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Kotzk on True Love

  • Kotzk on True Love

    Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18
D'var Torah By: 

What is it about falling in love that persuades even the most hardened skeptic to reconsider his or her theology? One moment we're convinced we're in charge and running things, and the next we stand chastened, humbled, and graced before the now transparent machinations of another, higher order of connections.

My bubbe had a Yiddish word for it: bashert -not predestined or foreordained, but "supposed to be." Suddenly it's unmistakable. Why, of course, what is happening is bashert . And, no matter how you slice it, "meant to be" means that something or someone "meant" it. And God has snuck in again.

Professor Uriel Simon of Bar Ilan University says that "in life, unlike in literature, we cannot discern the hand of God." Nowhere, perhaps, is this teaching more creatively drawn from the biblical text than in a preposterously close reading of Genesis 24 by the Chasidic master Menachem Mendl Morgenstern of Kotzk (d. 1859) in Amud HaEmet , s.v. "Chayei Sarah." He draws an entire lesson from an anomaly of Hebrew grammar.

First is the story of Genesis 24. In brief, Abraham instructs Eliezer, his servant, to return to Haran and select a bride for Isaac. Eliezer asks in verse 5-not unreasonably-what if she doesn't want to return with me to Canaan? (The Hebrew for "what if" or "perhaps" is ulai. ) Abraham replies that, in that case, Eliezer's mission will be finished. But, under no circumstances is Eliezer to select a bride from among the local Canaanites. And so Eliezer swears to his master and sets out on his "romantic" mission.

He arrives in Haran just as the women there are coming to draw water. And so he sets up a little test whereby he will be able to determine whom God has designated for him to choose. (The Rabbis are categorically opposed to such "test" setups, but since when did that have much of an effect on how Jews behave.) Eliezer says: The woman from whom I ask water and who grants my request will be the one God has chosen.

Whereupon we read, "No sooner had Eliezer finished speaking than Rebekah appeared!" Whammo! Astonished, Eliezer tells Rebekah of his mission, produces a generous bride price, and proposes marriage for a young man back in Canaan named Isaac, son of his master, Abraham. (So much for courtship.)

Then, together, Eliezer and Rebekah return to her family where Eliezer retells the above story to her family. They ask her if she consents. Rebekah says yes, returns to Canaan, marries Isaac, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Now for the Hebrew grammar. (Remember, if the Torah is a flawless record of God's "words," then even what seem to be obvious irregularities cannot be mere accidents but must be, instead, additional lenses into the mind of God. As your psychoanalyst says: Minor slips not only count, they might just be clues to decoding your unconscious!)

As we have noted, the Hebrew word for "what if" or "perhaps" is ulai. It turns out, however, that this word can be correctly spelled in either of two ways that are pronounced identically and mean precisely the same thing. The "u-sound" vowel (in our word, ulai ) can be written either with the letter vav with a dot in its center (called a shuruk ) ?? or as three dots on the diagonal beneath the letter (called a kubutz ) ? . Let me repeat. There is absolutely no difference whatsoever in pronunciation or meaning.

When a word uses the vav -with-a-dot-in-its-center ( shuruk ) to make the sound of "u" it is called malei , or "full," and, when it uses the three dots below, it is called " chaseir ," or "lacking." (Remember, Torah is written without any dots.)

The Kotzker rebbe, reading our story very, very closely, notices that the first time (Genesis 24:5) Eliezer says "perhaps," ulai (to Abraham), the word is spelled malei , full or with a shuruk , that is, with the vav ?????? . But, when Eliezer recounts his story the second time to Rebekah's family (Genesis 24:39), the word ulai is now spelled chaseir , lacking or with only a kubutz , three dots below and without the vav ????? . Might this be a hint, asks the Kotzker, as to something going on in Eliezer's mind and not explicated in the biblical text?

Menachem Mendl then answers his own question. Most of the time, he says, we go about our business convinced that we are running things and in charge. But then something happens and we realize that we are only playing a bit part in some larger and more important drama. In our story, says the Kotzker, when Eliezer first asked Abraham if Isaac could marry a local girl, it turns out (according to B'reishit Rabbah 59:9) that Eliezer had a marriageable daughter! ("Boss, it's a perfect match! They've grown up with one another. . .")

Hence the presence of the letter vav in ulai , "perhaps," really hints at Eliezer's ulterior motive. But then, once he meets Rebekah, who fulfills his test flawlessly he instantly realizes that the whole thing is part of something larger and much more important. Now he understands that the whole thing is bashert , meant to be. And so, when he recounts the story to Rebekah's family, telling them how he had asked his master, Abraham, "Perhaps, ulai . . . ," he omits the vav (and, in so doing, relinquishes his own ulterior motives). Now Eliezer understands that he is a servant, not of Abraham, but of the Nameless One!

And so, it turns out that when people fall in love, they give themselves over, not merely to one another, but to something even greater. Indeed, it might be that way with everything we do. If we could only rid ourselves of our secret machinations and ulterior motives (if you will, the vav of our own egos), we too might discern the workings of something or someone greater in our lives.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality including a new novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).

© 2006 Lawrence Kushner

Intentional Strangers
Davar Acher By: 
Rosalie W. Boxt

In Parashat Chayei Sarah , as significant as the securing of a bride for Isaac is Abraham's acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah.

"Then Abraham rose up from upon his dead [wife], and spoke to the Hittites, saying, 'I am a foreigner living for a time among you; sell me a gravesite among you, that I may bury my dead here'" (Genesis 23:3?4).

In Genesis 23:4, Abraham refers to himself as geir v'toshav , "a resident alien," a stranger who dwells among them. It is important that this "stranger" who is respected by the Hittite community is given the opportunity to bury his dead in a Hittite grave. They clearly do not object to the presence of an "alien" in their midst. Yet why does Abraham reject this offer, as well as the offer of free land from Ephron? Are these not true signs of friendship, of the Hittites accepting the geir v'toshav as one of their own?

The reason is this: Abraham wants to have control over Sarah's grave and to live free from fear that over time the Hittites could repossess, desecrate, or even prohibit Abraham's visitation of the grave. Yet, Abraham's concern is not only with his beloved wife and her peaceful rest; he is constantly reminded of God's promise to show him a land where his descendants will live and prosper.

What strikes me is the great significance of placing the first piece of "Jewish" property amongst a foreign group. Why didn't God guide Abraham to a small piece of uninhabited land? Why have we struggled for years to find our place amidst our neighbors-friends and enemies alike?

As Jews, we often thrive in communities in which we must constantly struggle to define ourselves and our place. Perhaps God has led the Jewish people to be geirim v'toshavim , resident aliens, to enable us to evolve and grow as Jews, invigorating and enlivening Jewish thought and life because of our exposure to others and their influence upon us. Where would we be without Troyes, Cordoba, Hamburg, or Cincinnati? God has given us the challenge and the opportunity to live as resident aliens, and we have used that opportunity to grow and to thrive.

However, with opportunity comes the responsibility to treat with kindness and generosity those among whom we live, as did the Hittites in welcoming Sarah's grave-and in essence a piece of Jewish history-into their midst. Sarah's grave symbolizes a history that is marked by centuries of experiences, both good and bad, of living among others while navigating our own future as foreigners as well.

Rosalie W. Boxt is the cantor at Temple Emanuel, Kensington, Maryland.

11/13/2006
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

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