This Devar Torah is one of which I am proud and which can be read easily in this link, or, less comfortably and unformatted below:
This past Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Murray Steinberg, age 41, came to schul as he normally would on a Friday evening. But people noticed that there was something different about him that night. It wasn’t a haircut, and it wasn’t a new suit he was wearing. But it was that he brought his dog with him. The Rabbi was confused; he had been expecting Murray to lead Kabbalat Shabbat as he normally would, before the Cantor would take over for Ma’ariv.
So, the Rabbi went over to Murray and said calmly, “Murray, it’s good to see you. But are you going to be able to lead Kabbalat Shabbat tonight if you have to hold your dog?”
Murray laughed at the Rabbi and said, “Of course not! I’m not going to lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Lucky here is going to lead!”
The Rabbi looked at the golden retriever tied to Murray’s leash and was astonished! “Your dog can sing?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Murray. The Rabbi looked at Murray, shrugged, and announced to the congregation that Lucky Steinberg would be leading Kabbalat Shabbat that evening beginning on page 252.
In the end, to the Rabbi’s great surprise, this was the most beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service he had ever heard. The dog sang some of the congregation’s favorite melodies and even introduced a few new tunes and still had everybody singing along! At the end of Kabbalat Shabbat, the Rabbi turned to Murray and said, “This is unbelievable! This dog of yours—Lucky—he can really sing!” Murray smiled and thanked the Rabbi for the kind words. The Rabbi looked at Lucky again, who looked very comfortable there on the bimah with his tallit and kippah wrapped around his floppy ears. The Rabbi then asked Murray, “Has he thought of becoming a Cantor?”
Murray laughed again and said, “Rabbi, I can’t talk to the dog about that; you have to talk to the dog! Next year, he’s joining the Peace Corps!”
In this week’s Parashah of Hayyey Sarah, we encounter some other animals who, our rabbinic tradition imagines, were also socially conscious. Of course, that’s just a small segment of what happens in this Torah reading. The reading begins with tragedy: the death of Sarah, age 127, so I am willing to bet they saw it coming. But the news still requires her husband Avraham to find her a proper burial, and he succeeds. But, now we are left with Avraham and Yitzhak,11 two males sitting around at home and probably not up to much since there was no such thing yet as television. Freudian psychology would tell us that not only would Avraham have been lonely without a wife now, but Yitzhak would be lonely too without the love of his mother. So, Avraham comes up with a plan. He tells a servant of his to go find a wife for Yitzhak. But this particular servant’s name is not mentioned, and what is this guy’s qualifications anyway? Bereshit Rabbah, a midrashic, tangential commentary on Genesis (from around 425 CE) tells us in Chapter 59, Passage 8, regarding these words from Genesis 24:2:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֗ם אֶל־עַבְדּוֹ֙ זְקַ֣ן בֵּית֔וֹ
Avraham said to the senior servant of his household.
שֶׁהיה זִיו אִיקוֹנִין שֶׁלּוֹ כְּלוּם!
This servant’s appearance was like Avraham’s altogether,
And he controlled all that was his,
שֶׁהיה שַׁלִּיט בְּיִצְרוֹ כְּמוֹתוֹ.
For he could conquer an evil conquer an evil inclination, just as Avraham could.
In short, this guy was good people. He not only resembled Avraham visually, he even acted and thought like Avraham! What better person could there be to do Avraham’s dirty work than Avraham’s own Mini-Me? And Avraham wasn’t just anybody; he was a righteous person! This servant’s righteousness made him not only a servant to a family of righteous people, but it was his righteousness that made him such an obvious delegate to this family; in a very literal sense, his righteousness was familiar, and part of the essence of Avraham’s family.
So, just how much did this servant really act like Avra- ham? We don’t know much, but for starters, he chose a righteous delegation to represent himself on this mission to find Yitzhak a wife! And who was this delegation? Genesis 24:10 tells us it was ten camels! Now, ten camels is a lot of camels for just one guy! This verse doesn’t mention any humans traveling with the servant; however, we do hear, very passively of some men in Verses 54 and 59 who were traveling with him. But, these men receive only two mentions, whereas these righteous camels receive mention in Verses 10, 11, 14, 19, 20, 22, 31, 32, 35, 44, 46, and 64: 12 mentions! Whatever those men accomplished, these ten camels still outdid them! But what did these camels do? Bereshit Rabbah Chapter 59, Passage 11 says:
וַיִּקַּ֣ח הָ֠עֶ֠בֶד עֲשָׂרָ֨ה גְמַלִּ֜ים מִגְּמַלֵּ֤י אֲדֹנָיו֙ וְגוֹ‘
The servant took ten camels from among the camels of his master.
גמליו של אברהם אבינו היה ניכרים בכל מקום שהיו יוֹצְאים!
The camels Avraham our forefather owned were known and familiar everywhere they went!
And, wherever they went, they were always muzzled.
The 11th/12th century commentator Rashi explains this a bit:
הָיוּ יוֹצְאִים זְמוּמִין מִפְּנֵי הַגָּזֵל
They would go out muzzled so as not to engage in theft;
שֶׁלֹּא יִרְעוּ בִּשְׂדוֹת אחֵרים.
