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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Hayei sara

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5777)
THIS LIFE OR THE NEXT
“Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented, and he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 25:8)
Let me begin with one of my favorite stories. There was a very pious man, well known for his acts of tzedakah (charity). When the man died, his rabbi said that he was sure the man had gone to gan eden (heaven, literally the Garden of Eden). The rabbi said that he would try to communicate with the man. The rabbi prayed hard and finally heard a voice – the pious man was speaking to him. “Tell me, are you in gan eden?” “I am here.,” said the man. “Do you like it in gan eden?” “To tell the truth, not really. I am bored.” “How can you be bored?” asked the rabbi. “Up here there are no acts of tzedakah for me to do.”
One of the central ideas in Judaism is that we can only do mitzvot in this world. When a person dies and is buried in their tallit, according to Jewish tradition we cut one of the tzitzit (the corner fringes.) This makes the tallit not kosher. We do not need to wear a kosher tallit in the next world. In Hallel, a prayer taken from the book of Psalms, we say, “the dead cannot praise God” (Psalms 115:17). This world is where the action is. The emphasis of our tradition is not getting into heaven, but creating heaven in this world.
There are powerful hints of this idea in this week’s portion. The portion is built around death. At the beginning of the portion we learn of the death of Sarah at 127 years. Abraham bargains with the Hittites for a burial place, and eventually buys the Cave of Machpelah. At the end of the portion Abraham dies at 175 years, and is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. The estranged brothers come to together to bury their father. The portion talks about death, and yet the name of the portion is “the life of Sarah.” It is not death but life that is important. The emphasis is not on the next world but on this world.
Many Christians put a much greater emphasis on getting into heaven. I have seen it when I have occasionally attended Christian funerals. The priest or pastor in the eulogy places great emphasis on theology and the fact that the person is now in heaven, or to put it in Christian language, “So-and-so is now with Jesus.” At Jewish funerals, the major emphasis is on how the person lived in this world. I often speak about whether the person accomplished in this world what God sent them into this world to do. When I speak to Christian groups, the first question they ask me is, “What do Jews believe about heaven?” I try to explain that although Jews believe in the World to Come, the emphasis is on how to live in this world.
Jews do speak about the World to Come. In the Talmud Rav makes a famous statement, “This world is not like the World to Come. In the World to Come there is no eating and no drinking, no sexual activity and no business, no jealousy, hatred, or rivalry. Rather the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and delight in the divine presence” (Berachot 17a). In my humble opinion, it sounds lovely, for a day or two. But I cannot imagine it for eternity. Maimonides speaks of an eternity of philosophical contemplation, which some individuals might find appealing. But the important Jewish idea, emphasized by the rabbis, is that the World to Come is not forever. We are coming back to this world.
Rabbinic tradition speaks of resurrection of the body. In fact, according to Rabbinic thought, whoever denies resurrection of the dead from the Torah will have no place in the World to Come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). This idea has made it into our daily liturgy, where we praise God as mechiyei hametim (who brings the dead to life.) Mystics took this idea in a slightly different direction, believing in reincarnation (gilgul) rather than resurrection. But they all agree that we are coming back into this world, getting a body once again. And by getting a body, we will be able to fulfill mitzvot and continue our purpose in this world. These ideas point to the importance of transforming this world rather than the world to come.
Of course, none of these ideas appear in the Bible. In this week’s portion, Abraham is simply “gathered to his ancestors.” Other sources say that when we die, we “sleep with our fathers.” And so, as we read about the end of the lives of Sarah and Abraham, we are urged to think not about their deaths but about how they

