1. Home
  2. Bereishis | Genesis
  3. Chayei Sarah

Truth Redux

5 minute read

The universe is a competitive place, and every creature is in an existential struggle to survive. As Darwin showed, the fittest to survive adapt best to their circumstances, using all tools at their disposal.

Everyone is trying to get by, so what wouldn’t you do to pass the test, get the job, win the relationship? People always exaggerate and lie on resumes, interviews, dates, and sales pitches. It’s a strategic tool for gaining an advantage, no different from how a predator utilizes camouflage to catch its prey. In the context of individual survival and success, so the thinking goes, all is fair.

The only trouble is that it’s dishonest. While some people navigate the world that way anyway, most people are uncomfortable lying.

But consider a more commonplace scenario, the most trivial interaction we encounter daily. How are you doing today? I’m fine, thank you.

It’s not always so true, is it? You might be tired, stressed, and worried. You are feeling hurt or sad about that thing. You’re not always okay, but you say you are and soldier on.

Our sages identify the quality of truth as the signature of the Creator, a profound suggestion that truth is not just a moral or ethical principle but a fundamental building block of the universe woven into the fabric of reality.

The Torah lists many laws and prohibitions; our sages saw value in establishing protective fences around the kind of things that tend to lead to boundary violations. There is one glaring exception – dishonesty. The Torah prohibits deception under a multitude of circumstances but, uncharacteristically, also sees fit to expand the boundary and instructs us to distance from dishonesty generally – מִדְּבַר שֶׁקר תִּרְחָק. If you know some of the Torah’s stories, this makes sense.

Throughout the Torah, dishonesty appears as a consistent signature of its antagonists. The snake is the archetypal trickster whose deception assimilates Creation back into the formless chaos. Ephron does business with Avraham as a crook. Esau presents himself to his father with false piety. Lavan swindles Yakov, not to mention his own daughters, out of years of peace and happiness. Joseph’s brothers cover up his abduction by faking his death. Pharaoh’s slavery started by cheating the Jewish People with phony work quotas; he flip-flops about letting them go. Korach masks his self-serving ambition to foment a populist revolution. Bilam denies his goals to God and himself in pursuit of power and wealth. Among many issues with the infamous scout report about the Land of Israel, the scouts were biased and dishonest in their presentation of their experience.

But we don’t require the Torah to reveal that dishonesty is bad; it’s easy to explain, and there are so many reasons!

You have more to gain from keeping your home than stealing your neighbor’s; not stealing is a social contract that mutually benefits all. Everyone hates getting cheated or deceived, so lying or stealing is at least hypocritical and violates Hillel’s Golden Rule of all things – don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them doing to you.

As a matter of principle and outside of the consideration of benefits or consequences, lying is wrong because it hurts the person being manipulated and violates and ignores their autonomy; that person cannot and would not otherwise consent to be lied to or interacted with under false pretenses. If you could have achieved your goal without the lie, you would not have had to lie. Humans are created in the Divine image; violating the autonomy and dignity of another also compromises your own.

What’s more, the societal implications of dishonesty are far-reaching. Our society is based on a foundation of mutual trust and honesty, and the only way to obtain any benefits from deception is in a world of trust and honesty; dishonest people hide in the camouflage of the much larger crowd of honest people – שְׂפַת־אֱמֶת תִּכּוֹן לָעַד וְעַד־אַרְגִּיעָה לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. If we understand ethics to be universal standards of conduct, deception is self-evidently unethical because it would devalue and erode the foundation of mutual trust and honesty to the point that no one would trust anybody, and there would be no further benefits to dishonesty.

Truth is a cornerstone of civilization and the reality of our primary experience. Honesty builds trust, so people can rely on each other’s words and actions, cooperating and collaborating, prerequisites for a society to function effectively. Without honesty, trust breaks down, leading to suspicion, conflict, and a lack of cooperation. Rules and laws depend on honesty to maintain stability and order; justice can only exist with truth and accountability. Relationships require honesty to establish understanding, respect, and mutual support. Business and commerce can only happen in an environment of honesty. Simply put, people can only lie in a world of truth, the world we know – אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם.

