November 10, 2012: A Greater Chesed (Chayei Sarah)

A Greater Chesed

A woman and a man meet later in life, fall in love, and get married. He has children from his previous marriage, but they want to build a household together with children of their own. They try, and fail, and try again (she is getting close to the end of childbearing age). At last, she conceives. With joy, they count down the months, the weeks, the days. The anticipated moment arrives, and a beautiful baby boy enters the world. He lives barely a few minutes, and expires in the birthing room. They are devastated. If they decided to set aside their dream for a family, to choke off their yearning, and to shut down their hearts, rather than risk another tragedy, who would blame them?

“Then Isaac brought [Rebecca] into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and he was comforted after the death of his mother.” (Genesis 24:67) This line completes one of the longest chapters in the Torah, the story of Isaac’s marriage quest. In what sense does Rebecca come to comfort Isaac after the death of his mother, Sarah? Although the weekly Torah portion, entitled Chayei Sarah, “the Life of Sarah,” ironically begins with the account of Sarah’s death, her presence looms large throughout it. Sarah dies on the heels of the Akeidah, the Almighty’s tragic command to Abraham that he must sacrifice his “only son” Isaac upon the altar. Isaac survives the trauma, but it is apparently too much for Sarah, with whom he is psychically intertwined. Rashi summarizes the Midrash: “The Torah recounts the death of Sarah immediately after the Akeidah to demonstrate that, as a result of hearing the news that her son was made ready for slaughter and was nearly slaughtered, her soul flew away and she died.” (Rashi on Genesis 23:2) Rashi generalizes upon the Oedipal attachment later on: “it is the way of the world that as long as a man’s mother is alive, he is bound up with her, but the words ‘Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother’ mean that when she dies, he is comforted through his wife.” (Rashi on Genesis 24:67) Rebecca is Isaac’s particular answer to the universal psychological drama first described at the beginning of Genesis: “thus a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.” (Genesis 2:24) However, Rebecca’s arrival signifies much more than that.

The story begins when Abraham charges his servant: “You will not take a wife for my son [here] from among whom I dwell, but you will return to the land of my birth.” (Genesis 24:4) The servant looks for a sign that the woman he encounters is the one designated by God. So he prays: “Show chesed to my lord, Abraham. While I stand at the spring where the daughters of the town come out to draw water, let the maiden to whom I say, ‘please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies ‘drink, and I will also give drink to your camels,”—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown chesed to my lord, Abraham.” (Genesis 24:12-14) It’s not just that Rebecca amazingly fulfills the servant’s elaborate prediction to the letter; it’s that her very actions exemplify the divine chesed that the servant seeks. Chesed, “lovingkindness,” is defined as the gratuitous outpouring of generosity. Chesed’s essential characteristic is that it exceeds obligation. That is precisely what Rebecca does when she goes beyond the servant’s request and freely offers water to the camels, in addition to giving him refreshment. Moreover, providing for domestic animals is always an act of chesed, because they cannot fend for themselves.

In Rabbinic tradition, Abraham is considered the paradigmatic purveyor of chesed throughout the world. Abraham and Sarah’s tent, whose doors were flung wide on all four sides to welcome passersby from all directions of the compass, is the paradigmatic symbol of hospitality. Rashi describes Sarah’s tent with vivid imagery: “as long as Sarah was alive, a candle remained lit from the eve of Shabbat onward, blessing was to be found in the dough of the challah, and the cloud of Shechinah (the divine Presence) rested upon [the tent].” (Rashi on Genesis 24:67) The Shabbat images, the candlelight, the challah and the dough, representing nourishment and potential, and the cloud of the Shechinah, reminiscent of the cloud that covered another tent, the Tent of Meeting, (Exodus 33:9) all powerfully express Sarah’s generosity. Only, Sarah and Abraham’s world went dark with the Akeidah. Rashi describes their spiritual devastation, followed by spiritual uplift: “when she died, all these things (the candle, the dough, the cloud) ceased, but when Rebecca came, all these things returned.” Rashi’s source Midrash puns on the word oheil, tent, which, in its verbal form, means “to brighten.” (Breishit Rabbah 60:16; cf. Job 25:5) Thus, Rebecca came to illuminate Sarah’s darkened tent, to redeem Abraham and Isaac from the calamity of the Akeidah, and to bring chesed back into the world. Abraham’s initial directive to his servant takes on symbolic import. “You will not take a wife for my son here, from among whom I dwell,” that is, Abraham realizes that he can no longer replenish his own store of chesed where he is, because tragedy has impoverished him beyond his ability to reconstitute himself. “Return to the land of my birth” means: Abraham must go back to the world he knew before tragedy struck, in order to reclaim his initial source of chesed.