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5776)
WILL YOU GO WITH THIS MAN?
“They called Rebekah and said to her, will you go with this man? And she said, I will.” (Genesis 24:58)
Whenever I read this portion about choosing a wife for Isaac, it brings back an old memory. It was in my early days as a rabbi serving a congregation in Nyack, NY. I had recently married, my wife Evelyn moving down from a job and family in Boston to be with me. (She would later go with me to Pittsburgh, and eventually to south Florida.) During those early years of our marriage, we befriended the couple who served as caretakers of our synagogue. They were slightly older than us and deeply religious Christians.
The couple recommended a book to me which I truly enjoyed. It was entitled A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins, and it told the story of a young man seeking to find himself. He takes off with his dog on a walk across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. He first walks towards the south, ending up in New Orleans. On the way he meets numerous people who help him develop a deep Christian faith. And then in New Orleans he meets and falls in love with Barbara, the woman who would become his wife.
Peter proposed to Barbara, but then asked her to join him on the remainder of the walk to the west coast. I try to imagine her reaction, and that of her family. She told him that she needed to pray. And then she went to church. By coincidence, or perhaps by the hand of God, the preacher spoke about the story of Rebekah in Genesis. Abraham’s servant had been sent to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. The servant had chosen Rebekah because of her kindness at the well. And now Rebekah’s family asked her the question, “will you go with this man?” Would she go to a distant land to marry a man she had never met? Of course Rebekah answers, “I will.”
Barbara saw the preacher’s sermon as a sign. She decided to commit to Peter, train her body, and join for the remainder of the walk. Their adventures became a sequel to the first book called The Walk West. They have since written several other books about their walks in different parts of the world and their Christian faith. But the books give a beautiful image of a woman leaving her home and those she loves to join a man.
The Jenkins, like our friends in Nyack, are deeply religious Christians. But this also could be a Jewish story. One of the most powerful and emotional scenes in Fiddler on the Roof is when Tevye takes his second daughter Hodel to the train station to travel to Siberia and join her beloved Perchik, who has been arrested. Tevye asks his daughter, “Siberia! And he asks you to leave your father and your mother for that frozen wasteland and marry him there.” She responds, “No papa, he did not ask me to go. I want to go.” She then sings the haunting song “Far from the Home I Love.”
The Bible and the Broadway musical are both examples of a woman leaving her home to join a man in another place. But of course we live in a more egalitarian age. I have seen numerous examples of men who have left their jobs, their families, and their homes to follow the women whom they love. Whether it is the man or the woman, life sometimes tells one partner to leave and follow the other partner, sometimes to a distant place.
This week’s portion is about making a proper marriage. There are many powerful lessons. But I believe one of the most powerful is that to make a marriage that works, sometimes one partner has to sacrifice for the other partner. Rebekah left home to travel and meet with the man she would marry Isaac. In Fiddler on the Roof, Hodel promises her father that she will marry Perchik under a huppah (Jewish wedding canopy.) Tevye responds, “No doubt a rabbi or two was also arrested.”
A successful marriage means sharing the dreams of another. Often it begins when one person leaves home to join with another, sometimes in a far off place. Sometimes it means sacrifice. But true love is not simply about romance and magic. Often true love entails sacrifice. Such sacrifice can become the foundation of a powerful marriage.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5775)
THE GREEDY BROTHER
“Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out to the man at the spring – when he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms, and when he heard his sister Rebekah say, thus the man spoke to me, he went up to the man, who was still standing beside the camels at the spring.” (Genesis 24:29 – 30)
My car is in the shop having some major work done. I absolutely trust my mechanic who has kept my cars running for years. He was honest with me that the job was expensive. He told me that I could shop around for someone who would do it cheaper. But he also said to be careful; he himself had sent work to other mechanics who ripped him off. They told him they were replacing parts which they did not replace or were doing work they did not do. If a mechanic would cheat another mechanic, what chance do the rest of us have? I told my mechanic to do the work.
Greed seems to be a fundamental part of the human condition, not just for mechanics but for all of us. We see money and immediately lose our moral compass. It reminds me of a Hasidic story about a very wealthy man who never gave money to any worthy cause in town. One day the Rebbe went to see him. He told the wealthy man to look through the window. “What do you see looking through the window?” “I see a street filled with people.” Then he held up a mirror. “What do you see looking through a mirror?” “I only see myself.” The rebbe continued, “A window and a mirror are both made of glass. But the mirror has a layer of silver under the glass. Without the silver you see everybody else. But take a little bit of silver, and all you see is yourself.”
It is a fundamental human attribute to cut corners for a little bit of silver, to cheat for money. We are all tempted by greed. This fundamental flaw in human character is best epitomized by a man introduced in this week’s portion – Rebekah’s brother Laban. The portion centers on finding a proper wife for Isaac, Abraham’s son. Rebekah is chosen for her kindness, offering Abraham’s servant Eliezer water at a well and also giving water to his camels. Eliezer gives her a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets, and invites her to become Isaac’s wife.
Now Laban enters the picture. He sees the nose-ring and bracelets worn by his sister and immediately invites Eliezer to stay in their home. If he had not seen the expensive jewelry, would he have been so quick to invite the man to his home? We get a hint of Laban’s character in this portion. That character will be more fully revealed in the portion we will read in two weeks.
At that point Rebekah’s son Jacob flees from his family and falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. (She was his first cousin, but first cousin marriages were allowed.) The Torah says there, “On hearing the news of his sister’s son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him.” (Genesis 29:13) Rashi makes a wonderful comment about Laban. “He ran to greet him” thinking he was laden with money. “He embraced him” thinking he had gold hidden on his body. “And kissed him” thinking he had pearls in his mouth.
Jacob would marry both of Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. He would work for Laban for twenty years, but Laban would constantly change Jacob’s wages. When Laban agrees to give Jacob the speckled and spotted sheep and goats, he then hides these sheep and goats away so that they will not be available to pass on their speckled and spotted traits. Finally Jacob realizes that he must flee from his father-in-law in the middle of the night. If a man is trying to rip off his own son-in-law, husband to his daughters and father to his grandchildren, imagine what he did to strangers. Laban represents the epitome of the person who, because of silver, only sees himself.
Greed is a fundamental part of human character. We all need money to survive. It becomes very easy to be a bit dishonest in order to take someone else’s money. In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas spoke a line that came to symbolize an era. “Greed is good.” The world needs to hear that both Laban and Gekko were wrong, “Greed destroys. Honesty is good.”
PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5774)
A PROPER MATCH
“Let the maiden to whom I say, Please lower your jar that I may drink, and who replies, drink and I will also water your camels, let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Genesis 24:14)
Most of this week’s portion is built around finding a proper wife for Isaac. In the end Abraham’s servant Eliezer brings Rebecca home, Isaac brings her into his tent to marry her, and he loves her. Perhaps for one more week I can speak about marriage.
I keep a log of all the weddings I have performed since I moved down to Florida. There are hundreds on the list. As I added my daughter and her new husband, and the couple I married a week later, I flipped through the list. I have lost track of many of these couples. Some have moved away. Some, particularly when there was a later-in-life weddings, have passed on. But of the ones I still know about, I tried to calculate how many are still together and how many have separated. If the divorce rate around the country is around 50%, my record is slightly better. Probably about 33% of the weddings I have performed are no longer together.
Sometimes I blame myself. Should I have done a better job at pre-marital counseling? Should I have turned down some of those weddings? Occasionally I will insist on couple’s counseling before setting the date. I think of one couple from my early years as a rabbi who struck me as not ready for marriage. I insisted on counseling and they agreed. I eventually performed the wedding. I am still in touch with them and now, thirty years later, they are still together.
Some people will argue that marriage was never meant to be forever. We marry one person to meet our needs early in life, another for the middle years, and perhaps another for old age. In ancient times polygamy was permitted. Today, when only monogamy is permitted, we have serial monogamy. One wife follows another; one husband follows another. People have argued that today, when people live long lives, perhaps this is a better way to understand marriage.
I know that I am a hopeless romantic, but I do not agree. I still believe marriage ought to be a lifelong commitment. Certainly some marriages are unhealthy; that is why Jewish tradition is liberal about divorce. In the Talmud, Hillel taught that a man may divorce his wife if she burns his food. (Gittin 90a) But I believe divorce is a last resort to a badly broken marriage. The ideal is a lifetime together.
So why do so many marriages break down? Some have said that we should go back to the old fashioned way of selecting a marriage partner. The Talmud clearly places the obligation on a father to find a proper wife for his son. (Kiddushin 29a) This is still the norm in the very Orthodox community. The father chooses a potential spouse, but the son or daughter is allowed to meet them in a chaperoned setting to decide, yes or no. That is why in New York, in the lobby of nice hotels, you can often see very Orthodox young men and women sitting and talking. This idea of parents picking a match also takes place among some very traditional Christians. Joshua Harris wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which is a call for more traditional matchmaking among committed Christians.
Nonetheless, the genie has been let out of the bottle. In this day and age, young people are going to find potential spouses on their own, whether through friends, at parties, at the gym, or on the internet. Mommy and daddy have little say in this search for a life partner. So when I speak to young people, what advice can I give them?
This portion is built around finding a wife for Isaac. When Abraham’s servant looks at the young ladies, she has one criterion – kindness. Who will offer him water, and also offer water to his camels? The number one criterion for an appropriate marriage partner is values. How do they treat other people? How does he treat his mother? How does she treat her employees? How do they behave towards the server in a restaurant or the clerk in a store? That tells far more about a person than how beautiful or rich they are. I tell couples to look for values – kindness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and gentleness. Perhaps if we looked for these qualities, we could build much stronger marriages.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5773)
ISAAC AND REBECCA
“And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)
One of my favorite verses in Genesis occurs towards the end of this portion. It describes the marriage of the second Patriarch Isaac and his arranged bride Rebecca. There is something very moving about this brief passage. In the previous verses, Isaac is in the field meditating (the Rabbis said he was praying mincha, the afternoon service). Rebecca arrives on her camel. When she saw Isaac she falls off the camel. The verse then goes on to describe four steps – 1) Rebecca moves into Sarah’s tent; 2) Isaac marries Rebecca; 3) Isaac falls in love with Rebecca; and 4) Isaac finally finds comfort after the death of his mother Sarah. Let us look at each of these four steps in greater depth.
For the first step, Rebecca moves into Sarah’s tent. The Torah has already shown the deep kindness of Rebecca. She not only gives water to Abraham’s servant but she also gives water to his camels. She is willing to leave her family and travel a great distance to marry Isaac. She is an impressive young lady. But so far Isaac has seen none of this. He was at home mourning for his mother this whole time.
Here the Midrash takes over (Genesis Rabbah 60:16). When Sarah was alive a cloud representing God’s presence hung over the tent. When Sarah died, that cloud disappeared. When Rebecca came she opened the doors once again to welcome visitors into the tent. She began separating and blessing the challah dough, and Sabbath candles once again burnt in the tent. God’s presence reentered the tent, and reentered Isaac’s life. Isaac saw this and was ready to marry her.
The second step was the wedding. We know nothing about how they married. Did Abraham walk his son under the huppah? Did anyone walk Rebecca? Was there a rabbi? A ketubah? Or did they simply go to the local justice of the peace and sign a document. The Torah never says because it is unimportant to the Torah. As I tell many a bride and groom, what is important is not the wedding but the marriage.
The third step was when Isaac fell in love with his bride. Notice that first they married, then they fell in love. It was the opposite of conventional wisdom – “first comes love, then comes marriage.” The love comes after the fact. Before the marriage, the important task was finding the right bride, a woman who displayed kindness. In our contemporary world, someone searching for a life partner often looks not for kindness nor ethical values. They look for sexual attraction. But often our contemporary focus on looks blinds us to the underlying values. I tell every bride and groom, do not focus on beauty. It fades. Focus on values, which never fade. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is greatly to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30)
How deep was the love between Isaac and Rebecca? Later when they face twenty years of infertility, the Torah pictures them standing across the room from one another, each praying for the other. There was no anger and no accusations (unlike another infertile couple Jacob and Rachel). And there was no attempt to bring in a surrogate mother to have a baby (unlike Abraham and Sarah.) There was only a couple helping each other through a difficult time. As Goldie said to Tevye, “If that’s not love, what is?”
Finally the fourth step, Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother. After a loss the pain lingers. But kindness from another is a major factor in alleviating the pain. To go back to our Midrash, Isaac found comfort because he knew that Rebecca would continue the traditions of his mother. He now knows that the covenant will be passed on to a new generation.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARAH
(5771)
NO SILVER PLATTERS
“So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre – the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field – passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.” (Genesis 23:17 – 18)

