Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton married under a chuppah, with a ketubah and a rabbi.

An irony, or perhaps a paradox, lies at the heart of Parshat Hayei Sarah: On the one hand we have the image of Abraham purchasing an ahuzat olam, an everlasting acquisition of land from the Hittites, permanently establishing a claim for his descendants to the Machpela cave at Hebron. Abraham ties himself and his progeny to the land of Canaan in the process.

On the other hand, in the very next scene, we have Abraham instructing his servant to go back to the land of Abraham’s birth in order to find a wife for his son, Isaac. “I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Gen. 24:3-4) Under no circumstances is Isaac to marry a woman from the locals, the very same people from whom Abraham has just purchased land. In one moment Abraham is making his peace with the neighbors; in the next, he is trying to make sure that his son won’t marry them.

In a further wrinkle, the servant asks Abraham the next obvious question: “What if the girl refuses to come with me? Should I take Isaac back there to meet her?”

“Absolutely not,” is Abraham’s answer:

“Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’-he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:6-8)

So now, not only is Abraham establishing his place among the Hittites and Canaanites and simultaneously instructing his son not to marry from among them; he is also telling that son that, if a wife can’t be found for him from the extended family, he can’t leave the land. It is as if Abraham is binding Isaac once again, saddling him with a potentially impossible choice.

Of course, everything ultimately works out: Rebecca appears just as the servant concludes praying for her to arrive, and she agrees to go with him to the land of Canaan. But what if it hadn’t? This, of course, is the same question we asked last week in reading the Binding of Isaac story: what if it hadn’t worked out?

The simplest answer to this is that Abraham is indeed a man of immense faith, as his answer to his servant demonstrates: God has promised, and God will deliver. There is no possibility that it won’t work out.

But another answer is that the dilemma Abraham finds–or creates–is one that has confronted the Jewish people from that very moment: How do we live peaceably with our neighbors while also maintaining the values and practices that make us unique? How are we to be in the community while not necessarily being of it?

This is a challenge wherever we have found ourselves, in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. We are committed to living and working with our neighbors, and we are simultaneously committed to maintaining a unique way of life. To do so successfully requires embracing the paradox and finding integrity within it, finding a way to be at home in the world.

Shabbat shalom.

Advertisements