Beyond human culture, the consistency inherent to scientific principles and the laws of physics of the universe itself is an expression of truth, the signature of the Creator that makes the universe go – אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח וְצֶדֶק מִשָּׁמַיִם נִשְׁקָף. Unsurprisingly, the Torah places such a strong emphasis on honesty.

No dishonest scales at work, don’t deceive your business counterparts, don’t testify falsely, keep your word, and a litany of others, with a general rule to avoid dishonesty. Truth is the world we know, the Divine signature. Healthy people are truthful people; we don’t want to lie.

Are those everyday white lies a violation of Divine truth?

In context, everyone readily understands it’s probably polite fiction, a form of basic social lubricant. Communication is about more than words; it’s a convention of how humans interact. Conventions are subjectively followed when there is a general expectation that others will also follow them. Social grease is not dishonest when it’s what people expect; deception is only deceptive when the intent is deception. When you respond that you’re okay, you’re not lying, even though it’s not true. No one is looking for, nor expecting, a truthful report on your life; it’s a social handshake, nothing more.

Our sages even went as far as permitting outright falsehood under certain circumstances for the sake of peace. Does the dress make her look fat? You will hopefully understand that her question is not intended literally; the wise here recognize an unspoken invitation for reassurance. It’s not dishonest to give the reassuring response you’re being implicitly asked for. Telling her she’s beautiful, or saying you’re okay, isn’t lying. It’s not even polite compliance with the request; it is fully aligned with truth and perpetuates life and all Creation.

As the school of Hillel taught, don’t tell the bride she’s ugly! Use your common sense, be normal – תְּהֵא דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם מְעוֹרֶבֶת עִם הַבְּרִיּוֹת.

In our daily lives, we are constantly navigating the complex landscape of truth and deception. We tell white lies to maintain social cohesion, and some of us encounter more harmful forms of dishonesty.

Cultivate a habit of honesty in your life; be mindful of the words you speak and the actions you take. Strive for authenticity in your relationships and integrity in your efforts. Even small acts of honesty contribute towards a culture of trust and respect.

Truth is more than just a moral principle – it’s a fundamental aspect of existence, the divine signature. In a world that can often seem full of deception and dishonesty, be a bearer of truth, showcasing the divine signature in all aspects of your life.

Because truth is not just about what we say to others – it’s also about being true to yourself.

A World of Kindness

3 minute read

Aside from the obvious quality of our great ancestors as figures we look up to and learn from, our sages teach that specific individuals came to embody certain essential attributes. Even before mysticism, our sages associate Avraham with the virtue of kindness, so much so that he came to be recognized as the avatar, conduit, embodiment, and manifestation of God’s kindness in the world.

That God’s kindness is everywhere is arguably one of Judaism’s first principles. When God explains his attributes to Moshe, only one of them is “abundant,” kindness – וְרַב־חֶסֶד. The first blessing of the Amida praises kindness as God’s predominant form of interaction with the universe – גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים טוֹבִים וְקוֹנֵה הַכֹּל. It follows that Judaism’s first ancestor is the archetype of kindness, and the first blessing is named for him – מגן אברהם.

In mysticism, there is a paradox at the heart of our basic reality called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. It would be a degrading handout for souls to remain in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light for eternity. Our souls are placed into bodies so we can earn our piece of Heaven, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an illusion – the system itself is a gift, the most significant gift of all – עולם חסד יבנה.

As the Mesilas Yesharim teaches, God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart with whom to share the gift of God’s goodness. R’ Yerucham Levovitz asks us to recognize the kindness in every moment, from the air we breathe to the grocery store selling oranges – the fact it is a for-profit transaction does not change that the store objectively performs a kind deed by giving you something you want.

Avraham understood that we live in a world of kindness, but the people of Canaan did not share those values, so he sent his steward, Eliezer, to his ancestral homeland to find a suitable match for Yitzchak, his son, and heir. When Eliezer arrives, he prays for God’s kindness to grace his mission:

וַיֹּאמַר  ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם הַקְרֵה־נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם וַעֲשֵׂה־חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם – And he said, “Lord, God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal kindly with my master Avraham.” (24:12)

The Midrash highlights how people from the school of Avraham, the master of kindness, still look to God for further kindness. God’s kindness is essential; our sages say we’d fail at everything without God’s help.

