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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Last night 500 people attended what turned out to be a memorial vigil for Trevor Boehm, a first year student at Northwestern who had been missing for the last two weeks. Trevor’s body was found in Lake Michigan.

Sadly, students die at Northwestern every year, and as a Campus Rabbi I regularly attend the vigils and memorials that follow. But never have I seen so many people attend a ceremony like this. Perhaps it was because his picture had been pasted around campus on signs that said “Missing,” or because students had followed his disappearance in the campus newspaper. But it was also clearly because of who Trevor was. As indicated in the stories told by friends and acquaintances, this was an effervescent, loving, eccentric-in-an-endearing-way person. Many will miss him.

As I sat through the vigil and listened to the stories, I kept thinking of how tragic it is that we have to wait until someone has died in order to say all these wonderful things about them. In my own work, one of the most powerful elements of my conversations with students is when I tell them how great they are. It’s an old tool from community organizing, which is also central to mentorship: You ask questions to elicit a person’s story, you reflect back their strengths, and you outline a number of possible futures for them. So often our conversations lead to criticism, or stay on a surface level. When you reflect back someone’s strengths, it is a powerful moment.

I’m sure Trevor had his demons. From the stories I heard, he was constantly trying to improve himself, reading Dale Carnegie and the like. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “I wish he could hear how much he is loved.” 

How can we create a culture in which people hear their eulogies before they die? This has to be a project of our colleges and universities. Not with an eye toward narcissism, but with the goal of honoring and supporting every student, every image of God, in our care.

An additional note: In the wonderful closing prayer offered by Assistant Chaplain Erica Brown, she referred to Trevor as “our son, our brother, our friend.” Strikingly missing from her list of relationships was “our student.” And strikingly missing from the speakers at the vigil last night was a faculty representative. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s because the Chaplain’s office and the Counseling office, which coordinated the event, are part of the Division of Student Affairs.

But on the same day as this vigil, the former University Provost, Larry Dumas, passed away after a long fight with cancer, and the President of the University sent out a message to the entire university community. At his memorial service, we will rightly refer to Prof. Dumas as “our father, our brother, our colleague, our friend, our teacher.” If the university is to be a whole community, it must recognize that students and teachers exist in a braided relationship that forms the heart of a community of learning. We do not exist in isolation one from another, student from teacher, anthropologist from engineer, student affairs from development. We are all here together, and we must all support and value one another.