God had promised Abraham the entire land of Canaan as an eternal possession. But now Abraham’s wife Sarah had died, and Abraham needed a burial place. This proved to be difficult. Abraham carried on a whole negotiation with the Hittites who lived on the land, and in particular with Ephron, before buying the cave of Machpelah and the surrounding field. Abraham had to pay a substantial sum of money for the burial plot.
Today one can visit the cave of Machpelah in Kiryat Arba outside Hebron. But it is an area that is contested and can be dangerous. Recently four Israeli Jews were killed by a terrorist near-by. One gets the feeling that even if God promised the land to Abraham, God was not going to make it easy to take possession. Nothing worthwhile is handed to us on a silver platter.
Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the state of Israel, once said, “The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.” This idea became part of a powerful Hebrew poem written by Nathan Alterman immediately before the founding of the state. The poem portrays a young man and young woman walking off the battlefield, still filthy and fatigued. The nation asked them, “Who are you?” The young people answer, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state will be given.”
This image of the difficulties of a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland hit home for me this week. I attended the national policy conference of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.) AIPAC is an organization that teaches public officials (and many others) about Israel and seeks support from American political leaders of both parties for Israel. After a day and a half of talk about the nuclear threat from Iran, the on-again off-again peace talks with the Palestinians, and the attempts to delegitimize Israel, Weizmann’s words rang true. The world is going to make it as difficult as possible for the state of Israel to survive and flourish. Nobody is going to hand it to us on a silver platter.
What is true in international politics is equally true in our own personal lives. We live in a world of instant gratification. We will zap food in the microwave rather than spend the time cooking. We download all the information we need off the internet. (I will confess that I was getting upset with my computer this morning on how slowly it downloaded Alterman’s poem.) We take drugs, both legal and illegal, to feel good. I constantly receive spam that I can earn all kinds of college degrees with no work. In the world of instant gratification, it is hard to get across the idea to young people that everything in life that is worthwhile takes time and effort.
The quest for instant gratification is particularly true among young people. There was a time when a professional career began with entry level jobs and hard work. Today our young people immediately want management positions. There was a time when relationships were based on long term commitments, and slowly building trust. (Remember that old-fashioned word “courtship.” It sounds so quaint.) Today young people do not seek relationships but rather to hook-up, a euphemism for quick one-night stands. There was a time when feeling good physically meant a careful commitment to diet and exercise. Today we take a pill, and we watch the advertisement for machines that will make us look like models in ten minutes a day.
I see this quest for instant gratification in the world of religion. There was a time when learning to participate in synagogue life meant learning to read the Hebrew and taking the time to become familiar with worship services. Today we want instant spirituality. That is one reason people are flocking to the kabbalah center.
The Talmud teaches, “according to the pain is the reward.” (Avot 5:23) Everything worthwhile in life is going to take some effort and pain. As Abraham learned, nothing is handed to us on a silver platter.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5770)

