Going to the source to find the one

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:18

l Kings 1:1-31

There is a time-honored tradition in Judaism that in every Jewish man’s life, there comes a time when he must stand up and tell his mother he is an adult and will choose his own wife.  This usually happens at around age 40.

When Isaac turned 40, his mother Sarah had passed away, leaving his aged father Abraham to “help” him find his bashert. And by help, it meant sending a caravan of 10 camels loaded with gifts on a lengthy journey. Additionally, he signed over his wealth to the future couple and had the matchmaker (the trusted Eliezer) swear he would choose only from the pool of eligible bachelorettes that Abraham preapproved.

Since that time, Jewish parents have tried to emulate Abraham’s method of ensuring their children marry Jewish by “suggesting” that in exchange for providing their dear parents some nachas, or joy, they would receive aales (Yiddish for “everything”). Yet, sadly, many have not achieved the same results, because there is another part to the story. Even after all the lavish gifts and diamond bracelets were bestowed, and our future matriarch Rebecca miraculously was found and extracted from her unsavory family, there was still one crucial test to see if she was indeed the one. Isaac wanted her to meet his mother.

“And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and then he married her” (Genesis 24:67). What did he want to see by bringing her into his deceased mother’s tent, our sages wondered? The answer is astonishing. They say Isaac wanted to see if she lit the Shabbat candles just like his mother had. When he saw that Rebecca embodied all of the wonderful Jewish qualities of mother Sarah, only then did he know she was his bashert.

In the 1980s, a professor of English literature living in Israel often wrote scathing condemnations of religious education in the Israeli newspapers. He would write about how it was a blemish on Israeli society and that it crippled the Jewish mind. If it were up to him, Jewish religious education would be abolished altogether.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach related that after the 1982 war in Lebanon, this professor came to visit a rabbi in Israel and said: “Rabbi, I came to tell you that I wish to dedicate my life to Jewish education.” The rabbi said, “Are you for real, or did you come to make fun of me?”

The professor answered, “I was up in Lebanon in the mountains. I was shot and bleeding very heavily. It was clear to me that, unless the soldiers found me, I’d be dead in two hours.

“So there I was, lying on the ground bleeding with only two hours to live. What should I do? What am I going to think about in these final hours on Earth? Ah, I’m a professor of English literature, so I’ll think about Hamlet. Nah — doesn’t go. OK, King Lear — but that didn’t work, either. I’m an avid Zionist. I can recall every word Achad Ha’am ever wrote, but that did not work.

“Before I knew it, it started coming to me. I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. I remembered my zayde, my grandfather, holding my hand and walking with me on Yom Kippur Eve to the synagogue. I also remembered that the happiest hours of my life were sitting on my father’s shoulders, dancing on Simchat Torah. And I remembered my mother kindling lights for Shabbat. It was all so holy and so beautiful.

“And then it dawned on me that if my son or grandson were to be wounded, God forbid, and had only hours to live, he’d have nothing to think about because I’d never given him anything.

“Then I realized: Do I need Judaism only during my last hours? Don’t you need it every second of your life? Something holy to remember, something beautiful to be attached to? So I made a vow. ‘Master of the world, if you hear my prayer, if you let me live, I will dedicate my life to Jewish education.’

“The next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital. And so, here I am, rabbi. I’ve come to fulfill my vow.”

The story of Abraham and Isaac is our story, as well. As parents, we hope to give our children materially more than we had; let us make sure we also pass on our “wealth” of Jewish tradition. Those memories are the most precious gift we can give them.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].