HUC-JIR D’var Torah on Parashat Chayei Sarah, by Rabbi Nicki Greninger '08 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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HUC-JIR D’var Torah on Parashat Chayei Sarah, by Rabbi Nicki Greninger '08

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

When I planned my drash for today, I intended to speak about Rebecca’s story – specifically, about how she came to meet and marry Isaac.  When I read this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, in preparation for today, I was surprised to find that some of the details in Rebecca’s story were different than what I had remembered - in particular, I wanted to focus on who determines that Rebecca will go with Abraham’s servant to meet Isaac, especially in light of our society’s current focus on gender dynamics, power, and privilege.

Then a man walked into a synagogue and murdered 11 Jews, on Shabbat no less. These congregants lost their lives because they were Jews, because they decided to wake up and go to synagogue to pray, to be with community, to celebrate the brit milah of a new baby boy. Innocent souls call out to us from their freshly dug graves. We are doubled over in pain from the anger, the fear, the sadness, the despair. And yet….  perhaps there is something to learn from the arc of Rebecca’s story, after all, something different that might help us move forward, something that might bring a glimpse of light into the midst of this darkness.

In this week’s parsha, Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac.  Most of us probably know the outline of the story well: Abraham’s servant runs into Rebecca near a well, she offers water for him and his camels, he realizes she comes from the correct family lineage, and she joins him to return to Canaan, where she meets Isaac and they become husband and wife. That’s the gist of the story, but let’s dig a little deeper. How exactly does it come to pass that Rebecca goes with Abraham’s servant to meet Isaac?  Do you remember? Who decides whether she will stay or she will go?  

After Abraham’s servant gives a lengthy explanation of what happened at the well, Rebecca’s father and brother respond by saying, “This matter has emanated from Adonai; we cannot answer you one way or another.  Look - Rebecca is before you; take [her] and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife as Adonai has decreed” (Gen 24:50).

Through a variety of literary devices, the biblical authors want to make it crystal clear that it is the fulfillment of God’s will for Rebecca to go with the servant in order to meet Isaac.  However, when I read the story this year, I wondered, “Where is Rebecca’s voice in this story? What choice does she have over her own journey, her own future?” Her father and brother seem to be the ones with the privilege to determine her fate with just two small words: “kach v’lech!”  “Take (her)! Go!”

Rebecca’s father and brother decide on her behalf that it must be God’s will for Rebecca to go, and the men celebrate by eating and drinking well into the night.  The next morning, the following conversation occurs:

Abraham’s servant said, “Send me off to my master.”  Rebecca’s brother and mother said, “Let the girl stay with us another few days - ten, perhaps - afterward she may go.” But he said to them, “Do not delay me, now that Adonai has cleared the way for me; send me off and let me go to my master.”  They answered, “Let us call the girl and see what she has to say.” So they called Rebecca and asked her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” (Gen 24: 54-58)

Ah, we finally hear Rebecca’s voice.  “Elech,” she says.  Just one word, “Elech.”  “I will go.”  

But is this really what Rebecca wants?  How much of her “yes” is up to her, and how much of it is due to her circumstances?  After Rebecca’s father and brother have agreed for her to go with the servant, and everyone acknowledges that it is the Divine Will for her to go, does she really have much of a choice? I had wanted to explore Rebecca’s predicament in light of the #MeToo movement.  I had wanted to talk about the gender dynamics at play in this story.

But since Shabbat, I find myself asking a different (though related) question: Who gets to decide the course of our lives? Maybe not just in a gender-specific lens, but on a wider scale.  How much agency does each of us have to determine what happens to us?

The truth is, sometimes in life we find ourselves in circumstances over which we have little control. Some decisions are not up to us.  We live embedded in relationships, and communities, and a world in which things happen, things we cannot control, nor foresee. From Rebecca, though, we learn that being passive, letting others determine our fate, is not the end of the story.  Rebecca goes on to marry Isaac, have children, and take control of her own destiny. Rebecca becomes a dominant character, one who makes things happen for herself and her sons.  

Let me be clear: I do not mean to say that the victims of this weekend’s attack should be compared to Rebecca, and I absolutely do not mean that those who lost their lives were “passive” in any way.  I do, however, see a connection as we consider how to respond to life’s events, especially those we didn’t plan and couldn’t foresee. There are times when all we can ask is, “Where do we go from here??”

We never know when our end will come.  We do not know what today or tomorrow will bring.  But we do have a choice about how we want to live our lives.  We do have agency to make change.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains in his book, Fate and Destiny:

“Against your will you are born, and against your will you die [but with your free will do you live].” Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but it is within his capacity to live as a “subject” - as a creator who impresses on his life his individual imprimatur and who lives autonomously.  According to Judaism, man’s mission in [this] world is to turn fate into destiny - [to turn] an existence that is passive and influenced, [into] an existence that is active and influential; [to turn] an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness, [into] an existence full of will and initiative.”

Sometimes in life we will face events that daunt us and make us afraid.  We do not have to let those events define us - as individuals or as a community.  We get to choose: Who do I want to be? Who do we want to be as a Jewish community, even in the face of tragedy? Do we live in fear, or do we choose to live with hope? Let us learn from Rebecca to find our voice, to carve a path ahead with strength and courage.

Let us pray:

Source of Comfort,
Be with us in this time of anguish and mourning.
May those shaken with grief be held gently with comfort and compassion.
May the injured be nourished and tended by wise and kind-hearted healers.
May our brave first responders know our gratitude.
Shelter us in our pain, Eternal.
May hope emerge from our anger and fear.
May our country unite
To dissolve anti-Semitism, fear of the Other, and horrific violence.
May we honor our beloved lost souls
With our activism, deeds, and voices
To realize Shalom.
Propel us, Eternal,
To bring peace, healing, and righteousness to the hate in our world.
May light rise from this darkness.
May our path of unity, righteousness, and healing,
Grow ever-bright.
[Let us say:] Amen.

(Prayer by Rabbi Jessica Marshall, inspired by Rabbi Naomi Levy)

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