FORCES OF LOVE; FORCES OF HATE

“Let the maiden to whom I say, please lower your jar that I may drink, and who replies, drink and I will also water your camels – let her be the one whom you have decreed for Your servant Isaac.” (Genesis 24:14)

Seventy-one years ago this week anti-Jewish pogroms broke out all over Germany. Known as Kristallnacht or “the night of the broken glass”, Jewish stores were looted as the streets were filled with broken windows, synagogues were burned, and Jews were murdered or arrested. It began a period of intense violence against the Jews culminating in the slaying of six million. During this week the Nazis unleashed the forces of hate.
One would hope that over seventy years later such hatred would cease. But it seems to be an everlasting force amongst humans. This week within walking distance of my home, someone covered the walls of a Jewish Community Center childcare facility with swastikas and Nazi slogans. Signs of hate greeted children dropped off by their parents for day care. Jew hatred continues.
But it is not simply Jews. This week America mourns the tragedy of a mass killing at Fort Hood, TX. An army psychiatrist, trained in the art of healing, killed thirteen military personnel and wounded countless others. His motives are unclear. But on the surface, he appears to be influenced by Islamic extremists who would make Americans, particularly the American military, fair game for murder. The forces of hate have been unleashed into the world, and it is extremely difficult to stop them.
After the attacks of 9/11 I spoke about forces of hate. I said at that time that the only way to overcome them is through forces of love. This is a vital part of what Jewish tradition at its best tries to do; unleash forces of love into a world where hate is often rampant. Perhaps that is the reason why Jews have often been the victims of the haters; our message is one of love.
I shared an example last week at the Anti Defamation League dinner. I was asked to give the opening invocation and chose to open with a brief d’var Torah. I shared a beautiful Rabbinic passage. The Sifra records a dispute between Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai. What is the most important verse in the Torah? Rabbi Akiba taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) Ben Azzai taught, “This is the record of Adam’s line.” One can understand Rabbi Akiba’s opinion; the Golden Rule is at the center of the Torah. But Ben Azzai goes even further. When the Torah teaches that we are all descended from Adam, it means that we are all family. All humans are brothers and sisters in the eyes of God.
The thrust of Biblical and Rabbinic tradition is that all human beings share a common ancestry. Therefore, no human being can hate another human being based on ethnic background, religion, race, sexual orientation, or any other criteria. All human beings must have equal dignity in our eyes. The Bible is trying to be a force of love in a world often ruled by the force of hate.
This portion is one of the earliest stories on the power of love. Abraham asks his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer does not look for the most beautiful nor the richest girl. Rather he searches for acts of kindness. Which ever young woman who goes to the well, offers him water, and also offers water to his camels, she is a worthy wife for his master’s son. It is a small wonder that after an arranged marriage with Rebecca, that Isaac truly loved her. Kindness to others, particularly to a stranger, is the most important value.
There are two types of forces at work in the world today – the forces of hate and the forces of love. Sadly, religion through the years has often been on the side of the forces of hate. Religion at its best needs to become a force of love. Only then can the force of love truly overcome the force of hate.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5769)

ACCEPTING GIFTS

“Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites – four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants’ rate.” (Genesis 23:16)

