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Parashat Chayei Sara

October 29, 2021
23 Cheshvan 5782
Parashat Chayei Sara
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18

Dear Friends,

This past Sunday, I had the joy of being part of a celebration commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Center (HGI) at Manhattan College. In that time, HGI has become more than a repository of history; it is a communal bridge building entity in the center of the Riverdale community, We were given a sense of how the center came into being and the obstacles it faced along the way, not least occurring with the hiring of Dr. Mehnaz Afridi ten years ago.

You may ask how this relates to this week’s Torah portion? There is no obvious connection. But join me on my journey of looking at elements of this Torah portion in a different way.

Given the state of the world, there is a part of me that would like the return of a belief system that was being challenged in the world when I was growing up. There was this echo of a belief that someone would come along and save the day, like Mighty Mouse or Superman or even Wonder Woman. These characters were somewhat flat in their portrayal but there was nothing truly dystopian about them. The veneer that all was well would not be disturbed. And that is in large measure the way my early Jewish education progressed, with a belief that the foundational family in the Torah (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, etc) were exemplars in every way. But even then that view could and would not hold. 

Leaving us with the question what makes a hero, what is a hero? We investigated that concept in Hebrew School this week. Interestingly, one thing that emerged was that there were no cultural or societal paragons that the children could name. Could it be that there definition is different from the one that many of us grew up with? A person, not necessarily a public figure, who is kind? Someone who helps those in need? Someone you would like to emulate, doing what needs doing simply because it needs to be taken care of, not for any recognition? These descriptions are so different from at least one of the many dictionary definitions. Here is one that is somewhat in line with what the children came up with -- “a genuinely good person, a change agent for the good."

What emerged in the conversation was that one can behave in this manner some of the time, or at key moments and so one can behave heroically at given times and places. Our Torah portion provides a key example of someone acting out of pure kindness -- seeing the need of others and doing what needs doing. In this story, we have a young girl, Rebecca, who waters ten very thirsty camels without anyone asking. She sees a need and she acts. At that moment, she behaves heroically by working hard and with kindness. And throughout our first exposure to Rebecca in this Torah portion, we have a strong, decisive, and kind individual. However, tune in to next week’s Torah portion and our opinion of her may change.

Here is where it all comes together. We are not perfect infallible beings; however, there are times when we are challenged to go beyond ourselves and behave heroically. We need not do that alone. Would we still consider Rebecca heroic is she had organized a group to help the stranger with ten heavily laden camels? I would like to think yes.

This story all brings me back to where I began, with leadership and courage. An entity that began with one important mission has expanded to be something more. In this day and age, the work of building bridges between people is more important than ever and it takes many hands to accomplish this heroic work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn



Sat, December 3 2022 9 Kislev 5783