Sunday, December 1, 2013

On writing about Chayei Sarah (Genesis, 23:1 – 25:18)

October 2013

It was my turn to present a drashah for Shabbat at Temple – and it went both well and not so well. It went not so well in part because I did not read what I had prepared. But for the same reason, because I spoke about something else, it went well. And then again, at the end, not so well.

The drashah is given at the tail end of the service. Plenty of time beforehand to sit and think about what one is about to say. Usually only a few people are there, under thirty souls, and their attitude is mostly one of interest and acceptance. Some of them say that they themselves would not want to give a drashah, whereas I enjoy both the preparation and the delivery. I experience a pleasurable anxiety, a kind of gentle tickle, when reading what I’ve written.

When preparing a drashah, it is worthwhile researching wise people’s commentaries on the portion of the week, until one finds something that resonates in one’s heart and can use what they say as a basis for further discussion.  But this time, nothing seemed interesting, and so the drashah turned on what was on my mind; it wasn’t about the parashah, though a link to the portion was squeezed in at the end, out of a sense of duty; that link was actually a bit forced, not really right.

One should start by reading the week’s portion itself. But this parashah was familiar - no need to read it again. Instead, my mind focused on something that was bothering me at Temple, and in the course of writing about it a helpful suggestion presented itself which might sort things out. It seemed worthwhile to talk about it. For once my drashah was ready early, before Friday evening, before the arrival of Shabbat.

On Shabbat morning, before leaving for Temple, my husband still in bed with his breakfast on a tray and the newspaper, there was time to settle myself comfortably in the family room with the Torah, my feet on the red pouf, an hour of quiet before leaving for the service. Enough time to read the parashah. As usual, questions arose.

Sometimes Biblical Hebrew has turns and formulations which I find hard to understand - too remote from today’s spoken Hebrew. Not this time. I read the portion, the parashah, in Hebrew, and at the end of each page, I quickly scanned the translation to make sure I had understood it; I love reading the footnotes, which can take up as much as half the page - small print, the comments of our sages reaching us over the space of hundreds of years (“Und wuss sogt Rashi?” – said members of an Orthodox family I knew, whenever there was a discussion about the rightness of anything – “And what does Rashi say?”). I am lucky to be able to do this.

The parashah is called Chayei Sarah, Sarah’s life, and starts in fact with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s acquisition of the cave of the Machpelah as a burial place. It is offered to him as a gift and he refuses to accept it, he wants to buy it. He wants to buy it in the most incontrovertible way possible, he makes sure all the Hittites witness the transaction, as well as any stranger or visitor who may be passing through the gates of the city. Then he sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac.Eliezer is a trustworthy man, steward of all that Abraham owns. The term used to describe him has been translated as ‘a servant’, but it could also be ‘slave’. His name means ‘My God will help’.

Eliezer arrives at his destination, which is the city of Nahor in Aram-naharaiim. He has stopped just outside the city by the well and it is the time in the evening when the young women come to fetch water. He is anxious about the task he has been entrusted with, so anxious in fact that he prays to Abraham’s God. He says, I shall ask one of the maidens who comes to the well to give me a drink of water and if she offers to water my ten camels as well, of her own initiative, I shall take it as God’s sign that she is the one for Isaac. As he finishes the prayer, Rebekka arrives at the well and Eliezer asks for water, and she hurries, and says Here you are, and I shall bring water for the camels too. She hurries here too, up and down to the well, up and down, filling the trough. Ten camel beasts, that would be a thirsty lot, but there is no shirking on her part. The Torah tells us about these two events, the prayer setting the test, Rebekka fulfilling it. Then later, when Eliezer is talking to Laban, Rebekka’s brother, he tells him the story too – both of the prayer and the realization of it. He doesn’t forget to mention that she hurried. So that the story about Rebekka’s willingness to serve is told four times in one chapter.

The Torah may read like a story book, but it is a book of teaching. One of the ways in which an event can be highlighted is by its repeated telling. Eliezer, a clever man, thinks that what happened at the well is important and tells Laban about it. Pay attention, says the Torah, notice what she does! 

I read the entire parashah, savouring the beauty of the Hebrew, and finding that it makes my heart quicken as usual and I have tears in my eyes. The writing is wonderful. When Eliezer arrives in the Negev with Rebekka, we are shown the scene from Isaac’s point of view: he has gone for a walk in the fields in the evening and he sees from far away camels arriving, and then we are with Rebekka, and she says “Who is this man?”, and when she sees him, ‘…vatipol’ - ‘…and she fell’ - from her camel. (At least that is the simplest translation – there are other interpretations).  It is a very powerful moment, but we don’t know what she is experiencing. She hurries to place herself lower than him. She also veils herself. 