When I was sixteen years old I received a set of golf clubs as a birthday gift from a family relative. I used them a few times during the next year, but never became an avid golfer. Shortly after my seventeenth birthday, the same relative showed up at my house and told me, “You are not using those golf clubs often enough. I am taking them back.” That was the end of my golf clubs and my teen golf career.
I learned a valuable lesson from this relative. Gifts come with strings attached. Or as the saying goes, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Gifts always come with obligations, even if those obligations are subtle and not too clear. We might say about a gift, accept it with good graces, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” (This refers to the story in Virgil’s poem The Aeneid. The Greeks who were besieging Troy created a giant horse as a gift, with soldiers hidden inside. The gift was brought into the walls of Troy, leading to the downfall of the city.) Perhaps if Troy had looked at their gift horse in the mouth, they might not have fallen in battle. Perhaps the more apropos saying should have been, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
As I write these words one of the stalwarts of the United States Senate, Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, has fallen. In a close election, he lost his seat after being convicted of seven counts of failure to report gifts. He accepted gifts including work on his home from contractors doing business with the government of the United States. A senator should know better – gifts always come with strings attached. That is why government ethics committees have such strong laws against public officials receiving gifts of any kind.
This week’s portion begins with the negotiation of Abraham and the Hittites to buy a field and the cave within the field as a burial site for his wife Sarah. Ephron the Hittite is willing to deed the cave over to Abraham as a gift. “No my lord, hear me. I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it, I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.” (Genesis 23:11) But Abraham does not want a gift. He does not want to be beholden to the Hittites, who were idolaters in the land that God promised Abraham.
In the end, Abraham paid full price for the land – four hundred shekels of silver. But he walked away from the negotiation with a clear conscience; he had paid for the land and it was his. (The sad irony is that today there is an ongoing dispute about the ownership of that cave between Jews and Moslems. The cave which is located in Hebron is holy to both peoples, and has been a place of high religious tension for decades.)
Later Jewish law has a fascinating discussion about the acceptance of gifts. There is a principle in Jewish law – zachin l’adam shelo befanav – “one may act for the benefit of someone even if they are not present.” May a person accept a gift on behalf of someone else if the intended recipient is not present? The Talmud seems to indicate that the answer is yes – receiving a gift is to someone’s benefit. (see Gittin 11b) However, there is discussion of this in later Jewish sources. What if the recipient does not want the gift? What if it is not to his or her advantage to accept such a gift? As we have shown, gifts always come with strings attached.
We are entering the season of gift giving in our secular culture. Giving gifts are a wonderful way of expressing love and appreciation to others. But gifts can also create obligations between the giver and the recipient. Perhaps the lesson of this week’s portion is the same as the lesson of ancient Troy, be careful whenever receiving a gift.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5768)

TWO COUPLES

“Let the maiden to whom I say, please lower your jar that I may drink, and who replies, drink, and I will also water your camels, let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.” (Genesis 24:14)

We humans are a species who like to couple up. We search for a life partner. Let me tell the story of two couples, one from long ago and one more contemporary.
The first couple met through an arrangement by the man’s father. When the young man came of age to marry, his father sent a trusted servant of the household to find an appropriate wife. The father did not trust the local young ladies, so the servant went off to a different land in search of that wife. He went to a well where the local young women went to draw water. Whichever young woman proved her kindness by offering him water, and also offering it to his camels, she would be an appropriate match for the young man.
The servant found a young lady, very pretty and still inexperienced around men. He gave her gifts, told her the story, and asked to meet her family. After meeting with her family, she was given the choice. It would be improper for a young woman to enter a marriage against her will. The young woman’s family asked her, “Will you go with this man?” and she replied, “Yes.” So she began the long journey to meet her future husband.
She saw him for the first time while she was sitting on a camel and he was meditating in the field. She immediate jumped off the camel and covered her face for purposes of modesty. They met and shortly afterwards they married. He found great comfort in his new wife, particularly since he had recently lost his mother. Soon after the marriage they fell in love.
The marriage had its difficulties, dealing first with infertility and then with two warring sons. But they prayed for each other. Unlike most couples in their day and age where men often took a second wife or concubine, this couple remained monogamous. And they were fortunate to have a playful, joyous sexual life. Looking back from years later, it seems to have been a good marriage.
Let us look at a second couple, this one more contemporary. Both the young man and the young woman had long ago left home and were living on their own in a large city. They both had good jobs and enjoyed active social and sexual lives. They each met members of the opposite sex through friends, at parties, at work, at the gym, and sometimes on the internet. They went out in pairs or with groups of friends. Sometimes they hooked up. Sex was casual and recreational; both this man and woman practiced safe sex. There was no connection between sex and love.
One day these two young people met each other, and there was an immediate mutual attraction. They began seeing each other, and soon they were in an exclusive relationship. Shortly afterwards they decided to take their relationship to the next level. They moved in together.
The young man and young woman were in love and they spoke about marriage. But they wanted to give their relationship time to be sure it was right. Besides the man said, “I do not need a piece of paper to prove my love for you.” However they did want a baby. And they felt that perhaps it would be better to be married before bringing a child into the world. However, soon the woman found herself pregnant.
They did plan a wedding, but decided to wait until after the baby was born. The bride did not want to walk down the aisle in her wedding gown while pregnant. They did hope their love would last forever. But they also knew that many of their friends had been married and divorced, and there was always a way out if the relationship did not work out. So far they have beaten the odds and are still married.
These are the two couples. Of course the first couple is in the Biblical story we read this week, the arranged marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. The second couple could be many of the young people I meet today. Allow me to ask a simple question. Which story represents a better way for young people to meet their life partner? If as a society we want young people to couple up, marry, and have a family, what is the best way for society to arrange such coupling?

