By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Chayei Sarah
The focus in the Torah readings of the past few weeks has been the lives of our forefather Abraham and his wife Sarah, the first matriarch. The title of this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” is a call to reflect on her legacy.
The idea of patriarchs and matriarchs in Jewish tradition — three and four respectively — contains layers of meaning beyond simply being ancestors. From one angle, the idea of “mothers and fathers” conveys a path paved for their descendants. As the Ramban (Nachmanides) declares: “The actions of the forefathers are a sign to their children.” Looking through this lens, we can detect how the details in the stories of these main characters foreshadow the later journey of the Jewish people, who relive their challenges and triumphs.
The deeper meaning conveys how these biblical figures passed on, as a spiritual inheritance to their descendants, the character traits that they personified. In this vein, as we conclude the lives of Abraham and Sarah this week, we must pinpoint what exactly they stood for and how we can emulate those qualities within the boundaries of our own life in the modern world.
To begin, the accomplishments of Avraham and Sarah are inseparable—they faced the world together. On the opening lines of this week’s portion, discussing Sarah’s departure from the world, the Zohar likens their partnership to the union of soul and body. Furthermore, she was the channel to implement the vision — “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” In this sense, the ultimate marriage is so much more than personal love and romance, or even building a family. Rather, it is when husband and wife also work in perfect harmony, looking out from the same horizon and steadily uplifting their environment throughout their lifetime.
Three simple yet notable themes of this legendary couple that earned them the title of the first Jews are encapsulated in the words: oneness, kindness and hospitality.
The beginning of their lives together, as related in the verses and expansive commentaries, entails spreading the idea of one G-d during a period and place where people worshipped many. Against popular culture, Avraham vocally pointed to a prime mover behind all existence: the Creator of the cosmos who brought the world into being and continues to sustain it. The flip side to this principle of oneness (reflected later in the first two of the Ten Commandments) is that any apparently independent force of nature is simply like “an axe in the hand of the woodchopper.”
Although this principle was revolutionary and unpopular at first, Avraham and Sarah held strong to their beliefs, alone in a dangerous world. But they left Haran to fulfill their destiny, traveling toward “the land that I will show you,” with hundreds of followers — “the souls that they had made (converted).” Tradition further relates that by the end of their lifetime, over half of the civilization came to recognize this wisdom over the previously prevailing culture of paganism.
Most importantly, their influence came from their illuminating presence, not through coercion.
In its truest form, understanding monotheism does not stop with positing the origin of the world but must permeate our thoughts and actions. In other words, the sense of oneness is more a feeling of attunement with a deeper reality than an abstract faith.
In addition to sharing wisdom and insights perhaps their most dominant trait was lovingkindness. Abraham, throughout the sacred texts, serves as the symbol of “chesed.” His entire life was openly devoted to helping others: hosting guests, teaching and going out of his way to host — even for those he had just met. His tent was open on all sides, so he could welcome travelers from every direction. He would invite them in for a meal, talk to them about his unique ideas and get them to recognize the oneness in the universe, then to express gratitude for the wonderful meal.
The obvious lesson for us is that when we come across an opportunity to show kindness to another, we must do it wholeheartedly, and go beyond what we perceive as our obligation or comfort level. From another angle, it’s easy to embrace people whom we naturally like. And it’s easy to like those who show us kindness. But the model established by this first couple is to care about those with whom, on the surface, we don’t have much in common. If so, how much more so should we practice showing love to those with whom we already have close relationships.
On the one hand, this idea of hospitality and kindness (chesed) had no limits. The commentaries relate that even in the boiling heat, while he was weak and still recovering from his circumcision, Abraham stood outside looking for someone to invite into his home. When he finally spotted three men walking toward him, he entreated them to come inside, even though they were complete strangers of different cultures and faiths. He prepared meat and cakes for them, a meal fit for a king. On the other hand, it wasn’t a random indiscriminate kindness; it was a channeled purposeful chesed, which flowed from wisdom and helped others gain more insight.
This legacy of chesed, manifested most in hospitality, has shown up throughout Jewish history on the Shabbat day. The Shabbat table is a magical place. Although the initial giver is the one who invites the guests and opens the doors, the guests’ presence enriches the lives of the host even more. The memories for the hosts’ children, seeing so many different people, hearing about their experiences and getting to share their own Torah thoughts, is better than any formal education — it instills the message that a meaningful life is not just about fulfilling personal ambitions, but about making room for others.
The host may be feeling down after a brutal week, but cannot ignore the charge to invite guests anyway, to smile, to listen, to pay attention to who is in front of you at the table. The exchange forces the host to move outside his or her thoughts and, in return, gains a broader perspective of the world. Previous burdens seem to slip away just from that small effort to give.
Though the discussions at the Shabbat table are always lively, it’s the food that is the most healing. It uplifts the spirit. Things taste different from during the week. A wife who toils and cooks with love — with the pleasure of her family and guests in mind — infuses extra intangible ingredients that give life.
One of my teachers, when describing the warmth and beauty of his parents’ hospitality in Morocco, would remark that people felt so comfortable in the house that, to an outside observer, it was impossible to distinguish the hosts from the guests. He would often describe how even the physical walls and furniture of someone’s house subtly communicate whether the place was designed to be a cold insular environment or a welcoming place for outsiders as well. On a personal level, during my childhood, I saw clearly how my mother’s insistence on inviting people, without calculation and even when others discouraged her, resulted in the most significant relationships and abundant blessings.
As we move into the busy week, we should reflect on the Shabbat table experience and take with us the soothing vibrations and fresh insights that we gained during that refuge in time.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.