Chaiyai Sarah: Can We Pass The Chesed Test?

This week’s portion, Chaiyai Sarah (Genesis 23f) speaks to many issues that are reflected in our modern life. The portion begins with Sarah’s death and the myriad of commentaries that look at the cause, so powerful following the Akedah in Genesis 22. Abraham purchase a burial plot, mourns for his wife and sends his servant, Eliezer, on a quest to find a  wife for Isaac. The portion concludes with Abraham marrying Keturah and his eventual death and burial. Within this portion are many scenes of beauty and challenge, many of which will be discussed at  Torah classes this Shabbat.

However, there is one small passage that I would like to focus on. In Genesis 24: 12-14, Eliezer creates a test to see the woman who would be fit for Isaac’s bride. He offers a prayer, describing a sign that would be telling. If a woman came to the well and offered him a drink and offered drink to his camels “let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac”. Eliezer asks that God grant him good fortune and to “deal graciously with my master Abraham”. The Hebrew word which is used in calling for dealing graciously is chesed. In Rebecca’s appearance at the well, she passes this test and thus, is chosen. (Genesis 24: 16-20)

Why do we look at this on the Shabbat? It will be one week since the horror of Pittsburgh. All across the world, communities have come together to seek comfort and to express solidarity. Indeed, this Shabbat, across the USA, will be a “Shabbat of Solidarity”. It is this word chesed and what is stands for that the Torah portion may be challenging us to model. This word, often translated at loving-kindness, or deed of loving-kindness, speaks to a value that seems to be in  very short supply. Indeed, one may argue that we never have needed people to model this value more than we do now. Chesed is relational. Rabbi Jonathan Saks, quoting a passage from Sukkah 49b, discusses this concept as distinct from the value of tzedakah, often translated as charity. Saks, citing Sukkah, notes that Charity is done with one’s money, while loving- kindness maybe done with one’s money or with one’s person. Charity is done only with the poor, while loving-kindness may be given to the poor and the rich. Charity is given only to the living, while loving-kindness may be shown to the living and the dead.” (“Conversations With Genesis . p. 30)

What this is saying, I think, is extremely important for us at this moment. It is time that we re-double our efforts to bring a sense of chesed into our world. How we see, speak to and treat each other needs to be done through this filter and focus of loving-kindness. Regardless of if you agree or disagree with someone, our faith tradition speaks to the reality that we are all tzelem elohim, and thus deserving of basic respect. This is just a human and humane way to be with people.  We need to model this value and to teach it, from the very beginnings of education to every class and discussion. As we posted on our Facebook site last weekend, “In a place where no one acts as a human being, strive to act like a human being” (Pirke Avot)

Shabbat Shalom. And may the lives and memory of those taken this past Shabbat be a source of blessing and chesed

Rabbi Richard F Address

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