching, with those in his circle whom he knew needed to hear it. He looked for others who might already share this belief and tried to bring them all together. For example, when he looked for a wife for Isaac, he wanted someone who already shared this belief in God to make their community that much stronger.

I don’t think either Ricky Gervais or Stephen Colbert were actually expecting the other person to completely change their viewpoint. Similarly, Chabad’s presence outside my high school wasn’t about converting anyone to something that they didn’t previously believe. While that public act might make some people uncomfortable, that public act also reminded the Jews who were there what it means to be Jewish and what it means to have community. Likewise, Abraham also wasn’t out to change people’s minds; he was hoping to bring people closer together in love and faith. May we work to live in a world where we’re not trying to change people’s beliefs to match our own, but instead, strengthening our own circles so that we all, in turn, strengthen each other.

Out of Reach – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5781

I’m not tall. I’m five feet, two inches on a good day. However, the ark in the sanctuary at Neveh Shalom was clearly designed for someone much taller, closer to six feet. In order to get the Torah in and out of it, I must stand on my tiptoes, reach in, and pray that my upper body strength is enough to lift it out. Sometimes, this little stretch just doesn’t cut it, and I have to ask for help.

Occasionally I have this struggle with mezuzot as well. The standard height for a mezuzah is in the top third of the door frame. This means that shorter members of our communities are often left out, since this height can even put the mezuzah out of eye level, let alone out of touching or kissing range.

It can be frustrating when it appears that a mitzvah or ritual item is physically out of reach. As an advocate for our communal spaces being accessible to everyone, I have been on a long-term mission to put our mezuzot at the middle of the door frame, a height which doesn’t require taller congregants to bend down, and also allows our youngest and smallest members to reach up and participate in the mitzvah.

Having our rituals at a reachable height actually allows for better connections with God, as we learn about in this week’s Torah portion. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which makes the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekah, the list of Abraham’s descendants, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all the family continues to push their way from experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

As Abraham moves on in his grief, he sets out to help his son Isaac find a wife. He employs his servant to go out and find the right woman for Isaac. As he tasks him with this work, Abraham asks his servant to swear an oath. “Put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth.” For the Torah at this particular moment, this is an oddly specific description of God’s location that Abraham is sharing. The midrash in Sifrei Deuteronomy suggests that before the time of Abraham, God ruled in heaven, but was unknown on earth. It was Abraham who brought God’s sovereignty down to earth.

There is of course a larger lesson here. In this case, Abraham is suggesting that any loving partnership should not be out of reach or devoid of the divine. Instead, all of our rituals, even those of love and marriage, should be within reach of everyone. And with our regular rituals and mitzvot within physical reach, we can focus more on stretching our minds rather than our bodies.

Mind Over Matter – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5780

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You know the famous witticism: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” I was probably a teenager when I first heard it, and suffice it to say, it didn’t resonate with me at the time. However, as I’ve aged and as those I love have aged, it has started to take on real meaning. Some days I feel young and spry, on top of my game. Other days my back hurts, my legs creak, and I walk into a room of 7th graders and feel instantly ancient. Most days, though, it doesn’t matter. I’m somewhere in between, simply being me – learning, growing, working, and living life.

The old quip of mind over matter is even more relevant now, since the average life expectancy is much longer than it used to be, and we’re much more adept at living well into later and later years. In the Torah, interestingly, age really is just a number. It doesn’t seem to mean much, other than suggesting you had a very long life.

This week we read Parshat Chayei Sarah, in which we learn about Abraham and Sarah and their continued journey to raise their son Isaac to the huppah and a life of good deeds. Our reading begins with the death of Sarah and Abraham looking for a proper place to bury his wife. Immediately after Sarah’s burial, Abraham sets out to find a life partner for his son, hoping to ensure that he has comfort and support as he mourns his mother. The text continues with Isaac and Rebekah meeting, marrying, and falling in love, and it ends with the death of Abraham.

Chapter 24 begins with the observation that Abraham was now old, advanced in years. The word that the Torah uses is zaken, which is the modern word for a beard. This observation was not meant merely to note his chronological age, but to note that he has the wisdom and maturity that accompany the years he’s had on the earth. Zaken is also further interpreted in the midrash to stand for Zeh KaNah hochma, which means “this one has acquired wisdom.” 

The Torah never minces words or adds words without reason. The notation of Abraham’s age in this way is meant to remind the reader that Abraham was both older and wiser. In Abraham’s case, his age didn’t mean his mind was any less sharp; it meant he had experienced the world and learned from it. 

