Jews, Christmas, and Coffee Cups – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5777


To this rabbi, last year’s Starbucks red cup “controversy” (because these days even a few tweets count as a controversy) was completely baffling. The complaint among a small number of customers was that Starbucks had lost the Christmas spirit, since they had replaced the previous festively decorated cup with a solid red design. To a vocal few, this move represented another offensive attack in the perceived “war on Christmas.”

Just to be clear, I never want anyone to feel that their right to celebrate the religion of their choice is being infringed upon in any way. But when you walk through the mall before Halloween to see the first signs of the Santa photo booth and related Christmas décor, I have a hard time believing that Christmas is in the slightest danger.

Jews are in the minority in America, and especially so in Portland. It is no more obvious than during the months of November and December that I am a resident alien. When the green and red appears in every storefront and Bing Crosby starts a continuous rotation on the radio, I want to hide. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing other people celebrating their own faith; I’m happy to live in a country where we are free to do so. It’s that the in-my-face commercialization for two straight months simply becomes overwhelming.

This week we read parshat Chayei Sarah. We read 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 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 he has comfort and support as he mourns his mother. The text continues with Isaac and Rebekah meeting, marrying, and falling in love (an appropriate order of events in Biblical times), and it ends with the death of patriarch Abraham.

Back at the beginning of the text, when Abraham is coping with the loss of his beloved wife Sarah, he is a stranger in a strange land. He has no Jewish cemetery, no chevra kavod hamet to help him with his burial. He is alone and in need of sacred space. So with nothing to lose, Abraham pleads in chapter 23, verse 4, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you that I may remove my dead for burial.” The townspeople respond, “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places.”

Abraham needs the cemetery plot, and he has no idea how his neighbors will react to his request. Will they accept him as a fellow resident or treat him like an unwelcome outsider? As it turns out, Abraham is surprised not only by their kindness, but at their perception of him. He is seen as faithful, and the Hittites admire him for the way in which he is tied to his faith.

Let’s face it. Passover and Easter will never get equal display space at most grocery stores, and perhaps as a minority, that’s as it should be. However, particularly during the winter season, there should be a way to give appropriate time and space to a commonly celebrated holiday, while acknowledging that it is not the only one celebrated. At least it would be nice to work toward that inclusive goal. This week’s Torah portion is a reminder of what it takes to respect the traditions of others, to embrace the diversity in our community, and to inspire – rather than alienate – one another with our faith and our ideals.

At First Sight – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5776

At First Sight

You hear that parenting changes your life completely, but obviously it’s a different feeling for every parent.  Over two years ago as Duncan and I prepared to welcome Shiri into our lives, we knew we were about to experience something intensely emotional, like nothing we’d ever experienced before.  At the same time we weren’t sure how that would manifest itself, and what it would actually feel like to become parents.  There was a certain expectation of an instant bond, an immediate love-beyond-anything connection. For me, having carried Shiri, that feeling was represented by awe, amazement, and gratefulness to God for this beautiful miracle that my body produced.  On the other hand, Duncan likes to take everything in and process it on his time, which for him has meant a love that has grown exponentially ever since that first day.  The more he got to know her, the more he loved her.

The notion that the more you know someone the uglier or prettier they can become is a very real phenomenon. Scientific research based on concepts like “propinquity,” which refers to the nearness of people to each other, suggests a person can become more or less attractive to you based on how much and how long you interact with them.

Our Torah portion this week, parshat Chayei Sarah, illustrates this.  In this part of the narrative, we read about Abraham and Sarah and their journey raising 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 lay her body to rest.  Immediately after the burial of his own life partner, Abraham sets out to find a mate for his son, hoping to ensure that he has comfort and support as he mourns his mother.  The text shares the story of Isaac and Rebekah meeting, marrying, and falling in love, and it ends with the death of Abraham. Within this section of text is also the building of a family for Rebekah and Isaac.  

The text is clear in chapter 24, verse 67: “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.”  In other words, Isaac comes to love Rebekah after he marries her.  Their love is the result, not the prerequisite, of their relationship.  

The Torah reminds us that relationships take time to blossom, and we are urged to take time to know one another, to truly engage face to face with those around us because that’s how meaningful connections grow.

The instantaneous attachment when parent meets child may be real, but it’s shallow and fleeting. Of course I love Shiri because she’s my daughter, but also because I’ve grown to love her as the bright, independent, beautiful spirit she’s becoming. And that’s a love that only gets bigger.