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5766)

SHARING THE JOURNEY

“They called Rebekkah and said to her, will you go with this man? And she said, I will.”
(Genesis 24:58)

Many years ago a Christian friend gave me a book to read, Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. He then gave me the sequel, The Walk West by Jenkins and his wife Barbara. Although the books came from a Christian perspective, I could identify with them. Peter was from my generation, a young man who found himself disillusioned and lost in the seventies. He decided to walk across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to find America but more important, to find himself. On the trip he had a number of adventures. He also found his Christian faith.
One story that moved me was how Peter met his wife Barbara halfway through the trip. He saw her in church and began courting her. He decided to ask her to marry him, and join him for the remainder of the journey. Imagine, the person you love proposing marriage, but only if you are willing to take a journey by foot of a few thousand miles. Most of us would laugh. Barbara needed to think and pray about the issue.
She went to her church and listened to her preacher’s sermon. The preacher happened to speak about the story we read in this week’s portion, the arranged marriage between Isaac and Rebekkah. Her family asked Rebekkah, “Will you go with this man?” and she answered, “Yes.” Barbara saw this sermon as a sign from God. She married Peter and joined him for the rest of the walk west. Since then the two of them have taken numerous long walks around the world, writing about their journeys and their religious faith.
I was moved by the story. It symbolized what I hope marriage can be. A woman meets a man and he invites her to join him on a journey, perhaps not by foot but an adventure nonetheless. Their future is unknown. But she makes a commitment to go along with him, and by her presence she helps him succeed in his journey. Or perhaps it is the other way around. A man meets a woman and she invites him to join her on a journey. His presence helps her succeed on her journey. Marriage is a journey by two people together into the unknown. It is risky. The hope is, by joining someone else on that journey, we not only make him or her better, we make ourselves better.
Of course, it is extremely important to find the right partner for our journey. Abraham did not want just any young woman to be Isaac’s wife. She had to come from his hometown, and more important, she had to have excellent values. Abraham did not tell his son Isaac, “Go hang out at a single’s dance or a bar with the local girls to find a wife.” The choice was made carefully, and there is a deep sense in this portion that God brought them together. As I sometimes say in jest, paraphrasing an old Jewish maxim, “Sometimes God brings the woman to the man like Isaac and Rebekkah, sometimes God brings the man to the woman like Jacob and Rachel – and sometimes they meet on J-Date.” The first step is finding the right travel partner through life.
The second step is to stay focused on that partner. Have you ever walked along with someone, been distracted or daydreaming, then looked besides you and seen that they are not there? I once lost my son when he was a young child in a mall that way. Perhaps that is a wonderful illustration of what can easily happen if we are self-absorbed and lose sight of our partner. We cannot journey through life with someone if we lose sight of him or her on the journey.
Too often someone has come to me for counseling as his or her marriage is breaking up. “We have found ourselves going in different directions. We have decided the time has come to split.” Often I try to save such marriages, but I am rarely successful. Sometimes divorce is the best thing. But it is always a sad last resort. There is certainly something joyous about a life where two people are joined in a journey together for a lifetime.
A wise rabbi once wrote, “Life is a journey.” Many of us, by choice of necessity, take the journey alone. But there is something blessed about joining someone else and doing the journey together. When someone asks the question – “Will you go with this man?” “Will you go with this woman?” – how wonderful to say, “Yes, I will.”

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5764)

BUYING LAND

“Let him sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.”
(Genesis 23:9)

Leo Tolstoy wrote a wonderful short story entitled “How much land does a man need?” It tells the story of a poor peasant who longs to own more land. The devil makes a deal with him, giving him as much land as he can encircle in one day, as long as he returns to the same spot where he started before sunset. Greed overwhelms him as he runs, carving off a huge tract of land. He barely returns in time, exhausted from running, and keels over dead. Tolstoy ends with the words “Six feet of land was all that he needed.”
This story popped into my mind as I thought about the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. For the first time in the Bible, money changed hands in order to buy a piece of land. Abraham bought a parcel of land from Ephron the Hittite, including the Cave of Machpelah, to bury his wife Sarah. Eventually this cave would become the burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Only Rachel of the patriarchs and matriarchs was not buried there. This piece of land is one of the holiest spots on earth today to both Moslems and Jews. It has also become one of the most violent spots on earth.
The irony is that that, although we have a full record of the transaction, there is a good chance that in any final peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, this land will go back to the Palestinians. Hopefully the Jews of Israel will have access to their holy spot and be able to pray in the Cave of Machpelah. But if the military and political leaders of Israel and the Palestinians are ever able to work out a just peace (and as I write these words, such a treaty seems far away), this particular piece of land will become part of the Palestinian state.
I say this with sadness but a sense of reality. I have visited this piece of real estate and sensed the history and the holiness of the spot. I have also seen the hatred this piece of land has generated between Jews and Moslems. I walked away with a belief that if we can make peace in Hebron (Kiryat Arba) where this cave is located, we can make peace anywhere.
Ask any financial advisor, and he or she will tell you that the greatest investment is real estate. Depending on location, of course, the value of real estate will almost always increase. Real estate is the symbol of wealth. Nonetheless, both Tolstoy’s story and this Biblical episode point in one direction – our ownership of land is never absolute. Owning land is important, but so are a number of other values including peace, justice, and life itself. We worship God; we do not worship land.
The classical Biblical punishment for wrongdoing is removal from a piece of land. Adam and Eve were forced out of the Garden of Eden for eating fruit that God had forbade them to eat. Cain was an eternal wanderer, never settling on a piece of land, because he slew his brother Abel. Abraham was not allowed to permanently settle on the land because the sins of the Canaanites were not yet complete. The Israelites were not allowed to return to the land because they were unworthy after the incident of the spies. By Biblical law, all land purchased was returned to its original owner every fiftieth year for the Jubilee. Later Rabbinic literature includes a phrase which has become part of our festival liturgy, “Because of our sins were we exiled from our land.” The land is ours, but only if we prove worthy. And it is never ours forever.
In our modern times, our right to use our land is not absolute. We must obey zoning laws, pollution laws, and act in a way that is in keeping with the public good. My own community, Lauderhill, is about to pass an ordinance limiting the colors that a homeowner can paint his or her house. And we all know, by the laws of eminent domain, the community can take away land if it is deeded for a greater community good.
Our ownership of land is never absolute. It is always conditional upon our using the land for a greater public good. For in some ultimate sense, we do not own our land at all, no matter how lien free our deed is. In an ultimate sense, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1) We are simply temporary sojourners.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5763)