Many of our notions about age truly are mind over matter, as long as we appreciate and learn from the experiences we’ve had. Imagine if the lens we used to view those around us was not one of judgment based on the number of years on the planet, but one that allowed us to see and value experience and learning. You’re never too old for that.

Good Grief – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5779

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Do you ever feel completely wiped out? Sometimes I feel so bone tired and knocked down, I could just sleep for hours. Bear in mind I say “hours” and not “days” because I’m a parent of young children who still wake up weekly in the middle of the night, so the luxury of consecutive hours of sleep sounds beautifully restorative. Everything is relative, right? It’s even worse when I’m sick. On days when I’m under the weather, I just want to lie on the couch and not move until the cold is gone.

And then there are weeks like this one when complete devastation knocks me down the hardest. It seems impossible to go on, and yet, somehow we must.

This very week, the Torah happens to teach us how to go on, find courage, and be a blessing. We read from Parshat Chayei Sarah, which makes the transition from one generation to the next. Beginning with Sarah’s death, we learn about Isaac and his courtship with Rebekkah, the list of Abraham’s decedents, and the death of Abraham and his burial at the cave of Machpelah. Through it all the family continues to push their way from experiences of loss and grief into the next chapter of life.

It seems crazy that Abraham, and then Isaac, would be so quick to bury their loved ones. When we experience a loss, the paralyzing emotions we experience are in direct conflict with the pace at which our tradition encourages us to move on. Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to waste no time in burying the deceased. In chapter 23, verses 3-4 we read, “Then Abraham arose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, ‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’” Even in his deep grief, Abraham does not allow himself to wallow just yet; instead, he rushes to honor his beloved Sarah and give her a proper, timely burial.

As Jews we are commanded to bury our dead quickly. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that it actually helps the grieving process. We, the living, must be able to say goodbye and have some closure if we are to fully grieve and move forward. Shiva allows for seven days of direct community support, and saying Kaddish for a year ensures that mourners continue to have indirect support as they keep their loved one close.

Through everything we do in Judaism, we walk yad b’yad (hand in hand), as the name of our grief partnership program here at Neveh Shalom suggests. The reason is simple – it’s so that we never have to experience life, or death, alone. May we strengthen and lift one another up, in happiness and in grief, and may all our lives be a blessing.

A Piece of Land – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5778

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I have a very vivid memory of my parents and grandparents discussing the locations of their future graves. My immediate family is all buried in the same cemetery in Detroit, which makes it convenient to “see” relatives when I go back for a visit. My Nana and Papa are at the front as you drive in. Walk a few sections down and you arrive at my Grammy and Zayde. Then come around to the other side of the front section, and my dad is resting there. My Nana chose her plot because of the peaceful location; there was a big tree providing shade. Unfortunately, that tree has since been cut down, but her spot still serves the purpose she had hoped: she wanted her final resting place to be both close to family and somewhere peaceful and beautiful. To this day, I find comfort and even a little pride in going to visit my family there.

There is a peace of mind that comes with knowing in advance where you or your family will be buried. Part of that peace of mind is financial. A burial plot is often the only piece of property people can claim to own outright, and the purchase in advance offers some stress-relieving stability. But it’s also reassuring that you’ll be able to connect in a physical way to loved ones even after their bodies have been returned to the earth.

The desire to have a final resting place confirmed is not a new phenomenon. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah, we learn about Abraham and Sarah and their continued journey to raise their son Isaac to the chuppah and a life of good deeds. Our reading begins with the death of Sarah and with Abraham looking for a proper place to lay her body to rest. Immediately after Sarah’s burial, Abraham sets out to find a life partner for his own son, hoping to ensure that Isaac has comfort and support as he mourns his mother. The text continues with Isaac and Rebekah meeting, marrying, and falling in love (because that was the order then), and it ends with the death of Abraham.

As Abraham is in the process of burying his wife, his grief is not from the struggle of moving on after his loss, but rather how he will find a proper resting place for himself and his family. Sarah dies, and he works out a deal to inherit the Cave of Machpelah for just that purpose, and in this moment, Abraham begins a tradition that many of us continue today, that of family burial plots.

As a religion, Judaism excels at offering clarity and purpose for difficult subject matters and events. Death and the mourning process are prime examples of that. The Cave of Machpelah represents a re-gathering, a reunion of Abraham’s family. In modern times too, the idea that you’ll be buried in the same place as other family members can bring a certain ease and a level of comfort to a topic that’s rarely easy or comfortable.