How to Save a Life – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5773

What is your legacy?  What is your life story?  How will your life be measured and your story told?
In the days, weeks, and months following the death of a close friend or relative, we spend time thinking about their life, examining their history and legacy.  This is the time when we most often turn the question on ourselves.  During rabbinical school, my teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson spent time with me talking about grief and death.  I was taken aback when she asked:  What is your legacy?  What would your eulogy say?
I didn’t know what to say, mostly because my head was flooded with ideas.  Would someone talk about my teaching?  My path in life?  My smile?  What lessons would someone take away from my life?  It was in that very moment that the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, started to make sense to me.  Our Parshah is called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, and yet the first thing we learn about is her death.
וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה:
“The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.”
The first part of her eulogy is her age, how long she graced the earth with her presence.  The various commentators expound on this with talk of her beauty and wisdom.  And then, instead of a story about what she did or where she lived, the text moves on to the living, to what happens after she dies.  Abraham mourns, he cries for her, and then he tries to find the perfect burial place he can for her.  He will spare no expense to make sure that her final resting place is one of honor.  The text then shifts to Isaac and Abraham’s quest to find a wife for him from his own people – a wife that would help him and someone that perhaps Sarah would have loved.
Abraham charges his servant to go back to his homeland, the land he and Sarah had journeyed from, to find Isaac a wife who was kind and caring, compassionate and gentle.  It is in this moment of the story that we see Sarah’s legacy unfold.  Sarah’s life is not just the number of her years, but the legacy of her family.  In Sarah’s eulogy, her life is summed up by what will live on long after she has died.  Family, compassion, and a quiet, pioneering spirit.
The parshah tells us that Isaac sees Rebecca, marries her, and then loves her.  And it is through this love that he found comfort after his mother’s death.  Part of me wonders if the comfort Isaac found after his mother’s death stemmed from his sense that life would go on and he would be taken care of.
The Talmud teaches in tractate Sanhedrin that when one saves a life, it is as though they have saved an entire world, and one who destroys one life destroys an entire world.  When you think about the people who are closest to you and what they mean to you, this philosophy makes complete sense.  One life can be your whole world.  We often talk about the small worlds that form in our individual communities; each loved one gives us a reason to go on, to continue to find meaning in our lives.  When someone dies, it feels as if we lose a world, but Parshat Chayei Sarah reminds us to allow their story and their legacy to live on by sharing, loving, and learning.
A life – and a world – survives through the stories told about it.  Our parshah this week urges us to tell our own stories and to listen to others.  Our years are only the beginning; they bring us wisdom, but our values are what we will be remembered by.  Embrace the challenge this week to tell a piece of your story, and together as a Jewish people we will continue to live out the legacy that began with the life of Sarah.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Books like “The Help,” “Kitchen House,” and “Rashi’s Daughters” all tell the story of the past and allow the legacy of truly incredible people to live on.  Your story might not become a best-seller like those mentioned above, but years down the road, your family will treasure it more than any other book.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name – Parshat Chayei Sarah 5772

I’ll never forget my first trip to Israel.  I was in 10th grade, and I went on the Ramah High School program for a semester.  I remember landing in Israel and feeling a rush of emotions as I realized the history of the land I had just entered.  I had always been told that this was my land, the land of the Jewish people.  I wondered if it would feel like it was mine.  Shortly after I arrived, we settled into our dorm and began classes, trips and exploring.  As I soaked it all in, the land did feel like mine and I had an instant connection, but at the same time, I still felt a little out of place.  I wasn’t Israeli and I had no family there, so on weekends when other kids would visit their family, I would feel left out, like this wasn’t my land at all.
I imagine that this feeling of being at home and yet not being settled is a common one.  These days people are constantly on the move and settling in new places.  The same holds true for the patriarchs and matriarchs in our Torah.  In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, we find Abraham in this same predicament.  The narrative continues with Abraham finding a wife for Isaac, Isaac marrying Rebekah, and Abraham’s death.  But what happens at the very beginning of the text is the death of Sarah and Abraham needing to find a place to bury her.
Abraham and Sarah are living in the land of Canaan, the land that God had promised him, but they are not native to this land and are living as liminal people.  Abraham recognizes this as he proclaims in chapter 23, verses 3-4.  “Then Abraham rose 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.’”  Abraham is described as ger v’toshav, literally, a “stranger and a dweller.”  These are two opposite identities that come together in this moment for a singular notion.  The underlying reason that Abraham mentions this is because as a non-resident, he cannot purchase land.
What lurks behind Abraham’s statement is his own uncertainty about his standing in the community.  At this moment he makes a jarring transition from being a husband and part of a couple to being on his own.  For the first time in the Torah, Abraham is without his partner, and the land that he is living in feels foreign to him.  Abraham is fearful that with this new status, those who’ve known him all along will see him as other, alien and different.
The people of Abraham’s community had a choice.  They could have pushed him aside or left him on the outside because he was different.  Instead, they chose to welcome him and accept him as a fellow resident.  They respond in verse 6 by telling him that they admire him, saying “You are the elect of God among us.”  The people with whom Abraham was living didn’t see him as a stranger, they saw him as one of their own.  Their eyes saw what Abraham couldn’t see himself.  Abraham was the one who called himself a stranger and alien, he saw them as different from him, while they saw him as part of their community.
As we move through our lives, we each end up in different positions and hold different statuses.  We can’t expect every place we go to feel as familiar and comfortable as Norm’s bar stool at Cheers. We might find ourselves in a place of radical change and feel very different from everyone else around us.  Or, we might feel like this is our place, but everyone else has changed.  Parshat Chayei Sarah stands as a model where all people were accepted.  When vulnerability was not only recognized, but embraced.  It’s easy to obsess about an uncomfortable situation or about being in a new environment, but consider the example in this week’s parshah, and let us aspire to embrace each other in our vulnerable times.
 ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: this week we learn about the immediacy of burial after the death of a loved one.  The text teaches in chapter 23, verses 3-4 that Avraham did not waste a minute in his grief focusing on himself; rather he immediately focused on finding an appropriate burial ground for Sarah, his wife.  This text teaches us that the human dignity extends not only to the living, but to the dead.  That even in our moments of deepest grief, we must seek to comfort all in our presence.  For more information check out different books on Judaism and mourning such as A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort by Ron Wolfson.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  Too often we shy away from talking about what makes us uncomfortable and how we can make sure others don’t feel the same discomfort.  Discuss with your kids the criteria for creating a welcoming and inviting space?  Also for discussion:  when you’re in a place that doesn’t feel comfortable but needs to, how might you change the feeling of the space?