The Beis Yisrael notes how in praying for kindness, Eliezer channeled his teacher and master by checking his ego. Feeling arrogant, confident, or self-righteous about such a sacred mission would be easy. It would be natural! He was sent by Avraham, one of the greatest humans to ever live, to find a suitable match – holy work – for Yitzchak, another one of our giants, to manifest the future greatness of Israel, bearers of the Torah, objectives of all Creation. Each element alone would be enough to get carried away, and rightly so!

But the way of Avraham is not to get ahead of yourself, holding onto groundedness and humility come what may – וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר.

The Chiddushei Harim says that Avraham was a good teacher; Eliezer didn’t harp on his master’s merits and accomplishments and didn’t approach God with a sense of claim or entitlement. Indeed, one of the most shocking discoveries along your spiritual journey might be the realization that you don’t have a claim on the Creator; you’ve already been the recipient of abundant kindness any way you look.

But fortunately, God’s kindness is readily available, and God’s preferred mode of interaction with our universe, however masked it may be – חֶסֶד ה’ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ.

Avraham doesn’t just teach us the virtue of bestowing kindness on others; Avraham teaches the virtue of receiving kindness and recognizing the Creator as the Source of it all.

You are a grateful person, hopefully, thankful for your health, your family, and the things that get you by. You have been blessed!

But this story contains another lesson – even the spiritual world of Torah and mitzvos is a gift we must appreciate and continue to ask for, no matter how far we have already come.


3 minute read

Avraham had a faithful attendant and steward in Eliezer. Avraham trusted him to the extent that he sent Eliezer to his homeland, with the task of finding a young woman appropriate for our ancestor Yitzchak, his son and heir, sight unseen. 

In the story, Eliezer is anxious and worried the whole way there. He is nervous about completing the job as quickly as possible and prays to God for rapid success, and perhaps even experiences a miraculously short journey. He fervently prays for success, requesting that the intended woman present herself in a specific way instead of him having to search for and select the candidate.

In the end, Rivka presents herself what seems like only minutes after arriving, and the story proceeds. 

Yet Avraham was a well-established figure in the region, renowned as a respected sage, statesman, war hero, and teacher, in addition to his famous generosity, integrity, and considerable wealth. Finding someone willing to join the family would have been a relatively straightforward formality with a reputation like that.

So why was Eliezer so worried about it?

The Shem M’Shmuel teaches that there are times we persevere and refuse to give up, and then sometimes we quit after only some light resistance; people will respond differently to obstacles based on their mental states. Eliezer didn’t doubt Avraham or Yitzchak; he doubted himself. 

At the time of his mission, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Eliezer was Avraham’s trusted steward and undoubtedly raised a fine family following the guidance of his teacher and master Avraham. With his daughter at the back and perhaps front of his mind, every girl he met could very plausibly have been not quite good enough, and he could have returned with nobody – and after all, nobody was good enough! – leaving the door open for his daughter.

Eliezer was nervous and worried because he did not want bias or doubt to dull his determination. As much he did not want to let Avraham down, he knew that doubts could downgrade his effort and cloud his judgment.

R’ Chaim Brown suggests that this helps explain Eliezer’s desire for certainty and sense of urgency – when dismissing potential candidates, he would question his motivation for doing so. Was it because they weren’t good enough for Yitzchak? Or was it because they weren’t as good as his daughter? Eliezer prayed for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and free him from any need to deliberate. 

As one classic fantasy has popularized, do or do not – there is no try. “Trying” is an excuse that admits the possibility of not being able to, when far more often than not, it is within our ability if we dig deep enough.

You don’t try to ride a bike. You learn by starting to pedal, and then you fall, and sometimes not. Fall or not, your intent has to be to ride the bike. By beginning with uncertainty, you increase the chances of failure in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. 

Although we do not control our outcomes, we certainly influence them; you can be sure that half-hearted attempts are less frequently successful than unwavering conviction.

If you do something, lean into it and don’t hesitate. Do not go through the motions, but also do not negate failure. You can still fail, but as long as you did all you could, you can sleep easy knowing it wasn’t your fault.

