On the Weekly Torah Portion of Chayey Sarah

Eliezer_&_RebeccaEven though this week’s Torah portion is called chayey sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18), “The Life of Sarah,” the longest part of this parashah deals with the marriage of Isaac with Rebecca. Abraham is making his chief slave, Eliezer, who was the overseer of all his affairs, swear that he will find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac not among the local Canaanites but back in Haran, which is where Abraham’s relatives still lived.

A number of commentators noted that during his conversation with Eliezer, Abraham refers to God in two different ways. First, he makes Eliezer swear in the name of the God of heaven and earth:

וְאַשְׁבִּיעֲךָ בַּיהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וֵאלֹהֵי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי מִבְּנוֹת הַכְּנַעֲנִי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּקִרְבּוֹ:
I will make you swear by Y-H-V-H*, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites. (Genesis 24:3).

A few verses later, when he speaks of how Y-H-V-H has taken him from his father’s house and his birthplace, he refers to him as just God of heaven, omitting the earth:

יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲשֶׁר לְקָחַנִי מִבֵּית אָבִי וּמֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי.
Y-H-V-H, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth (Genesis 24:7)

Why this difference? According to the Eleventh Century Biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), before Abraham started his spiritual mission, Y-H-V-H was only known as God of Heaven. However, as a result of Abraham’s activity, Y-H-V-H became known and recognized by others and he thereby became God of both heaven and earth.

How can one person exert such a powerful influence on the relationship between humans and God? Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, an influential Hassidic master from the 18th Century, explained the mechanics through which such a change can be brought about. Speaking in the context of this parashah, Rabbi Elimelekh explained that when a Tzaddik, a righteous person, performs great ascetic practices and as a result reaches a high level of spiritual attainment, a path is opened for others to walk on so that they can reach similar spiritual heights without having to toil nearly as hard as that first tzaddik. That which required so much effort for the first tzaddik becomes much easier for those who follow.

elimelech's graveIn the social/cultural field, there are many examples for such phenomena. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, paved the way for women’s equality all over the world through their exemplary commitment, hard work and sacrifice. Jackie Robinson made it a lot easier for other African American players to join the hitherto segregated sport of baseball through his endurance and ability to swallow his pride. Harvey Milk’s courage, which cost him his life, paved the way for a growing acceptance of gay people by mainstream society. The heroic sacrifice of the first Jewish immigrants to Palestine from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th enabled the establishment of the state of Israel, to which every Jew can now immigrate with ease.

As Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Rabbi Elimelekh’s commentary teaches us that this is not only true in the social/cultural arena, but in the spiritual field as well. Any significant breakthrough in one’s practice and in one’s internal development carves out a path which others can walk on more easily. In Judaism this is the highest motivation to engage in the spiritual life—for the sake of enabling others to come closer to God. The ability of a true tzaddik to influence the world is valued so highly that Jewish lore claims that in each generation there are 36 hidden tzaddikim by virtue of whose piety and devotion the world continues to exist.

This description of a tzaddik, as someone whose spiritual practice is motivated primarily by the desire to smooth the path for others, is reminiscent of the Mahayana Buddhist concept of the boddhisatva. The life’s mission of a boddhisatva is to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Abraham can be understood as a Jewish equivalent of a boddhisatva.

Abraham’s life serves as a metaphor for our own spiritual life. Each and every one of us has the possibility—indeed, the responsibility—to take part in the transformation of the collective consciousness so that the “God of heaven” will become the “God of heaven and earth.” Will we take this seriously? Instead of grumbling about the horrible state of affairs in the world, will we commit to a spiritual/religious activism for the sake of the betterment of the world? The results of our individual choices are far reaching. What will we do? What will YOU do?

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[*note: I use Y-H-V-H as a substitute for the unutterable name of God used in the Bible, which is normally translated as “The Lord.”]

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)