A time to open doors and hearts

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

This week, as we look in to the Torah, we find a reading that takes us through numerous losses. The parashah opens with the death of Sarah, our first mother, and it closes with the deaths of Abraham and Ishmael, our first father and our first brother. The bulk of the parashah is concerned with the transition of leadership: Who will be there to continue the mission of Abraham and Sarah in the world? 

Worried about this very question, Abraham sends his servant to his homeland to find a wife for his son Isaac. He sends the servant with camels and gold, and the hope that somewhere in Nahor there must be someone who is willing to make the cross-country journey that Abraham himself made all those years ago. There is no contingency plan — if a willing partner for Isaac cannot be found, the servant is to return empty-handed, and the future of this family is to be left in question.

What follows is possibly the longest and most detailed narrative of the entire Torah. The servant asks for a sign, that the right person should arrive at the well, and offer water not only to him but to all 10 of his camels. Immediately, Rivkah appears at the well, and goes even further than the servant had hoped: Not only does she offer water to the servant and to his camels, but she offers to personally draw enough water for all 10 camels to drink their fill after a long desert journey. She offers a place for the servant to spend the night. The servant negotiates the marriage proposal with Rivkah’s family, and Rivkah herself is consulted about her willingness to make the journey. She answers with an unqualified “yes” and travels back to the land of Canaan, where she meets, marries and loves Isaac. 

At first glance, this looks like the Biblical marriage type-scene: A beautiful woman appears at the well, shows herself to be of good character, has the right family connections and is married off to the suitor. Upon closer examination, however, this scene becomes radically different. Tikva Frymer-Kensky points out that every step of the scene at the well offers a parallel to Abraham. Rivkah is the only matriarch whose birth is announced in the genealogical lists. Her offer of hospitality to the servant parallels, nearly word for word, Abraham’s offer of hospitality to the angels in last week’s parashah. She is asked “hatelkhi — will you go?” just as Abraham is commanded “lekh-lekha — go!” She is blessed by her family in exactly the same words that Abraham is blessed by God. She takes a decisive and active role in her betrothal, and as she is brought in to the Abrahamic family, she takes a direct and active role in her own relationship with God. Rivkah is painted as the literal and spiritual successor of Abraham.

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These linguistic and narrative parallels cue us to look for the deeper parallels. The core anxiety of this parashah is not who can carry on the genetic lineage of Abraham and Sarah, but who can carry on their spiritual lineage.

The process of searching for an heir forces us to wonder exactly what that spiritual lineage is. To identify Rivkah as the perfect person to carry on the core values of the Abrahamic family, those core values have to be identifiable. The narrative of Rivkah’s commission draws out a core value of openhearted radical hospitality. Abraham and Sarah are said to have lived in a tent that was open on all four sides to better welcome guests from any direction, and to have planted an eshel — a tree or orchard — that offered food to any person who passed by. They never asked a traveler who he or she was, what they wanted, or whether they were “worthy,” they simply opened their home and their hearts. They did this based on the simple idea that each and every human is the bearer of the Divine image. Rivkah too had the openheartedness to offer water and lodging to the weary stranger at the well, without asking who he was or what he was doing in her home town. She did not take even a moment to fear this stranger asking for water. She saw only a fellow human being. 

This above all is our core heritage. More than any ritual or institution of Jewish life, it is the openness of heart to see each and every human being as carrying a spark of the Divine, and to greet that individual with welcome, that makes us the spiritual heirs of Abraham and Sarah, and of Isaac and Rivkah. 

In this moment in St. Louis, we find ourselves being encouraged to close our doors and our hearts to the events in our streets. Fear is being promoted — fear of the protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown, and fear of the police officers tasked with maintaining order and safety. It is precisely in times of turbulence that we must reflect on and engage with our core values. Our challenge in this moment is to find and live out our own posture of radical openhearted hospitality in the midst of these events.

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is  Community Chaplain of Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.