What Makes Community Work?

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Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18

by Rabbi Russ Resnik                           

The world rests on three things; on the Torah, on the worship, and on acts of loving kindness. (Pirkei Avot 1.3)                                                                

A new Barna survey on Jewish millennials commissioned by Jews for Jesus has attracted lots of attention, including stories in the Jerusalem Post and JTA. It's a fascinating and encouraging study, and we'll be discussing it more in the coming days. For now, I'll note one finding, which is the importance that millennials place on social connection and community. A deeper issue is this: what makes community work? A survey can’t really address this question, but this week’s parasha does, so let's take a look.

The stories of Abraham and his descendants seem to be written from a patriarchal perspective, yet the first death recorded among them is that of a woman, Sarah. Our parasha opens with a detailed record of her life span, as befits the mother of Israel: “And Sarah’s life was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen 23:1, literal translation).

Before Sarah died, however, Abraham learned of the birth of Rebecca, daughter of his kinsman Bethuel (Gen 22:23). After Rebecca—who is fit to replace Sarah—is born, and Abraham is notified, Sarah dies. As our Sages tell us [b.Yoma 38b], One righteous person does not die before another is born, as it is written, and the sun rises, and the sun sets (Eccles 1:5)” (Sforno).

When Sarah dies, Abraham must restore the essential feminine element in his family by finding a bride for Isaac. Indeed, the title of this parasha, Chayei Sarah, means, “Sarah lives.” It begins with a burial, but continues through the betrothal of a new matriarch. Sarah will live on through the wife of Isaac.

To find this woman, Abraham sends a servant back to his land and kindred. The entire story of the betrothal of Isaac hinges upon the actions of this servant, yet he is never named. He serves as best man, bringing the wedding party together, but never central to the event. His role is vital, and yet the attention is never on him. 

Instead, this story draws our attention to Isaac. With God’s help, the servant finds Rebecca, arranges the marriage with her family, and gains her assent to return to his master. When they reach the land of Canaan at last, Rebecca sees Isaac in the distance asks, “Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?” The servant says, “It is my master (adoni).” So she takes a veil and covers herself (24:65). In this story, the servant has called Abraham adoni, “my master,” sixteen times. Only now, as he escorts the bride whom Abraham sent him to find, does he apply the term to Isaac. Isaac becomes complete when he encounters his bride, as the sages say, “Any man who has no wife is no proper man; for it is said, Male and female created He them and called their name Adam [man]” (b.Yev 63a).

This saying reminds us of an earlier wedding. In Hayyei-Sarah, the unnamed servant serves as best man, but in that earlier wedding the best man was the Lord himself, who formed Eve from the side of Adam and brought her to him. Rabbi Abin said of this event, “Happy the citizen for whom the king is best man!” (Midrash Rabbah, Gen 18:3). And even before this, the Torah says that God blessed the man and woman that he had created (Gen 1:27-28). Commenting on these verses, Rabbi Abbahu said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, took a cup of blessing and blessed them” (Midrash Rabbah, Gen 8:13).

Helping to arrange a wedding and attending the bridal couple are acts of kindness, or gemilut hasadim, considered to be one of three pillars upon which the world rests. In the Torah, the Lord provides examples of such acts of kindness for us to emulate. Such acts of kindness form the fabric of community. Furthermore, they provide a foretaste of the Age to Come, when all human needs will be fully met, and there will be none who are naked or lonely or abandoned. Therefore we are instructed to support others in joyous events such as a wedding, and also in sorrowful events such as sickness or mourning: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Such acts of kindness make community work.

By marrying Rebecca, Isaac receives comfort after the death of Sarah, takes on the legacy of his father Abraham, and ensures that the divine covenant will be passed on to another generation. This uniquely significant wedding highlights the significance of every wedding in the sight of God. Every time we attend a wedding we agree with God that it is not good for the man (or woman) to be alone, that the couple is to bear a divine blessing, and that their marriage is to be fruitful in many ways. At such events we are not to be a mere audience, but we are to be community, supporting the couple and adding our own blessing to the Lord’s blessing.

It is no wonder then, that early in his account of the deeds of Messiah, Yochanan records Yeshua’s attendance at a wedding, where he transformed water into wine (John 2:7-11). “This beginning of signs Yeshua did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him."

The phrase “beginning of signs” brings us back to B’reisheet, the beginning. There, “The Holy One, blessed be he, took a cup of blessing and blessed them.” Here, Yeshua, Son of the Holy One, ensures an abundant supply of wine for a Galilean wedding. Wine is not just refreshment, but the emblem of blessing and favor that will issue in fruitfulness for the new couple. It is not just a social inconvenience for a family to run out of wine, but a threat to the peace of the new couple, and to the continuity of the community.

The God of Torah is not an impersonal “First Cause,” but a God of compassion. He is not distant from the world he created and the human beings he has placed within it. Rather, it seems that he can hardly stay away from us. He is ready to enter our world, to feel our sorrows, and to share in our joys. He is the unseen reality in our community that makes it all work. And in Messiah, he steps fully into this community to embody the acts of kindness he has modeled among humankind since the beginning.

Russ Resnik