A close reading of the text reveals that Rebecca’s chesed is greater than Abraham’s. After the servant recognizes Rebecca as the wife destined for Isaac, the Torah presents a new descriptor associated with chesed. It’s not just called chesed, “lovingkindness,” but chesed ve-emet, “true lovingkindness:” “the [servant] bowed low to God, and said: ‘may Adonai be blessed… for He has not withheld His chesed ve-emet from my master Abraham.’” (Genesis 24:27) In Rabbinic tradition, chesed shel emet indicates a heightened form of chesed, namely, a truly selfless act of generosity. Burial of the dead constitutes the classic example of chesed shel emet, because the deceased can never repay the kindness. (Breishit Rabbah 96:5) I have always been dissatisfied with the classic distinction between chesed and chesed shel emet. To my mind, love is necessarily unconditional, or else it isn’t really love. What does truth add to lovingkindness that’s not already present within lovingkindness to begin with? To put it another way, how does Rebecca’s chesed shel emet surpass Abraham’s mere chesed?

It seems to me that the element of “truth” introduced by the Rabbis with the example of burial is the acknowledgement that tragedy and suffering occupy a prominent place in the world that we inhabit. When we learn of someone’s death, the Talmud enjoins upon us the recitation: Baruch dayan ha-emet, “Blessed are You, God, the Judge of Truth.” “To bless over evil as we bless over good” (bBerachot 54b) forces us to confront the hard facts of human experience. When we bury the dead, we attest to our free desire to extend the warmth of love in the face of the cold reality of death. The essential characteristic of chesed shel emet, as distinguished from chesed alone, is the expression of love despite full awareness of the true nature of the world, where love may go unanswered or unacknowledged, or where it may even be rejected.

Throughout their lives, Abraham and Sarah welcome strangers into their tent, Sarah bakes challah and lights Shabbat candles, and they both lavish chesed upon the world. Then, the Akeidah puts an abrupt end to all their ministrations. It is at this point that Rebecca enters the scene. Rebecca’s love is called chesed shel emet, because it grows in the shadow of the Akeidah and, therefore, encompasses the truth of tragedy.

My conception of Abraham/Sarah and Rebecca as representative of two different types of chesed dovetails with the Jewish mystical framework set forth by the Zohar. In the Zohar, Abraham represents the formal attribute (or “sefirah”) of Chesed, divine Love, and Isaac represents its opposite, the formal attribute (“sefirah”) of Gevurah, divine Judgment. “[Gevurah] is the divine face Isaac sees when bound to that altar, confronting the god he believes is about to demand his life.” (Green, Introduction to the Zohar, p. 43) The Zohar considers the sefirah of Emet, divine Truth, to be the synthesis of Chesed and Gevurah, that is, Love held in check by Judgment. Emet occupies the center of the mystical universe. Emet is associated with the persona of Jacob, the progeny of Rebecca, whose birth immediately follows the conclusion of the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. I would simply add that Rebecca’s chesed shel emet prefigures and spawns the Emet of Jacob.

Sarah can finally rest in peace, because, as Rashi comments: “Rebecca has become a model for Sarah.” (Rashi on Genesis 24:67) Rebecca has not only substituted for Sarah’s model, she has enlarged upon Sarah’s model. She has replaced generosity of spirit with generosity of spirit that continues to flow in spite of the harsh reality of evil. The divine impulse to pour forth love, which is embedded internally within every human heart, has found a way to live in harmony with the cruel external realities of human existence.

Several years after the death of their beloved son, the wife and husband decide that they want to risk breaking their hearts once more. This time, they give birth to a healthy little girl, who is growing up to be the light and joy of their lives. It’s one thing to love in blissful, carefree innocence. It’s quite another to have the courage to love in the full, sober knowledge of the tragedies of life. That is the greater chesed.