OVERCOMING ESTRANGEMENT

“And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.”
(Genesis 25:9)

Abraham died and his sons Isaac and Ishmael came together for the funeral. The boys had been estranged from one another, Ishmael had been sent away from his home because he was a bad influence on Isaac. Ishmael was estranged from Abraham who had sent him into the wilderness with a minimum of water. And of course, there was an estrangement between Abraham and Isaac. Twice the Torah speaks of how Isaac and Abraham had walked up the mountain together for the near sacrifice. When it was over, Abraham had walked down alone. Isaac would not speak with Abraham again. As so often happens in life today, it took a funeral to overcome the estrangement.
I want to share some thoughts I wrote in my book God, Love, Sex, and Family. Family estrangement is one of the most common counseling issues I confront as a rabbi. Occasionally the estrangement comes as the result of abusive behavior. Sometimes it occurs over money, particularly when a family business breaks up. Often, however, the estrangement begins as a minor fight that causes two family members to stop speaking with one another. Stubbornness prevents either from backing down and seeking peace. The years go by, until there is a permanent rift. Often it takes a funeral to get two warring relatives to speak with one another once again.
The Talmud tells the story of two scholars of the law, Rabbi Johanan and Reish Lakesh. Reish Lakesh had been a gladiator who tried to rob R. Johanan. The rabbi, a man known not only for his piety but his beauty, told him, “Your strength should be used for the study of Torah.” Reish Lakesh replied, “Your beauty should be used for women.” R. Johanan said, “If you dedicate yourself to a life of study, I will let you marry my sister who is even more beautiful than I.”
The two men became brothers-in-law and study partners, each impressed with the other’s brilliance. Then one day they were arguing an obscure point of law – the ritual purity of certain weapons. R. Johanan shouted out in exasperation, “A thief knows his own trade.” An argument ensued and the two men stopped talking. Each was angry with the other. Reish Lakesh’s wife (who was R. Johanan’s sister) begged R. Johanan to apologize, but he refused. Only when Reish Lakesh died did R. Johanan express bitter regret for the estrangement. ( Baba Metzia 84a.)
Here were two brilliant men who were too proud to open the door and seek forgiveness. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “Pride comes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Family counselors know that to apologize, and to forgive, is to release a heavy burden. Rabbi Charles Klein, in his fine book How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget writes:
“Several years ago, I offered my own version of a guaranteed weight-loss program. Unlike other highly-touted diet plans, mine did not require giving up any of the foods people love to eat. I simply suggested that if people were to lay aside a grudge or forgive someone, they would feel as though they were ten pounds lighter.” (Charles Klein, How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget,, p. 35-36.)
When I counsel family members estranged from one another, my advice is always the same. Take action to reestablish contact. Pick up the phone and call. Write a note. Send a birthday card. Even if there is no response, continue to do it, even for years. I know a divorced father whose teenage daughter cut off all contact, blaming him for the divorce. He continued to send her birthday and holiday cards, even as she refused to take his calls. I told him not to give up. She was twenty-four before she reestablished contact with him after eight years of painful separation. Today they have a cordial if not close relation¬ship.
Perhaps most important, I teach people to forgive. The act of forgiveness is a vital step in healing the self and rebuilding relationships. ¬Certainly nobody has to destroy their own being in order to maintain a relationship with their family. Healing the self will take time, and usually demands professional counseling. It also requires an attempt to forgive family members who have hurt us. Once the self has been healed, it is time to begin the work of reestablishing a relationship with family.

PARSHAT HAYEI SARA
(5762)

LOOK FOR VALUES
“Let the maiden to whom I say, `Please lower your jar that I may drink, and who replies, `Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”
(Genesis 24:14)

I recently spoke with a young woman involved in a long term relationship with the same man. They were living together but had no plans to formalize their relationship with a wedding ceremony. I mentioned, half jokingly and half seriously, “I have a huppah (marriage canopy) in the trunk of my car. (Have huppah, will travel!) How about making the relationship kosher.” The woman replied, “Rabbi, no thanks. I have discovered that as soon as people get married, they stop treating each other nicely. They start to take each other for granted. Marriage is not for me.”
Unfortunately for those of us who believe in marriage, there is some truth to this woman’s claim. How often have I spoken to someone in a bitter unhappy marriage, or after a painful divorce, and I have asked, “Why did you marry this person in the first place?” Their reply, “Before I married them, they were different.” They were nicer.
I must ask, were they truly nicer, or were they putting on a façade to win over the heart of their boyfriend – girlfriend. Was the dating period used to uncover the true values of their partner? Let me share something I wrote in a pamphlet I prepared for perspective brides and grooms entitled, The Seven Secrets of a Successful Marriage.
In the book of Genesis, Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a fitting wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer traveled back to Abraham’s homeland, waited by the well, vowed that whichever young woman offered him water to drink, and also water for his camels, would be the appropriate wife for Isaac. Shortly afterward, Rebekah went down to the well, and proved her kindness by offering them water. The arranged marriage worked beautifully, as she became Isaac’s wife and he loved her. (Genesis 24:67)
Note that Eliezer, in his test, looked for kindness and generosity. As a wise person once taught, “Don’t marry for looks and don’t marry for money. Both can disappear overnight. Marry for values; they never disappear.”
Most of us, during our courtship days, put our best foot forward. After all, we are trying to win the affection of another person. Only after marriage are our true values revealed. The man who treated his girlfriend so kindly during the courtship days will begin to take her for granted, or may even become abusive. The woman who flirts coyly with a boyfriend suddenly becomes insensitive to his needs after marriage. When the courtship days are finished, the true self comes forth.
Therefore, it becomes vital to look carefully and honestly at our perspective spouse before we walk down the aisle. If either the bride or group suspects that their future spouse’s values are not what they should be, now is the time to reconsider. It is rare that people change substantially after marriage.
What are the values that one should look for in a spouse? I urge couples to look carefully for such character traits as kindness, honesty, even temperedness, generosity, tolerance, and compassion. The purpose of courtship is to slowly uncover the real “self” of our perspective spouse, often hidden under a facade. As we see our partner more clearly, we can honestly ask, “Is this the person I want to share a bed with for fifty years? Is this the person I want to parent my children?”

