The tone of much of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is one of loneliness. In the very first verse we learn that Sarah has died, according to midrashic tradition upon hearing of the news of the Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham cries over his wife’s death, and sends his servant Eliezer off to his homeland to find a wife for his son. Eliezer’s journey is a lonely one, and his only companion is God.

Until he is welcomed by Rebecca. From the moment Rebecca enters the story, a new sense of promise emerges. She is open and friendly, kind and courageous–both in her welcoming of a stranger and in her decision to go to a faraway land to marry an unknown man. This warm quality of the story reaches its climax when Isaac brings Rebecca “into his mother’s tent” (Gen. 24:67) and is comforted. A midrash relates that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud of glory hovered over the entrance to her tent, her doors were wide open to wayfarers, and a lamp was light in her tent from one Shabbat to the next. When she died, all these things ceased. But when Rebecca came along, they returned. (Genesis Rabbah 60:16)

One of my favorite teachers, Parker Palmer, has a wonderful exercise in which he asks his students to think of a great teacher in their life. At this point, most people would ask the question, What is it about that teacher that makes them so good? But Palmer asks a different question: What was it about you that enabled that person to be such a great teacher? 

As I wrote about last week, we often tend to look at our stories from a familiar perspective. In this case, we tend to look at this story of Rebecca and talk about her admirable qualities: her openness, her hospitality, her lovingkindness. But we can also look at the story from the perspective of Isaac and ask, what was it about him that enabled Rebecca to be such a model? Rebecca was able to fill a void in Isaac’s life. It was not simply through her personality that the warmth of Sarah’s tent was restored; this came about through her partnership with Isaac, through her fulfillment of a need created by Isaac’s life–a need for comfort, acceptance, and love.

This past week the Northwestern community was shaken by the death of a student, Trevor Boehm. In the aftermath of this tragedy, many of us are asking ourselves what we could have done, or what more we can do. And I think part of the answer comes to us this week in the model of Rebecca. We are each capable of lighting a warm lamp within the tent of our friends and neighbors. The question we must ask ourselves is the question of the great Shoah survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl: What does the world demand of me? The world, and its inhabitants, our fellow travelers, needs something from all of us. Finding that something begins with an open heart.
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