As Abraham reached the twilight of his years, our Torah portion informs us that "the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way" (Genesis 24:1).
The Rabbis were perplexed by such an assertion. No surprise! Do you know anyone on earth who is blessed with everything? Some people may give the impression that they "have everything." But when you scratch the surface you will find that we all carry burdens-physical, emotional, and financial. We live with disappointment, with pain, with hopes not realized and goals never achieved.
So what about Abraham? As Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Ramban or Nachmanides) suggests, Abraham was blessed with riches, possessions, honor, and longevity (Ramban on Genesis 24:1). What was notable was that he was beyond the need for worldly gain. What do you think that might mean?
Jewish tradition offers many opinions about who is truly blessed. One of the most striking observations comes from Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot, ( Ethics of the Fathers), who asks: "Who is rich?" He responds: "one who is happy with what he has" (4.1). Is it possible that Abraham had reached the point in life where he was not only blessed, but also knew that he was blessed?
There's a big difference between being blessed and knowing that we are blessed.
I'm acquainted with people who can be seated at their dinner table surrounded by children and grandchildren, and be aggravated because a family member arrived late or didn't remember his last birthday. And there are those whose perspective is quite different: who take in the scene and praise God for their abundant blessings. The latter are the ones who truly cherish what we have: we human beings are the only creatures on earth who are not only blessed, but also capable of knowing we are blessed.
That's why I find reciting the HaMotzi prayer before every meal such a significant act. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, "Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth." By that simple ritual, my meal becomes a spiritual event. That extraordinary blessing connects me to a remarkable universe that sustains me every day, to those who labor in the food chain on my behalf, and to the Power that makes it all possible. All of that comes from ten Hebrew words that enable my nefesh, my "soul," to touch the Eternal.
Can I say, like Abraham, that I am "blessed in all things?" Literally speaking, certainly not. But spiritually, yes.
Of course, Abraham may not have lacked worldly goods, honor, or longevity. But he was, like the rest of us, flawed and incomplete, having several important family matters that weighed heavily on his mind: a burial place for Sarah and a wife for Isaac.
He approaches these two challenges with three qualities that I admire:
- clear vision of what needs to be done
- precision and meticulous care for detail
Abraham understands that Sarah should be buried in the Machpelah, near Hebron, "a visible sign of the future . . . a token title to the Promised Land and a symbol of possession when the people are far from the land-whether in Egyptian slavery or European exile"1 As for Isaac, Abraham is keenly aware that his son's bride must not be chosen from the Canaanites, but rather from his tribal homeland. He assigns this task to Eliezer, the elder servant of his household, and makes it clear to him that the couple must settle in Canaan in order to fulfill the covenantal commitment to God to settle in the Land. In other words, Abraham keeps his eye on the prize.
In his dealing with the Hittites, Abraham is respectful, referring to himself as a stranger, bowing down to the elders, and insisting on paying full-market price for the gravesite, despite the owners' offer to make it a gift. Later, as he dispatches Eliezer on his journey, Abraham treats the servant with consummate respect, offering to release him from his oath if the woman he selects for Isaac is unwilling to relocate to Canaan.
Vision and humility are not enough. In both transactions, he takes meticulous care to plan ahead and follow through on each step necessary to turn his vision into reality. Purchasing the gravesite, he weighed out 400 shekels of silver (using weights) standard among traders (Genesis 23:16). Long after he has departed from the scene, Abraham wants there to be assurance that the transaction is undeniably valid. Similarly, with Eliezer, Abraham extracts an oath that the servant will carry out his mandate to the detail. He insists that the servant take no chances: this matter is critical (Genesis 24:2-4).
How important are these qualities in your life?
How critical are they for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people?
What other values does Abraham's life reflect that we might want to emulate?
1. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), p. 164
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).
While Chayei Sarah features stories that further the plotline of Abraham's descendants, what strikes me is the recurring theme of our ancestors seeking proof that their hopes for their family will be realized.
The chatter of the moment tells us that "helicopter parenting" is a contemporary phenomenon, one that springs from today's cultural anxieties about physical safety and economic success, combined with uncertainty about our role as we adults grow older. Many parents, self-described helicopters or not, experience moments when they long to know that their children are "settled." Often these experiences come during liminal moments, times of transition, and sometimes transformation.
Going into the sleeping child's bedroom one last time before turning in for the night, scanning the Bunk1 Web site for photos of a happy camper, and staying to unpack and decorate the college dorm room are all actions taken by parents who not only want their children to be safe, secure, and happy, but also want evidence that it is so. They harbor not only wishes for their children, but also a desire to know that the wish has come true.
In Chayei Sarah, we see examples of individuals yearning to have evidence that those they hold dear are settled after periods of transition. After his wife Sarah's death, Abraham takes the unusual step of seeking ownership of a plot of land for her burial in a land where he is a stranger. His actions go beyond the customs of the time, but to Abraham, the purchase proves to him (and perhaps to future generations) that the burial site is permanent and can be used even by his future descendants. Abraham's own transition from husband to widower concludes when he owns--and uses--the burial plot in the cave of Machpelah.
Later in the parashah, we see that Abraham not only hopes that his son Isaac will be settled in his family affairs, but also takes unusual action to see the evidence that it will be so. In securing an oath from his servant Eliezer that he will travel back to Abraham's homeland to find a suitable bride for Isaac, Abraham reveals his need for assurance that his hopes for his son will be realized. Eliezer too seeks concrete evidence in the matter by appealing to God for a sign indicating who will be the proper wife for Isaac.
Seeing a loved one through a period of transition can be scary. Like so-called helicopter parents, Abraham and Eliezer take unconventional actions to secure evidence that those they love will emerge from their transitions safe and sound.
Dr. Michelle Lynn-Sachs is a researcher and consultant in Jewish education. Formerly a faculty member at HUC-JIR and the Jewish Theological Seminary, she is now an action research facilitator for the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, www.bnaimitzvahrevolution.org .
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132