There’s a famous sports aphorism, to leave it all on the field. It means to commit wholly, holding nothing back, with certainty you had nothing left to give.

Think about it like this; what is the difference between 99% and 100%?

Is it 1%? 

Or is it everything?

Dig Deep

4 minute read

After climbing and surmounting the monumental challenge of the Akeida, Avraham descended with Yitzchak, and we can only begin to imagine how surreal it must have felt, with undoubtedly complex and fraught emotions on coming down from such dizzying heights.

Yet their reprieve was all too brief.

Before they even got home, they received word that the great Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, and Avraham’s wife had died.

It’s all too easy to perceive it as below the belt, a cruel gut punch, and frustratingly unfair. We just read about the Akeida! About circumcision and the covenant! About fighting with God to save innocent lives! About running after weary travelers to have someone to look after! And now that this incredible story is drawing to its close, Avraham has finally made it, sealing his name in the pantheon of greatness for eternity, and his wife dies?!

Can they not get a break? A few moments of peace? Where is the happy ending or even fleeting moment of peace and satisfaction that these great heroes have so surely earned?

If we expect life to be fair or balanced, the question is always far better than the answer because there is no real answer. Even if life is somehow fair or balanced, it certainly doesn’t appear that way, and we would do well to make our peace with that.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humans will never truly understand suffering, but that’s a good thing; because if we could, we would come to accept it. We cannot accept it, we should not accept it, and we must not accept it. Because the question is better than the answer, no answer is good enough.

Although we can’t understand why things happen the way they do, we can learn from Avraham.

Dealt a difficult hand, the Torah says Avraham grieved a little – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – but the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her, and doesn’t record Yitzchak’s grief at all! The Torah gives us detailed information about the negotiations over the site our ancestors rest in, but nearly nothing about the family grief or funeral – as if the negotiation is what matters!

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights that the Torah’s lesson isn’t in the grief – which is all too human and ordinary. The lesson is in the extraordinary greatness of Avraham’s response.

There can be no question that Avraham was emotional and that if he would only let it, sadness and grief would consume and overwhelm him. Avraham grieved; he was not some stoic, unfeeling rock – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. But when it came to it, Avraham could manage his feelings and emotional state enough to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done when the moment required.

The heart has different chambers; we have to compartmentalize. Grieving and in pain, Avraham had to – and was able to – gather himself and live up to his responsibility to deal with what the situation called for. This legendary icon, this hero of heroes, could deal with his anguish enough to do what needed to be done.

We are all in pain. Some more, some less. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it comes at the worst moment and with a bitter and cruel bite. When that day comes, it doesn’t feel fair, and perhaps it really isn’t.

But R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that if you can’t figure out why something bad is happening and what the point is, there is literally no point, and it just wouldn’t happen. We can’t plumb the depths of the global why’s; why me, why now, why like this. We can’t begin to fathom, and anyone who tries is likely to be cruel because the question is better than the answer. But there is always a local why if we spend some time introspecting and soul searching. The local why is a prompt to think about what something means to you and how you need to change course and act differently.

We can’t know the ultimate cause of why bad things happen, but there is always a proximate cause in the outside world and our spiritual realm. We can give meaning to pain, and find a reason that makes sense.

Not everything can be a blessing – some things are truly terrible – but nothing is beyond being our fuel.

It’s true in our personal life when someone gets sick, dies, loses their job, can’t get married, or can’t get pregnant. It’s also true of our national life, whether it’s something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust or something as astonishing as the State of Israel blossoming into existence.

When things like that happen, you need to ask yourself what the duty of the moment is, and who you need to become. If you go about life just the same as before, then you missed it.

When pain comes, as it surely will, we have a chance to distinguish ourselves and live up to Avraham’s legacy. We must take responsibility, identify the duty of the moment, and do what needs to be done. Sure, the pain is real. Don’t ignore it! Experience it, feel it.

But don’t overreact. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, what has to get done? Who will do it for you? Where will it take you?

You can do it, and you have got what it takes.

You always have.