She would have been covered in jewels and fine clothes, would she not? Approaching the home of her bridegroom after the voyage, a bridegroom she is about to meet for the first time, who will see her for the first time, she will have asked to stop for a while as they drew close – though come to think of it, Eliezer probably would thought of this himself and organized a stop so that she might prepare herself, wash her face, comb her hair, put on her bridal attire and array herself in her jewels, silver and gold. She must arrive in the best possible style. And at the sight of Isaac, she fell from her camel. 

At the end, I disgraced myself. When my time to speak arrived, I took my three pages of typed text about the thing that bothered me, and put them face down on the lectern, and I talked to people instead about the parashah itself, which the Rabbi’s wife had read out during the service in a clear voice. I thought I would talk about the parashah and then turn to what I’d written, but that is not what I did. 

What I did say was good, about the four times Rebekka’s willingness is recounted, but then I tried to tell people about my great-grandmother’s sign, and I began to sob, and could hardly get the words out. I embarrassed myself; as I struggled to speak, I wondered whether I really needed to do this, but it seemed important to mention the sign, which would give the right shape to the drashah, to have this twist at the end.

Why is the sign important? In an earlier part of Genesis, in chapter 12, verse 2, God promises Abraham: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” The first part is what God promises Abraham and the second part is what Abraham has to do in return: to be a blessing. In this week’s parashah, Rebekka demonstrates by what she does and by the way in which she does it that she is indeed a blessing - she does what is needed without holding back. There may also be a further indication, a hint of enlightenment in the fact that there are ten camels, ten being the number of the Sefirot of the Tree of Life. She gives water to the ten of them, in haste, devoting herself to the needs of both humans and beasts.

And this is important to me personally, because by my bed I keep the framed sign which my Aunt Betty gave me long ago, when I asked if there was anything I might have  which came from the house of her grandmother, my great-grandmother, who was called Rebekka,  after the matriarch. Rebekka Gerzon lived in Holland in a town called Groningen and was much loved and respected by her family and her congregation. She died in the 1920s, before the Second World War. The sign is no bigger than a standard sheet of typing paper, and it is no thing of beauty. The frame is recent, some sort of plastic masquerading as wood. Three words are painted in old-fashioned Germanic script, white on a black background, conventionally decorated with a stylised flower. The words say: “Wees een Segen” – which is Dutch for “Be a blessing”.

I cry during services at various times. I don’t know why. I have made up theories about this: maybe it is sentimentality. Or maybe it is that I grew up without this wisdom and without the ritual. I was deprived of it, and I missed it without knowing what I was missing. That loss is linked to the Holocaust. I have spoken about the sign before, and I cried then too, but I feel that this time I truly understood its meaning.
It is deemed natural for a woman to have an attitude of devotion, of caring and service, and maybe it is. Having written this, I realize – at last – that Eliezer is also ‘being a blessing’, he is a servant, a slave to other people’s needs and he does his utmost, with the help of God, to serve well. What a beautiful parashah.


Speech is open to question, the question of when to speak and when to stay silent, what to say and what not to say. Some people think that one must be careful  with one’s words, weighing every one of them, and to others the idea is ridiculous. I have some friends who do not agree that there is any reason or any point in restraining oneself.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was a ‘profound and consummate scholar in all the fields of Torah’. He wrote major works of commentary and added to the understanding of Jewish law. He is best known among those of us who are less learned for his book Chefetz Chayim and that is how he himself is known, named after his book, the Chefetz Chayim

The topic of the book is the harm that can be caused by speech. And this is illustrated in the early part of this Parashah, once in verse 2 when Joseph runs to his father bearing tales about his brothers, and later on when he tells his brothers about his dreams.

Lashon HaRa means 'evil speech', which consists of relating derogatory information about others. It does not matter if this is true or not. It is not acceptable for us to talk about other people’s weaknesses and failures. In fact the recommendation is simply not to talk about people who are not there with you, unless there is a clear need to do so. Because even when you think you are saying something good or even quite neutral about someone, you don’t know what trouble may come from it.

Jewish law distinguishes between gossip, which we call Rechilut and Lashon HaRa. If I were to report to a person that someone has spoken against her or acted against her interests, that has a different name, that is called Rechilut.