This way, they wouldn’t graze in anybody else’s fields!
These camels, as the Rabbis say, and as we can tell from these verses, were well-known! They were familiar, and they resembled Avraham because they were equipped with tools of righteousness: in this case, muzzles—so that they could conquer their inconvenient inclination to graze in every field they passed.
So, this servant, in the end, fulfills his task, and he finds a wife for Yitzhak. Her name is Rivkah. And things that used to be present in Yitzhak’s life, the warmth of family and the sense of being part of relationships larger than one’s self, are all present again. Bereshit Rabbah Chapter 60, Passage 16 responds at length to these words from Genesis 24:67:
וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֨הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ
He brought her to Yitzhak, towards the tent of Sarah, his mother.
כׇּל־יָמִים שֶׁהָיְתָה שָׂרָה קַיֶֽימֶת,
All the days when Sarah was alive,
הָיָה ענן קשׁוּר עַל פֶּֽתַח אהלָהּ.
There was a cloud joining the opening of her tent.
כֵּיון שמתה, פָּסַק אוֹתוֹ ענן,
When she died, that cloud ceased.
וכיון שֶׁבּאת רבקה, חזר אותו ענן.
But, when Rivkah came along, the cloud returned!
כל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת, היו דלתוֹת פְּתוּחוֹת לרוחה,
All the days when Sarah was alive, the doors were open at great width.
וְכֵיוַן שֶׁמֵּתָה שָׂרָה, פָּסְקָה אוֹתָהּ הָרְוָחָה,
And, when Sarah died, that width ceased.
וְכֵיוַן שֶׁבּאת רבקה, חזרה אוֹתָהּ הָרְוָחָה.
But, when Rivkah came, it came back!
וכל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת, הָיָה בְרָכָה מְשׁוּלחת בָּעִיסָּה,
And all the days that Sarah was alive, a blessing was sent upon the dough she used.
וכיון שמתה שרה, פסקה אותה הברכה.
But, when Sarah died, that blessing ceased.
כיון שבאת רבקה חזרה!
When Rivkah came, it came back!
כל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת, היה נר דולק מִלֵּילֵי שַׁבָּת וְעַד לֵילֵי שַׁבָּת.
All the days that Sarah was alive, there was a candle lit from each evening of Shabbat to each consecutive evening of Shab- bat.
וכיון שמתה פסק אותו הַנֵּר,
But, when she died, that light ceased.
וכיון שבאת רבקה חזר.
But, when Rivkah came, it returned!
וכיון שראה אותה שהיא עושה כמעשה אמו,
And, when he he saw that she was making everything happen as his mother did it,
עיסְּתָהּ בְּטׇהֳרה וְקִוְצָהּ בְּטׇהֳרָה מִיָּד…
The dough she used became pure, and the twists in the hallah14 she made became pure immediately…
וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֨הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ.
Thus, Yitzhak brought her towards the tent of Sarah, his mother.
Things are looking up again in Yitzhak’s life. Everything that was right before was wrong when Sarah died, and now it was alright again. As JTS15 rabbinical student Juan Mejia16 noted to me about these words, we may recall from last week that it was in Sarah’s tent that the news of Yitzhak’s birth came to her. Yitzhak’s life began in Sarah’s tent, and, as this servant brings Rivkah to Yitzhak, whether it be the camels, Avraham’s identical servant or even Rivkah herself), these a- gents of familiarity are bringing about a new life that is sud- denly beginning for him. It is almost as if Yitzhak will live more than one life, just as our Parashah begins (in Chapter 23: Verse 1) by speaking of the end of “שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה” (“sheney hayyey Sarah”), “the two lives of Sarah:” as if there is more than one life per person. Things are coming full circle now, and Bereshit Rabbah goes on:
אמר רבי יוּדן:
Rabbi Yudan taught:
לימדתך תורה דרֶך אֶֽרֶץ:
This piece of Torah teaches you some proper etiquette:
שֶׁאִם יִהְיֶה לאדם בָּנִים גְּדוֹלִים
That if a single person has grown up children,
יְהֵא מְשִׂיאָן תְּחִילָה
That person should marry off the children first,
וְאַחַר־כָּךְ נוֹשֵׂא לוֹ אִשָּׁה,
And then marry a spouse for one’s self.
מִמִּי אַתְּ לַמֵּד?
From whom do you learn this?
תְּחִילָה, ”וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק“
First, we read in Genesis Chapter 24, Verse 67, “Yitzhak brought Rivkah (into the family);”
וְאַחַר־כָּךְ: ”וַיֹּ֧סֶף אַבְרָהָ֛ם וַיִּקַּ֥ח אִשָּׁ֖ה וּשְׁמָ֥הּ קְטוּרָֽה:“
And, later, we read in Genesis Chapter 25, Verse 1, “Avraham then added a wife of his own to the family, and her name was Keturah.”
It is not necessarily easy or quick to make transitions after tragic or even minor unfortunate events in our lives occur; however, when we bring new elements into our lives that seem like our old familiar values, we can find ourselves reborn into new lives just as valuable as—or even greater than—the lives we lived before.