In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, we learn some things about our people as we start to move from generation to generation.
Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham spends a large sum of money to purchase the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for her. He will someday be buried next to her, and the cave becomes the final resting place of Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. It is in the town of Hebron, and you can still visit it today.
Abraham wants Isaac to marry and raise a family, so he sends his trusted servant, Eliezer, to his homeland of Haran to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham prefers to seek Isaac’s wife in Haran, because his neighbors in Canaan are not moral people, and he wants Isaac to have a righteous wife who will help Isaac raise moral children.
Eliezer wants to find a girl who is good-hearted. He prays that God will identify the right girl by having her offer to draw water from the local spring for Eliezer and the ten camels he has brought. No sooner does Eliezer arrive at the spring than Rebecca, Abraham’s niece, appears and offers to draw water for Eliezer and the camels!
Eliezer meets Rebecca’s family, including her brother, Laban. Eliezer explains what he wants, and Rebecca agrees to come to Canaan to marry Isaac. Her family gives her an interesting blessing: “Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads, and may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes.”
The first part of the blessing is a recognition of the promise that God made to Abraham, that God “will greatly increase your offspring.” (Genesis 22:17). The second part of the blessing is a little unusual, “may your offspring inherit the gate of its foes.”
The obvious meaning of this blessing is that Rebecca’s descendants will be victorious in battle. From our knowledge of Jewish history, we know that this will not always be the case. The famous Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), known as the Netziv, interprets this blessing differently. He points out that the gate of a city was the place where the judges and elders gathered, and says that the blessing means Rebecca’s offspring should be so highly regarded for their honesty and wisdom that even their enemies will ask their counsel.
The Netziv gave us a good lesson. In most places, we Jews are a small part of the population. But by being honest and using our knowledge and talents for the benefit of our communities, we can earn the respect of people, even those who may not know us well. One proof of this lesson was the career of Rabbi Lord Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z’’l), the late Chief Rabbi of the Great Britain, who passed away a year ago this past Tuesday. He was greatly admired by Jews and non-Jews alike, and his death brought remarks of condolence from many parts of the world, including the British royal family.