I own a book on Lashon HaRa, which my very Orthodox sister kindly sent me at my request. It is a bit embarrassing, because it is written as if the reader is a bit simple. But it is nevertheless full of wisdom. In the introduction it says: “Lashon HaRa has caused the dissolution of numerous friendships, the termination of countless marriages and has generated immeasurable suffering”.

Even if what we say is true, it may nevertheless be wrong of us to mention it. Al pi camah ve camah if it is untrue. Meaning, all the more so if it is untrue.  And if you reflect on how often we are tempted to repeat what we have heard, which is not direct knowledge, you can see how sometimes misunderstandings may arise.

I grew up in a house where this was practiced, and I didn’t know it. This topic wasn’t discussed. I don’t think that my parents were aware that they did this or rather I don’t think they were aware of what they didn’t do or rarely did. There was a man that my father worked with and my mother once mentioned that he called him “That Bastard so and so”. I myself never heard him say that. For me, home was a peaceful place. I was not aware that my parents did not speak about other people much. 

But when I was 18, for the first time it happened that I was living away from home with a group of other girls and people who were not there were reported on, discussed and analyzed, and I was fascinated by it, I found these sessions delicious, great fun! It is nice to feel that you are part of a group, warm and cosy, and that these other people who are in some way deficient are on the outer.  I wasn’t very insightful, didn’t reflect on the fact that if by chance I wasn’t with the group, they might turn their sights on me, and tear me to bits just as well, in just such a juicy and ridiculing way.  

In this parashah, in the second verse, Joseph runs to his father and tells him about his brothers’ misdeeds. Vayaveh Yosef et dibatam ra’ah el avihem. He is at this time 17 years old, it says so in the same verse, and it also there says that despite being 17 years old, well above the age of 13 when a child is supposed to reach maturity, he was childish. And it says that Jacob had a preference for him, which is maybe why he did not rebuke his son and cure him of this bad habit of tale-bearing. 

A footnote in the Soncino Tanach says: “Because Joseph was still a child, he did wrong by telling tales about his brothers and could not foresee where it would lead. Whatever evil he saw in Leah’s sons, he brought to his father." According to Rashi, he accused them specifically of three offences: "...that they ate limbs torn from live animals, that they called the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah slaves and that they were immoral. On these three accounts he was punished, when they sold him they slew a goat, he was sold for a slave and he was accused of immorality by Potiphar’s wife."

Another commentary says: "He spoke evil of all the brothers, which is why they all hated him. He did not reflect on this at the time." That was the journey Joseph had to make to achieve greater understanding.
And immediately after that, in verses 5 to 11,  we have the telling of the two dreams: the Torah says directly, in verse 5:  he told them the dream and they hated him for it. This is the dream about the sheaves of corn, where his sheaf stands straight and their sheaves all bow down to him. And everybody understands immediately what this is about. 

And in verse 8 the brothers say: "And will you indeed reign over us? Or shall you have dominion over us? And they hated him all the more for his dreams and for his words." That is an interesting distinction: for his dreams and for his words. One thing is that he had those dreams, and the other is that he spoke about them. Had he kept quiet about them, they would not have known and both causes would have been removed. 

The dreams showed clearly that he was to be their superior in some way. And it is likely that this was evident to Joseph, that he knew this about himself, that he had greater ability and insight than his brothers, and they would maybe have been aware of this, maybe not. But they would not have liked this little squirt of a boy telling them that he was going to be their superior. It was bad enough that Jacob favoured him above them.

In Joseph’s speech, there is of itself nothing wrong. He is telling about something that happened to him and  no one is suggesting that it was untrue or wrong. But it was unwise: he did not reflect on the effect of his words on his brothers, he did not ask himself how his brothers would feel. For he did not have the ability to reflect at this stage, he was spoilt and happy-go-lucky, all was well in his world and he saw no reason to measure his words. He felt safe. Maybe if his mother had been alive, she would have taught him to be more careful, to be more sparing of other people’s feelings.

Sometimes this whole business of how members of a community talk to each other seems so difficult and tricky that one feels that the only solution is to simply shut up once and for all.  And yet it is said that once someone spent a whole day with the Chefetz Chaim trying to get him to say a single condemnatory thing, a single statement which could be construed as Lashon HaRa, and they did not succeed. I think that it is hard work, but that does not mean that it is not to be undertaken. 

It is an art that seems to me to be very worthwhile.