Killing Regret

4 minute read

Our ancestor Avraham was the first iconoclast, a brave pioneer who stood up to a cruel and pagan society and chose to pave a new path of love and kindness. Late in life, God revealed Himself to Avraham, confirming his intuitions and agreeing to an eternal covenant with the blood bond of the Bris. No sooner than Avraham had been ultimately vindicated that God tests Avraham and asks him to sacrifice his son.

After successfully passing this impossible test, Avraham and Yitzchak arrive home, only to find that the great Sarah is now the late Sarah; she had died, and the association of her death with the Akeida suggests that she died from learning what Avraham had set out to do:

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan, and Avraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and cry over her. (23:2)

The Baal Haturim famously observes that the text of the Torah records Avraham’s mourning with an irregular small letter, suggesting that he only cried a little for her – וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

But we are talking about Avraham, the first of our greats, dealing with the loss of the correspondingly great Sarah, his partner in all he did, who hosted and taught all the women that came from near and far, whom God endorsed as having greater prophecy and wisdom than Avraham himself.

Given all they’d been through together, and given Sarah’s legendary quality as a partner and spouse, how could Avraham only cry a little?

Crying is a natural response to pain that expresses our grief and sorrow. When we lose somebody near and dead, we cry because we miss them and won’t see them again.

We’re all going to die.

Hopefully, in a very long time, but death is the price of life, and we can avoid its clutches for a while, but we can never escape. But death is a gift as well, giving impetus and urgency to everything we do. The clock is ticking, and the time is now. Each tick, and every tock, poses one question of us. What will we do with the time that we have?

Few things are sadder than the death of a young person because of the time they didn’t have, the stolen years brimming with possibility and potential that go unlived and unfulfilled.

But sometimes, death doesn’t come with grief and sorrow. Sometimes, death is not a tragedy, so much as it is peace and celebration. There is nothing sweeter than the culmination of a life well-lived. When a person has lived a full and rich life, their death isn’t a life that’s cut short; it has been stretched and squeezed to its fullest until the time comes to move on.

We are talking about Avraham and Sarah.

Their positive impact touched the lives of many in their day; it continues to influence our lives today. How many tens of billions of the humans who have ever lived count Avraham and Sarah among their icons and role models? Is there a more excellent achievement humanly possible than to live a life that permanently moves people across eternity?

When someone like that dies aged 127, that person’s life must be honored and celebrated. It’s a loss, sure. It’s sad! But it’s only a little sad, and that’s why Avraham only cried a little.

When the Torah’s greats pass on, there is no commotion, struggle, or turmoil. The imagery the Torah uses when Hashem collects the soul of the departed is hauntingly beautiful; they go with a kiss – מיתת נשיקה. There is no anguish or suffering; they just move on naturally, smoothly, peacefully, and perhaps even lovingly.

The Torah’s greats do all they can for as long they are able until it is time to move on. The Zohar says that Avraham died with all his days fully accounted for – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים. Rashi says that every unit of Sarah’s life was brimming with fullness – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

There was no person they should have helped, yet didn’t. There was no move they should have made but had been too afraid. There was no word left unspoken that should have been voiced.

It wasn’t sad for Sarah, and it was only a little sad for Avraham.

The unfortunate timing of Sarah’s death was Avraham’s last test – could he still live with no regrets? The Bikurei Avraham notes that regret can work before and after the fact; we can worry about the opportunity cost of doing something before the fact, and we can regret doing something after the fact – והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו.

Avraham’s resounding response was that he could live with no regrets, recognizing that his and Sarah’s life together had been worth it, that there wasn’t much to grieve over, and only we know how right he was.

The choices we make all come at a cost. We have to make investments and sacrifices for the lives we want to lead, and it’s hard. But a life well lived is well worth it.

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, relationships we were too afraid to have, and decisions we waited too long to make. In the spirit of Avraham and Sarah, live your life to the fullest; let there be no excuses, no explanations, and no regrets.

Don’t count the days; make the days count.

God Needs Partners

3 minute read

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true! Let’s recap.

