Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
In this week’s Torah portion we encounter Isaac deep in mourning for his mother, Sarah. The Rabbis suggest he was inconsolable until he met his future wife, Rebecca.
In a scene that starts off like a Monty Python movie — “And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening, and looking up, he saw camels approaching; raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac and fell off the camel,” it quickly gets more serious:
Rebecca 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 he had done [how he had selected Rebecca for him as a wife in the way Abraham instructed]. Isaac then brought Rebecca into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
Isaac slept with her, he married her, and then he loved her. The ideal sequence, most of us were taught, would have been: He loved her, he married her, and then he slept with her. In ancient times, a man having sex with a woman was a means of making her his wife. To “take a woman” was a technical term with legal force.
Isaac finally finds comfort from Sarah’s death after he experiences intimacy, sexual and emotional, with Rebecca. You don’t need to be a student of Freud to wonder whether this was real comfort or some kind of transference.
The Midrash has a different take on it. In Bereishit Rabbah (60:16) we read:
Three miraculous phenomena that occurred in the tent during Sarah’s lifetime resurfaced when Isaac married Rebecca: the candle remained lit from one Friday to the next, the dough was blessed and always sufficed for the family and guests, and a Divine cloud “was attached” to the tent.
It seems Isaac is comforted not by Rebecca’s physical and emotional presence, but by her assuming the role played by his mother Sarah and the duties she performed for him and their family.
The Israeli scholar Tamar Frankiel suggests in her book, The Voice of Sarah, that the fact that with Rebecca now in Sarah’s tent once again Shabbat candles burned from one Shabbat to the next and fresh challah was always on the table is not meant to convey their devotion to homemaking, but rather it points to the miracles that resulted from their inherent holiness.
Frankiel notes how the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah identifies the Temple in Jerusalem with these characteristics of Sarah’s and Rebecca’s tents: In the Temple a fire always burned on the altar (represented now by the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, found in most synagogue sanctuaries. Some say it’s linked to the ancient Menorah), and the 12 loaves of bread that were continuously on display, the Lechem Hapanim, was always fresh and warm. And, just as during her lifetime Sarah’s tent was always graced with a Divine cloud, so too was the Mishkan (tabernacle), the portable desert sanctuary.
Frankiel concludes: “The implication is that the holiness of Sarah’s life was like that of the Temple itself, and that [Rebecca] echoed her in every way.”
It’s not just that the holiness of Sarah’s life was equal in measure to the holiness of the Temple. Rather, when faced with the task of building a home for God, it was Sarah’s home that was used as a blueprint.
Fundamentally, the locus for finding and celebrating the holy is not beyond the mundane realities of our lives, but actually in their very details: in our homes, in our kitchens, in our families.
To find God and spirituality so many of us trek all over the world, climb mountains, meditate, or settle ourselves into gilded sanctuaries. We feel we need to get outside of ourselves and our daily lives in order to find what it is we are seeking. Oftentimes that helps. But what this beautiful and tender teaching connecting Sarah’s tent to the Temple teaches us is that in the search for the sacred we need not look further than our own living rooms, basements and backyards.
In Jewish life we talk about making the mundane sacred. We believe that everything in life can be elevated to a level filled with meaning, purpose, and kedushah, holiness. To that end we sanctify how we eat, how we work, and other daily activities.
In addition to making the mundane sacred, we are also charged to make the sacred mundane. Rather than focus only on bringing ourselves to shul or observing holidays rituals, we must open the doors of our sanctuaries wide enough to let the spirit of Jewish life flow out and into the spaces and rhythms of our daily, ordinary lives.
As more and more Jews identify with Jewish culture as opposed to Jewish religion, never before has the mandate been so clear to make the secular sacred by enabling holiness to permeate our lives beyond the walls of the synagogue.
Now is the time to nourish the hunger for a meaningful engagement with Jewish life: to provide opportunities for people to immerse themselves in Jewish culture, learning, music, food, literature and social activism; to expose them to creative lifecycle and holiday rituals and help them cultivate a deep and abiding commitment to Judaism, and to the people with whom they share it.
Our goal isn’t only to reengage the next Jewish generation, but also to provide them with the means to transmit their Jewish values to the following generation and secure the ongoing vitality and dynamism of Judaism and the Jewish people.
The realm of the sacred is continually enriched and shaped by our drawing near to it with the breadth of our lived values and convictions. And the realm of the secular is continually enriched and shaped by our allowing the sacred, that which is symbolic of ultimate meaning and purpose, to permeate.
Sarah’s tent and the Temple were, architecturally speaking, two completely different structures; yet, both spiritually significant enough to be considered a home for the Divine: a place of comfort and healing for Isaac, and one of sacred, everyday inspiration for generations to come.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes is the founder and spiritual leader of Sha’ar Communities in northern New Jersey.
Pronounced: buh-RAY-SHEET, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “in the beginning,” it’s the Hebrew name for Genesis, the first book of the Torah.
Pronounced: KHAH-luh, Origin: Hebrew, ceremonial bread eaten on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: shool (oo as in cool), Origin: Yiddish, synagogue.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.