Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
Mah anachnu, meh chayeinu, meh chasdeinu, mah tzidkateinu, mah yeshuateinu, mah cohenu, mah gevuroteinu… the rhythm of the Hebrew words picks up speed as I move through the morning blessings. What are we? What is our life? What is our loving-kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our might? The parallelism in the English underscores the urgency of the questions.
Who are we? What is our purpose on this earth? Where do we derive our strength? What will be our guide through this day and each day thereafter? How do I understand my place in this world? The truth is that given my abbreviated davening (praying) during the week, the only time I say these words are on Shabbat morning. These are the words that most consistently open my heart and prepare me to connect with the Holy One of Blessing, the compassionate creator of all things.
These words echoed through my head as I said havdalah this past Saturday night, cos yeshuot esa, u’veshem Hashem ekra, I will lift the cup of salvation and cry out in the name of God. I spun in a maze of liturgical association. First, mah yeshuateinu? What is our salvation? Then, Esa einai el he’harim me’ayim yavo ezri… I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?
I lifted my eyes to the havdalah candle being held nearby in the close circle of chosen family who had gathered to hold each other, to grieve the loss of life at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and to confront the anti-Semitism and white supremacy in our world.
Staring into the havdalah candle, I was brought to a moment in this week’s parsha:
And Isaac went out to meditate (la’suach) in the field toward evening and, lifting up his eyes, he saw camels approaching. Lifting up her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Gen 24:63-67)
Isaac and Rebekah each lift their eyes, to whom it is unclear, and see each other. Our sages see in Isaac’s meditation the basis for our practice of praying the afternoon service. Playing on the word la’suach (see above, Gen 24:63), the Talmud teaches “conversation (sicha) means nothing other than prayer, as it is stated: “A prayer of the afflicted when he is faint and pours out his complaint (sicho) before the Lord” (Psalms 102:1). In the act of prayer, Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees Rebekah, the source of his comfort and his partner in continuing our communal story.
This moment of Isaac lifting his eyes is used as a proof-text in a midrash that ties this moment to the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are caught between the Red Sea and the advancing Egyptians when “the Israelites lifted up their eyes and saw the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to Adonai. (Ex 14:10)” After a short exchange between God and Moses, the Israelites move forward into the water, following the lead of Nachshon ben Aminadav. Midrash Tanchuma teaches that when the Israelites lifted up of their eyes they were modeling themselves after the practice of their ancestors, citing, among others, Isaac’s lifting up his eyes in our parsha.
What stands out in the juxtaposition of these two rabbinic texts is the confluence of liberation and conversation, of lifting up the eyes and freedom. In Genesis, Isaac is not engaged in any act of prayer; he is engaged in the holy work of pouring his heart out to the divine. Isaac is engaged in conversation, the speaking aloud of what is in our hearts that connects us to God and to each other — an act that is deepened through lifting up our eyes and seeing the other. What joins our current moment to the moment of our biblical ancestors on the shores of the Red Sea is our own crying out to God and the need for courageous leadership to bring us through to freedom. What separates us from our ancestors here is that we are not solely reliant on God to lead us to freedom.
As Jews living in the world we are necessarily connected to those around us. Over the past few days, we have witnessed the presence of our allies in deep ways — in emails and text messages, in their presence at vigils, in the financial contributions that they are making to the Pittsburgh Jewish community. Even in the darkest moments of anti-Semitism, the presence of our loved ones and neighbors pulls us towards healing and liberation. We have lifted our eyes and found each other, and the other, in concentric circles around us. We have been met with the powerful testimony of those who are our allies. This is only possible through relationship building and conversations over years and decades. We must continue this work where it is happening, and we must lift up our eyes to find new places start. Only then will we find our salvation — in the field, in the mountains, in the embrace of loved ones and close community, and in the hearts of those whose liberation we hold as closely as our own.
The text of the morning blessings continues aval anachnu amcha, bnei britecha, but we are your people, children of your covenant,…leficach anachnu chayavim l’hodot l’cha… therefore we are obligated to give thanks to you, to praise you, to glorify you, to bless and sanctify your name. This week we do all these acts in the names of those who lost their lives at Tree of Life Synagogue, along with those killed in the Kentucky supermarket, and all others whom we mourn. May their memories continue to be for a blessing, and may we honor them in all that we do.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. He works to build communities (and a world) that invites, allows, and encourages people to bring all of their identities to them. He is a 2014 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.
Learn more about Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs on November 12, 2018 at Ta Sh’ma (Come & hear), a Fall Open House & Day of Learning for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students.