God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targeted by despotic leaders with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of children and land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

Maybe the question is better than the answer.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not and should not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due. Happiness can exist even when life falls short of our expectations. As one thinker put it, if you can’t enjoy a cup of coffee, you won’t enjoy a yacht.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems trivial – it’s about his business ventures, travels, and family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

But suppose our stories were about magical demigods riding flying unicorns wielding miraculous lightning bolts to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil. In that case, they couldn’t be more silly or less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s grand mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our heroic role model because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only R’ Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God could promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God could promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son. God can promise, but humans still have to act.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God but also because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

Avraham had taken those first steps and was satisfied. It was enough for Avraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

Show, Don’t Tell

2 minute read

Avraham sent his trusted steward, Eliezer, to his ancestral home to find a suitable partner for Yitzchak.

Eliezer had key criteria that would be identifying traits of the right candidate; the ideal woman would be kind to him, but also to his camels and entourage as well.

When Eliezer approached Avraham’s hometown, there were many young women drawing water at the local well, one of whom was Rivka. Before exchanging introductions or pleasantries, she drew water for him to drink and then his thirsty camels, satisfying Eliezer’s criteria and correctly distinguishing herself as the person he had been looking for.

Based on a textual anomaly, the Midrash suggests that as Rivka approached the well to draw water, the water rose up to meet her, saving her any effort.

The function of this teaching is to mark Rivka as an extraordinary individual; but taking it at face value, why wouldn’t such a fantastic miracle be sufficient for Eliezer to identify her as the right person?

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz sharply suggests that even if you can perform miracles, miracles don’t speak to your quality as an individual. Miracles don’t make you a good person – good deeds make you a good person.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how Rivka told Eliezer she would get him some water, and only once he had finished did she say that she would help with his camels as well. Rivka did not promise the kind things she would do; she just did them when the moment came; highlighting the key trait of saying a little and doing a lot – אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה.

You are the things you do, not the things you say you’re going to do.

Quite unusually for a Torah story, we also see Rivka’s quality in her blindness to social class. Eliezer was a stranger and servant, yet Rivka treated him with dignity and respect, even referring to him as “my lord.” The story also highlights how Rivka deliberately exerted herself to help as quickly as possible – וַתְּמַהֵר וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל־הַשֹּׁקֶת וַתָּרץ עוֹד אֶל־הַבְּאֵר לִשְׁאֹב וַתִּשְׁאַב לְכל־גְּמַלָּיו׃.

This origin story of our ancestors is not a story of miracles or about vanquishing evil; it’s a story about the gentle and kind heart worthy of being a mother in the house of Avraham.

In this story, we see a bias towards urgent action, not talking. We see kindness towards a stranger, sensitivity to the human dignity of inferior or lower-class individuals, and compassion towards animals.

You probably don’t experience daily miracles. But even in the age of miracles, miracles were never the thing that made humans great.

It’s what you do that can make you great, and that’s always and only been solely up to you.

Together Forever

2 minute read

If you’ve ever paid much attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might have noticed a lot of fuss about the rings, the words the groom has to say, and the witnesses.

It’s not just for show. The formalities essentially make the marriage, so we need to get them right.

The source of the formalities is the Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the model of halachic marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased a burial plot to bury his late wife, Sarah. The marriage formalities echo the steps Avraham took to acquire the title to that small parcel of land.

While the source might be familiar to many, the logic most certainly is not.

In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a substantive level collapses it, because a woman is self-evidently not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of the meaning and significance of the transaction.

The Land of Israel is inextricably intertwined with Jewish history and identity. The Promised Land has been a driving force of our hopes and prayers for thousands of years. Our ancestors might have wished for what we have today, and even today, we recognize that we are only at the beginning at best – רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ. It’s a dream that gets us through hard times; the hope that one day, things could be better.

The dream of a Promised Land is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us, invested as it is with all our aspirations for the future. It’s the embodiment of our idealism, a permanent home, a place of belonging and security, and the national happily ever after that everybody longs for.

When Avraham bought that little cave and adjoining field, it was the very first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land, forging the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that binds the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took; it was never a simple land transaction, it is about preserving permanent commitment.

This idea is mirrored by the imagery of the cave itself; a multi-chambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” According to legend, this unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together.

So sure, Avraham simply bought a parcel of land to bury his wife; but in that trivial action, he kept his family together forever, even into death.

A woman is not like land, but marriage is very much like our bond to the Land of Israel. The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.