Making sense of the sedra: Chayei Sarah

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Making sense of the sedra: Chayei Sarah

We are writing our own spiritual code

Who are you? A double helix of genetic code? A product of your life experiences? What determines the person you grow up to be?

When Sarah dies leaving Abraham all alone, it becomes imperative that he sees his son Isaac married off to an appropriate wife, to continue to build the Jewish nation. In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, he tasks his trusted servant Eliezer with this important mission and specifies that he must return to Avraham’s hometown to bring back a wife from amongst his own family.

Why does he want a daughter-in-law from his family? Abraham’s father, Terach, was a major manufacturer of idols, and the rest of his family were idolaters too; Abraham was actually the exception to the rule.

When Eliezer arrives, he devises a test to ensure that the woman he brings home is indeed from Abraham’s family and not an imposter. The Ohr HaChaim (18th century commentator, Israel) describes this as almost a spiritual DNA test; Abraham is convinced that someone in his family will share his characteristic of chesed (kindness). As soon as Rivka comes along, she passes Eliezer’s challenge; she not only offers to fetch him a drink from the well, but also to quench the thirst of his 10 camels, amounting to huge quantities of water.

Rashi (11th century commentator, France) teaches that throughout Sarah’s lifetime, miraculously, there was a cloud of Divine protection over her tent, her candles remained alight from one Friday till the next and her challah remained fresh from week to week, representing the three special mitzvot for women  – family purity, Shabbat candles and baking challah. When Rivka entered Sarah’s tent, these miracles immediately returned and Yitzchak felt comforted that not only was Rivka similar to Abraham with respect to her kindness but she was just like his mother Sarah too!

How do we explain these similarities – they’d never even met?

Sometimes a life event can trigger a particular perspective. The Midrash describes how Abraham’s family were present when Avraham was thrown into a fiery furnace because he swore his allegiance to God. God miraculously saved him from certain death, publicly challenging the worldview. However, Avraham’s brother Haran died in that same fire, leaving behind his children; his daughter Sarah married Uncle Avraham and his other daughter Milcah married Uncle Nachor.

Witnessing an incredible miracle immediately followed by a huge tragedy is sure to have an effect on a family, but not everyone experiencing an event will respond in the same way. Abraham and his family emerge strengthened in their faith, resolving to teach the world about God through kindness. Nachor and his family returned to idolatry, yet Abraham held out hope that a spark of inspiration would remain and he discovered it in their granddaughter Rivka.

Who are we? The descendants of Abraham whose courage grew with every challenge he overcame. We can’t always control the experiences we go through, but we do get to decide how we respond to life’s painful challenges and which values we pass on to those within our sphere of influence. We are a nation united through our shared history and current pain; as we come together and respond to tragedy with unbelievable displays of love and kindness, courage and faith, we are writing the spiritual genetic code for our children, in much the same way as Abraham wrote the code for us.

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