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Toward Shabbat: Hayei Sarah

This past Shabbat, my family and I were called to our kitchen window by the sound of crowds cheering, cars honking, and noisemakers of all kinds in the street. Urged out of our Shabbat-morning sleepiness, we deduced that, indeed, the moment had arrived: the election had been called. After a deeply tense week of waiting, a week that capped off months and years of tumult in our country, a new voice of leadership had emerged. We joined the throngs of people out in the streets, in wonderment at this profound and historic moment in our nation, overwhelmed by both the exuberance and adrenaline of that moment, and the recognition of the enormously difficult task ahead: to heal such a fractured and divided nation.

That evening, with tears in my eyes, I watched a series of ceiling-cracking-firsts take shape: the first woman, Asian-American, and Black Vice President strode out onto the stage, and citizens from many walks of life saw themselves in national leadership for the first time. In that same moment of radical newness, I listened to the President-Elect urge the country to make a return of sorts: to “see each other again, listen to each other again, heal each other again.” With those words, the nation was asked to imagine what could be anew, using deeply intrinsic and long-held values of old.

This week’s parashah, Hayei Sarah, encounters such a moment of reflection on what has passed, with an eye toward the future. The text begins with the passing of Sarah, and moves on to engage with the next matriarch: Rivka. This transitional moment is marked in one verse:

Isaac brought her [Rivka] into the tent of his mother Sarah (Genesis 24:67).

Commentators have wondered what the relevance of naming Sarah in this moment was; she had already passed away. Midrash Rabbah imagines that perhaps it was the very arrival of Rivka that was able to usher in once more the greatest gifts of Sarah in her life: her generosity and open-heartedness. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah reads:

For as long as Sarah lived, a cloud (signifying the Divine Presence) hung over her tent. When she died, the cloud disappeared; but when Rivka came, it returned. As long as Sarah lived, her doors were wide open. At her death, that openhandedness ceased; but when Rivka came, it returned. As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough, and the lamp used to burn from the evening of Shabbat  until the evening of the following Shabbat. When she died, these ceased; but when Rivka came, they returned.

It was in investing in that which is new that allowed for the embracing of that which had past; a rekindling of, and return to, the very intrinsic values held so dear by Sarah that were able to flourish afresh with the presence of Rivka.

What might it look like for our nation to move into the next generation of progress and flourishing, revitalizing the strengths of its past in that very growth? How may we, as a country, return to our foundational values of perseverance, freedom, democracy, and dignity, and lean into those values as we begin the process of mending some of the difficult divides, correcting deeply grave wrongs, and taking enormously needed steps toward progress?

We enter Shabbat a still deeply divided nation; many in our midst continue to call for that division to deepen still. And yet, the coming of Rivka was enough to rekindle the continuous burning lamp of Sarah’s legacy, shining brightly from Shabbat to Shabbat, despite its extinguishment in her death. This Shabbat, may we begin to rekindle that lamp, as we enjoin together the hope of the new light, with the ever-burning flame of lights past.