Rebekah and God: A Torah Study

I don’t usually include Torah study or sermon type things in this blog, but thought I would give it a go today, mainly because I wrote this for a different purpose and wanted to reuse it. So, in a departure from my normal style and subjects, here is a bit of Torah commentary:

In the Torah portion, Chayei Sara, which Jews all around the world will read this weekend,  Abraham sends his servant to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac (Gen: 24). The servant goes and as he comes into the city, says to God, “I will go to the well, and ask for water to drink. The woman who not only offers me water, but also water for my camels, she will be the wife for my master’s son.” Immediately thereafter, Rebekah comes down to the well, She is not only of Abraham’s family, but when the servant asks for water to drink, she offers for him and his camels.

The question I ask is this: why does Abraham’s servant use the offer of water for the camels as the sign? Surely he might have asked God to indicate the girl in another way, for example, by her clothing. Or, he might have asked God to give a sign in which she approached him, rather than he asking her for water. Why does he ask for a sign in which he must first ask the question?

The servant, whom the ancient rabbis tell us is Eleazar, a servant of Abraham mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, has set up a system that ensures that Isaac’s wife will be a woman who will serve help build the family. When he asks for water, she is concerned not just with his needs, but also with those of his animals. If she will do this for a stranger, how much the more so will she be concerned with the welfare of his master’s son’s household? She responds to the need which she perceives, not just what is asked of her.

In a later, Torah portion, when Isaac is getting ready to distribute blessings, Rebekah acts to deceive Isaac and to get the blessing for Jacob instead of Esau. She organizes the family for the good of the Jewish people. She acts, without needing God to tell her to act. She sees the necessary action, and she takes it. In this way, she is exactly what Isaac needs as a wife: not a someone who communes with God, but someone who sees what needs to be done, and does it.

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Death and Adolescence Don’t Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

Reasons for my Absence

So I haven’t been writing much recently. There have been a number of reasons for this. Some, but not all, of the following are true:

  1. Aliens descended, informed me that if I didn’t have anything better to write than I’d been writing recently, I should stop writing entirely.
  2. Same as #1, but substitute God for aliens.
  3. I’ve been knitting so much that my fingers are curled up in useless claws, and I can’t type; I’d use dictating software, but it keeps shutting down during the pauses in my sentences.
  4. I’d tell you why, but the Department of Homeland Security won’t let me.
  5. I’ve been off having an exciting adventure, and I’m afraid if I write about it, you all will be jealous.
  6. I’m suffering from either a cold, allergies, or both, and I haven’t written about it because I can’t tell which it is; if I’m going to complain to the blogosphere at large, I should know what I’m complaining about.
  7. I’ve given up the computer for Lent.
  8. As opposed to a vow of silence, I’ve taken a vow of non-writing.
  9. I’ve decided that I will only write on sheepskin with handmade ink and a turkey quill. I couldn’t figure out how to shove the finished blog post onto the internet, because my laptop doesn’t have a floppy drive.
  10. A cold or allergies ran over me like a Mac truck, and I haven’t been able to put together coherent thoughts for the last week, so it I was nice and decided not to subject you all to my incoherent thoughts.

Frankly, the real answer is among the least interesting (#10), but I’m hoping to be writing more regularly again.