Parshat Chayei Sarah: Genesis 23:1-25:18; I Kings 1:1-31
Some are born into the Jewish tradition; others marry into this tradition, and others take a cultural approach on bagels in their belonging to the Jewish people. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, Chayei Sarah provides three motifs to help us examine who belongs and how open we should make our Jewish community tent.
The stories of Abraham making burial arrangements for his late wife, Sarah, finding a wife for Isaac and the end of Abraham’s life each offer a different perspective of the questions: Who is in, who is out and how do we calibrate Jewish belonging?
The first motif of the parshah addresses this front and center. “I am a resident alien among you,” (Genesis 23:4) Abraham states as he makes arrangements to bury Sarah. In his mind, and perhaps his heart, he feels like an outsider despite having accumulated a wealth of possessions and relationships over many years in Canaan.
Anyone who has ever joined a new community or family can empathize with Abraham. As a community, we must be sensitive to those in our closest circles who might feel as though they don’t belong and always look to see the whole person in front of us, as the Hittites did for Abraham.
Second is the familiar story of Abraham’s servant finding a wife for Isaac. Abraham’s stipulation is that she must be from the land of his birth (Genesis 24:2-4), yet it’s Rebecca’s generosity that sets her apart. While this is a lovely story, we don’t get an answer to why it’s important that Isaac’s wife not be a Cannanite. Is it as relevant as demanding that a spouse not be from Ohio? Or Jewish? Where we are from fosters belonging as well as our identity, interests and values. However, when a person’s birthplace closes a door to our tent, what are we being insensitive to?
The third section picks up on this question. Abraham takes a second wife, Keturah, and has six more children upon whom he bestows gifts and sends “to the land of the East” (Genesis 25:6). The parshah ends with Ishmael’s family line. This story reminds us that Abraham was an influence on many faith traditions, certainly Judaism, Christianity, Islam — and possibly more.
The power in these verses is that they remind us that the knowledge of different spiritual practices was known and influential to one another. It is not where we’re from, but our humanity and core Jewish values that unite us.
In a world that is divided, recalling these stories of belonging and community remind us of who we are and what we continue to honor as a core tenet of our Jewish life today.
Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh is Executive Director/Rabbi at The Well.