PARSHAT HAYEI SARAH
(5761)

THE POTENTIAL OF LIFE

“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” (Genesis 23:1)

Sarah the wife of Abraham lived to be one hundred twenty seven years old. The wording is strange – “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” The Rabbis understood this to mean that at age one hundred she had the beauty of a twenty year old and the innocence of a seven year old. This is certainly a summary of life worth striving for.
This portion is called Hayei Sarah, meaning The Life of Sarah. Yet it speaks about her death. Only with death can we realize whether someone lived up to their potential in life. Only at the end can we look back and say, this was a successful life. Sarah’s death became a celebration of her life.
When a baby is born, he or she is mere potential. He or she have not been defined yet. The baby will grow up, start down a path, and decide, to use a baseball metaphor, will his or her life be a ball or a strike? Will he or she miss the plate, fall short of the mark, not live up to his or her potential? Or will he or she hit the mark, find the plate, live the life that God meant them to live? Will the baby be a source of naches, of pride and joy, or a source of tsures, of trouble and travail, for his or her parents. At birth we do not know. A baby is mere potential.
This idea comes across in a classical rabbinic passage I often share at funerals to give comfort to the mourners. There are two boats, one leaving the harbor on a long voyage, and one coming into the harbor at the end of a long voyage. For the one leaving the harbor, people are nervous, they do not know whether the boat will successfully reach its destination. For the one coming into the harbor, people feel a great comfort, the journey is over and it has been successful.
The rabbis mention that in real life it is the other way around. A baby is born and we feel such joy. Yet we never know if that baby will live a full and successful life, whether he or she will live up to potential. A person dies and we feel such great sadness. Nonetheless, if the person has lived a successful life, we ought to feel a great comfort. When a baby is born, he or she is mere potential. Only when life ends can we ascertain whether the life was successful, whether the person fulfilled their destiny.
This is reflected in an interesting fact about Jewish life. Did you know that traditionally we Jews do not celebrate birthdays. In fact, the Bible only once mentions a birthday, and that was Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. It was Pharaoh whose whole life was set out for him in advance, who never seems to have the will to do the right thing. He is the only one who celebrates a birthday. In Judaism, when we commemorate a person, we remember their yahrzeit, the day they died, not their birthday, the day they were born.
In America, we honor Martin Luther King Jr. by celebrating his birthday. In Israel, they honor Yitzhak Rabin on his yahrzeit, the day he was assassinated. In America, they celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Jews remember the yahrzeit of Moses and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Now that they are gone, I remember the yahrzeits of my parents, not their birthdays. It is more than a mere cultural difference. It is a major theological statement.
On the day we are born we are simply potential. We do not know if we will live up to the reason why God created us. Only when life is over do we know if we have lived up to our potential. Sarah lived up to her potential. Will we?

PARSHAT HAYEI SARAH
(5760)

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

“And Isaac took Rebekah home, and he married her, and he loved her, and found comfort after the death of his mother.”
(Genesis 24:67)

“Love and Marriage, Go Together like a Horse and Carriage.” So goes the old song. In reality, it is not necessarily true. Too often a couple will fall in love and marry despite serious disagreements about such fundamental issues as religion, money, family, gender roles, or even the basic values of their partner. These couples naively believe that “love conquers all.” As time passes, the love seems to fade. Rarely can love alone sustain a marriage when other ingredients are missing.
To explore the role of love in marriage, it would be useful to compare two Biblical stories, the marriage of Isaac to Rebekah and the marriage of their son Jacob to Rachel. Isaac and Rebekah had an arranged marriage; they did not even meet until shortly before the wedding. The love came after the marriage.
Jacob and Rachel’s marriage was much closer to our contemporary scenario. He loved her, worked seven years for her, was forced to work a second group of seven years, and yet “they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.” (Genesis 29:20) They fell in love and eventually go married.
Which couple had the stronger marriage? There is no way to compare absolutely. Nonetheless, both couples suffered severe infertil¬ity problems. Their very different reactions serve as a clue to the strength of their respective marriages. Isaac and Rebekah waited twenty years to have a child. When they learned that Rebekah was infertile, “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife.” (Genesis 25:21) Rachel also was infertile and she cried out in pain at her inability to conceive. Jacob answered with anger, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb!” (Genesis 30:2).
There seems to be more kindness and understand¬ing in Isaac and Rebekah’s arranged marriage than in Jacob and Rachel’s marriage built on romantic love. It is noteworthy that Isaac and Rebekah were the only couple who are described as having a playful sexual relationship. It is also noteworthy that when Jacob died, he asked to be buried not with his true love Rachel but with his first wife Leah.
What is the role of love in creating a successful marriage? The best answer comes out of the Greek view of love. The Greeks had three terms for various aspects of love – eros, philos, and agape. Eros is romantic love, where sexual attraction is combined with a kind of chemistry. Philos is the love that grows out of friendship. It implies an intimacy, a sharing, a total comfort with one another. Agape is altruistic love. It is the love the Bible refers to when it speaks of one’s soul being bound up in another soul. (Genesis 44:30) It is love as service to the other, being and giving for the welfare of the other. It is love built on empathy. It is the love when a man or a woman makes their spouse the most important commitment in their life.
I am convinced this kind of love does not come immediately, in the rush of romance, to a couple. It comes after they have established intimacy, after they have begun to build a home together. That is why I tell every couple planning a wedding, the true love comes after the marriage.