Chayei Sarah: Loss, Light, and Love

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

Greetings on a blustery Thursday! As the fall winds pick up, the book
of Bereshit continues its history of the first family of the Jewish
people: Sarah dies, Avraham sends his servant out to find a wife for
Yitzhak, Rivka comes back with the servant to marry Yitzhak, and even
Avraham marries again and has more children.

In what is probably the verse with the most Freudian implications of
any in the Torah, Yitzhak’s relationship with Rivka is described as
bringing him comfort after the death of his mother:

“Yitzhak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he
took Rivka as his wife. Yitzhak loved her, and thus found comfort
after his mother’s death.” (Bereshit/Genesis 24:67)

Lest you think that the Oedipal overtones of describing the marital
home as “his mother’s tent” was lost on the ancient commentators,
here’s how Rashi brings an older midrash [imaginative interpretation]
on this verse:

“To the tent of Sarah his mother. . . . He brought her to the tent,
and behold, she was Sarah his mother. That is, she became the likeness
of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned
from one erev Shabbat to the next, there was a blessing in the dough,
and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, [these things]
ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed.”

At this point it would be almost too easy to analyze Yitzhak’s love
for Rivka as unresolved longing for his mother, but when we return to
the midrash and read it a bit more closely, I think the message is
much more about the journey of grief and healing than about sexuality
and its discontents. My reading of Rashi’s comment is based on the
three “miracles” which blessed the home when Sarah was alive: light
from Shabbat to Shabbat, “blessing in the dough,” and a cloud over or
attached to the tent.

The light from Shabbat to Shabbat seems to represent joy- a Shabbat
candle itself is about bringing beauty and honor to the day, as eating
the Shabbat meal in darkness (as our ancestors did before electricity,
if they didn’t light a candle) was not a happy, uplifting experience.
“Blessing in the dough” represents enjoying life’s simple pleasures,
like good food on the table, whereas the last item on our list, the
“cloud,” seems to be a reference to the “clouds of glory” which filled
the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary] and were a visual metaphor for the
Divine Presence. [Cf. Exodus 40:34]

Now let’s re-read Rashi; I think what he’s getting at is that after
Sarah died, Yitzhak went through a period where he could no longer
experience joy, pleasure, or spirituality- which are exactly what many
people go through in a period of grief, loss, or sadness. Things that
used to be fun can seem meaningless, one’s food doesn’t taste as good,
and prayer is hard when life is painful and God seems cruel. After a
loss- not just death, but loss- life can seem empty of meaning and
just no fun. Rashi’s midrash represents the emotional and spiritual
experience of grief in almost palpaple terms: darkness, bread which is
stale in one’s mouth, even the sense of disconnecting from one’s soul.

To me, this is why traditional Jewish practices in the period of
mourning both release one from parties and entertainment (because such
things are out of sync with one’s emotional reality) but forces the
mourner to both eat (when people bring food to the shivah) and pray in
community (one needs a minyan, a quorum of ten, to say the mourner’s
kaddish). It would be so easy not to do either, and yet both caring
for our health and the continued connection with others are part of
what bring us back into light (picking up on the image of Sarah’s
candle) after sojourning in the darkness of grief.

Thus, my take on Rashi’s commentary is not that Yitzhak loved Rivka
out of a need to find comfort after his mother’s death, but the
reverse: he was able to love Rivka because his journey of grief had
reached the stage where he was now open to light, joy, and gladness.
Perhaps Yitzhak himself was surprised at his renewed capacity for love
and pleasure, or perhaps he simply wasn’t able to take a wife into
“his mother’s tent” – that is, into his heart, which had been full of
grief, with no room for other emotions- until enough time had passed
such that he was once again able to feel at home in the world and
experience its blessings, the greatest of which is the renewed
capacity for love, in all its forms and expressions.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- before we go to our customary links, here’s a very different
interpretation of Rashi on this verse:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/archives/5761/hayyeisarah.shtml

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