The Blessings of a Good Life

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Last week, I broke one of my rules for these posts, by focusing on only one part of the parsha. I’ve also noticed that I’ve been favoring early parts of the parsha (for the same reason I ended up writing a PhD dissertation on fifteenth century texts—I meant to get to the nineteenth, but found too much good material along the way). So I’m going to start in the middle of the parsha and make sure we get to the end (skipping much, but getting a slightly more overall perspective).

When Lack Is a Blessing

After Avraham buys Me’arat HaMachpelah to bury Sarah, 24;1 opens a new story by telling us that Hashem blessed Avraham bakol. Ramban points us to a debate (Baba Batra 16b) about the meaning of bakol, most simply “in all.” R. Meir says it means he did not have a daughter, which Ramban says would have been a blessing, since the only marriage partners for her would have been Canaanites.

Avraham could not retrieve a husband, as he was about to do with a wife for Yitzchak, since women live where their husbands are. Sending a daughter there would mean she’d be living exactly where he was told to leave, and she would almost inevitably adopt her husband’s idolatrous ways, since women tend to be under the influence of their husbands.

He doesn’t make the point explicitly, but Ramban is reading R. Meir as saying that sometimes not having that which most of us would think we’d always want can be a blessing. A daughter, in Avraham’s world, would necessarily have brought such problems that it was better for Avraham not to have one, according to R. Meir.

Avraham’s Daughter and Her Name

R. Yehudah says bakol means Avraham did have a daughter, which Ramban reads as how fully blessed he was, that he had all people want, including a daughter. Ramban does not explain why R. Yehudah disregarded R. Meir’s concerns, and I won’t speculate.

He spends more time on Acherim, others, who said Avraham had a daughter and her name was Bakol. He cannot accept the literal reading of that view, because it would turn a broad blessing into a discussion of a name. Instead, he takes us to the metaphysical, saying that bakol refers to the foundation of Hashem’s handling of the world called “kol, everything.”

He cites many verses where the word appears; as is often true in kabbalistic contexts, he takes a word most of us would read simply as a reference to an aspect of Hashem’s interactions with the world. One example is Yeshayahu 44;24, “Anochi Hashem oseh kol, I am Hashem Who made all,” which Ramban is reading as “who made kol, the foundation of how the world works.”

How Hashem Runs the World

Two more comments about this aspect of how the world works (before he returns to Avraham) seem to me to enormously complicate our understanding of his view. First, he says this kol is the eighth of the Attributes Hashem taught Moshe (in his count of those Attributes, I’m pretty sure he means ve-emet, truth). Since he thinks all those Attributes are about mercy, emet might be the most merciful possible version of truth, but it’s truth nonetheless.

That idea is captured by the second point I wanted to share, that Kol refers to Hashem and His Beit Din, His Heavenly Court as it were, who are always indicated by the word Va-Hashem (really, V-Adon…). Again, Hashem and his Court are merciful in all they do, but a court is a place of truth and justice, so the image conveys something other than just mercy.

I suggest this hesitantly, but Ramban seems to me to be implying an underlying truth and justice to Hashem’s running the world, even granting all the great mercy.  There’s more to this—Ramban says this kol is the bride of Shir haShirim, since the word for bride is kallah, close to kol, and that Chazalrefer to this as Kenesset Yisrael, the gathering of all; both those statements bear much thought and need to be interpreted carefully—but I don’t want to get bogged down and find myself out of space.

I cannot resist, however, noting that Ramban also relates this to Yirmiyahu 44;18, where, after the Destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash, Yirmiyahu with the Jews who have chosen to go to Egypt (despite Hashem’s call for them to stay). The women there refuse to give up their idolatry, saying that it’s since they’ve stopped sacrificing to the hosts of Heaven that they’ve lacked kol (which, for Ramban, would mean they’ve lost control of the world, as they thought they had before). Both the story and this Ramban deserve more thought, but we have to move on.

How Eliezer Knew

In verse fourteen, Eliezer sets up a way to find a wife for Yitzchak. Rashi thinks it was a test; if she offered to draw water for the camels when asked only to do it for Eliezer himself, that would show she had the quality of kindness befitting a member of the household of Avraham Avinu.

Ramban disagrees for textual reasons that need not detain us. He thinks Eliezer only meant this as how he would identify the right girl/woman whom Hashe sent. What would confirm she’s the one is that he will then find out she’s from Avraham’s family, is of good intellect and physical charms, etc. He was asking Hashem to let the interaction at the well identify a young woman to investigate further, not tell him this was absolutely the right woman.

That fits what’s rapidly becoming a central theme for me, that Jewish tradition understands Hashem to want us to balance our efforts with Divine intervention. In so doing, it reduces the level of the miraculous that Eliezer sought (and therefore reduces the burden of explaining how Eliezer could be so apparently arrogant as to assume Hashem would do this for him). He was hoping for a Divine kindness, not miracle. And he got it.

Where We Pray and What Comforts Us

When Rivkah arrives in Canaan, she and her caravan encounter Yitzchak, who is returning from Be’er Lachai Ro’i, where Hagar met the angel when she was pregnant with Yishma’el. Verse 62 says he was “ba mi-bo,” an odd phrase (literally “coming from having come”); Ramban explains that it means he was returning from one of his frequent journeys out to the well.

It was a good place to go to pray, according to Ramban, since an angel had appeared to a human being there, and it and was close to where Yitzchak was living. For that to make sense, he must be assuming that Yitzchak thought that a place where an angel appeared is a better place to pray. I think that’s because where the metaphysical has interfaced with the physical is a place we can have better hope of our prayers (from the physical world) more effectively interfacing with (or entering) the metaphysical.

Of course, one could counter that Hashem hears all prayers, so why would the place matter? Once again, Ramban goes no further and neither will we.

Verse 67 says Yitzchak brought Rivkah “ha-ohelah Sarah imo, to the tent Sarah his mother.” Ramban takes the ambiguous phrasing to mean this was the first time Sarah’s tent was pitched since her passing, as a sign of honor to Sarah and a function of the intensity of Yitzchak’s mourning for her. With the arrival of Rivkah, he honored her by giving her his mother’s tent, and was finally comforted.

He adds, “for what reason [if not to make these points] is there for the verse to mention a man’s love for his wife,” a reminder that his culture operated under different assumptions than most of us do today.

Knowing What’s Enough

Almost at the end of the parsha, 25;8, Avraham passes away, “zaken ve-save’a, old and sated.” Ramban says it means he saw the fulfillment of all his heart’s desires, was sated with all the good that had come his way. In 35;29, Yitzchak dies “old and sated of days,” which he says is similar, that he had no urge to see what more days would bring. David HaMelech (I Divrei HaYamim 29;28), too, dies be-seivah tovah, a good satiation.

It’s a kindness to the righteous (that they die after seeing enough of their hopes come to fruition to satisfy them) as well as an expression of their good character, that they do not want more than is appropriate. [The Patriarchs, for example, did not see any of the great promises made to them, a characteristic Midrash praises. Being sated means to Ramban that one has a realistic view of what is possible, and is satisfied if a good percentage of that happens].

That’s not a common trait, as Kohelet 5;9 says, that one who loves money will never be satisfied by money, and the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 1;13) says people don’t leave this world with half their desires fulfilled. The righteous set proper horizons, which lets them then be satisfied before they go to the next world.

In these Rambans, Chayyei Sarah is about finding blessings. Whether it’s Avraham’s blessing, the blessing of finding Rivkah, or the blessing of a satisfied life, people in Chayyei Sarah model for us what it is and how to get it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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