There’s a line in Koheles (Ecclesiastes 7:2) that basically says, If there’s a choice between going to a wedding and a funeral. Go to the funeral. The reason being that nothing connects you more to life than death. In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, we have both a funeral and a wedding as if to say there is a clear connection between the two. But what is it?
Immediately after the events of the Akeida (binding of Yitzchok), the Torah jumps to Sarah’s funeral. Avraham pays an absurd sum for the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron as his wife’s burial place. After he eulogizes and buries her, Avraham almost immediately turns to his servant and number one student, Eliezer, and sends him to find a wife for Yitzchok.
Despite the fact that Avraham has hundreds of followers and Eliezer has a daughter of marrying age, Avraham sends Eliezer out of Israel to Ur Kazdim. It is at this point, Eliezer devises the perfect way to identify Yitzchok’s match, the Camel Test. With ten thirsty camels, he waits at the local well to see if any women offer, not only him, but all a his camels a drink. It’s a test of chessed (kindness). Sure enough, Rivka shows up almost immediately and goes above and beyond. Instantly, Eliezer knows he’s found the woman.
Traits Vs Belief
It’s a nice story, but why does Eliezar have to go all the way to Avraham’s homeland to find a woman with chessed? Avraham has cultivated a movement, they’re learning his teachings and it’s changing their lives. Surely one of them is suitable. Why does Avraham insist on a bride from a community of idol worshipers?
Avraham knows that though his followers may be devoted to Hashem and His message, they lack true mastery of the traits necessary to be the mother of the Jewish people. His hope is that he can find a woman of chessed with his family (yes, people married cousins in the Bible) and teach her the ways of Hashem later. As Nissim of Gerona (aka the RaN) puts it, It is far easier to change one’s belief system than it is to change one’s character traits.
It’s clear, even in this day and age, people are desperate to improve their lives. Whether it is New Year’s resolutions, self help books, career coaches, Tony Robbin’s seminars, or even cults, people are willing to abandon their old ways for success and meaning. However, as profound and wise as some of these new directions can be, the implementation of their guidance is the real challenge. It takes years of work to make the smallest change in a deeply engrained character trait and most people don’t have the commitment to tough it out. But if someone who possesses great character is given the tools and wisdom of something like the Torah, there’s no telling how far they’ll go.
The Truest Kindness
Rivka’s character trait isn’t the only time chessed appears in the parsha. As I mentioned above Chaya Sarah opens with Sarah’s funeral. The mitzvah of preparing the deceased for burial is knowns as Chessed Shel Emes or the truest kindness. Since there is no way the departed can repay you, this mitzvah is considered the most selfless act. But these two examples of chessed are not isolated and the Torah is making a statement by putting them together.
Kindness at its core is about giving of yourself; whether it is time, money, effort, or attention. But another quality that is rooted in giving is love. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler talks about the connection in his book;
We see that love and giving always come together. Is the giving a consequence of love, or is perhaps the reverse true; is the love a result of the giving? … Why do we find so often that husband-wife affection does not seem to last? The answer is simple. People are generally “takers,” not “givers.” When their biological instincts gain the upper hand they become “givers” and “lovers.” But before very long nature relaxes its grip and they relapse into a state of “taking” as before. This change takes place imperceptibly. Previously they were joined together in an atmosphere of love and mutual giving. From now on they are “takers” once again and each begins to demand from the other the fulfillment of his or her obligations. When demands begin, love departs. (Strive For Truth: Giving and Taking)
What I believe the parsha is saying by connecting the funeral of Sarah with the wedding of Yitzchok and Rivka is that if you want to have a lasting and enduring marriage, you have to give to your partner without the expectation of that kindness ever being reciprocated. You should give as if it is a chessed shel emes. It’s from giving out of love that sustains that love. Granted, if a kind and generous person is married to a selfish person, this formula isn’t going to work. But the point is if you are giving to your partner with expectations, it definitely won’t.
Gamilus Chessedim (acts of loving kindness) is one of the core traits of the Jewish people, starting with Avraham and codified by Rivka. We see this trait even today, thousands of years later in the most extreme of circumstances. Whether it is Israel as first responders to crisis around the globe, organizations like Jewish Family Services and Tomchei Shabbos helping the community, or a team of doctors saving the life of a man who had just opened fire on a Synagogue last Shabbos morning in Pittsburgh, chessed is the key to connection and the beginnings of change in a world desperate to make sense of disaster. May we always be able to do acts of chessed in even the darkest of times.
This post is dedicated to the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. May their neshamas have an aliyah.