This week’s portion, named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife. Then he tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do, decides the best thing is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebekah and eventually brings her back to Isaac, where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebekah get married, move into Sarah’s old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, whom both Isaac and Ishmael bury jointly, everybody’s one happy family until the twins show up next week, and things get really, well, hairy. But the whole portion pivots on one theme: prayers do get answered.
In the eight times that I have annually written about this portion, I invariably come back to the same set of verses. It is a prayer by Abraham’s servant to have the god of his master help him find the bride for Isaac. He wants some very specific help.
12. And he said, O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.
The Talmud and Midrash find this prayer outright careless if not pagan divination. I have argued in five of those eight times that there is more going on here than meets the eye. It takes a lot of water, hundreds of gallons, to totally satiate ten camels. Yet the text goes on to say that Rebekah appeared immediately and did exactly that — an act of hospitality equal to Abraham running across a field while recovering from circumcision, then preparing a meal for a bunch of strangers. While one may wonder why this is so, it becomes obvious when one adds a Midrash which I often quote along with the passage above.
A [Roman] matron asked R. Yose: ‘ In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ‘In six days,’ he answered. ‘Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after, those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ‘ I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ Straightway she summoned R. Yose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’ Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’ [Genesis Rabbah 58:4]
A good match is a miracle of a greater order than splitting the Red Sea. My comments on this week’s portion have been my prayer, much like Eliezer’s, for seven years. In retrospect, I didn’t see the things that were happening each step along the way, but my prayer was being answered.
I have been praying for a mate for quite a long time. Each time I prayed, a new door opened, and often in the form of a book falling into my lap. I found Roger Kamentz’s book The Jew and the Lotus which led me to Jewish Renewal, which led to learning Hebrew, then Aramaic. Quitting a project for the Renewal Kallah led me to Mordechai Gafni’s Soulprints, and in him I found a teacher who brought alive the meaning of aggadic works for the first time. Shortly after, the rabbi of my then congregation retired, and in the tumult of picking a new rabbi, based on what I had learned from Gafni, Shlomo’s Drash was born, and with it my prayer took a new form. I checked out matchmakers, and wrote for my first Haye Sarah Shlomo’s Drash how little they resemble Ha Kadosh Bruch Hu making matches and how much that ditzy Roman Matron and matchmakers have in common. Then came Gafni’s downfall and run from the Israeli authorities. In my despair over losing a teacher, I found Neil Strauss’ “The Game”, which taught me to be a confident human being. While many learned mere pickup routines from the book, I learned that being genuine and having confidence is incredibly attractive. With that confidence, I dated someone who introduced to Facebook. Early on in my Facebook experience, I friended the most beautiful woman I ever knew in college, though back then her circles and mine barely touched. She apparently didn’t do much on Facebook, since I didn’t seem to hear back from this woman after I wrote her. By November of that year, I broke up with the woman I had been dating. What I wrote in the Haye Sarah that year, a piece about social media, was where the fracture between us started.
At the very snowy end of that year, I got a happy birthday message from that college crush who hadn’t answered me back in August. I wrote a thank you back and asked what she was up to. She wrote back and I wrote back. On New Year’s Day I saw she was logged in, and chatted with her in what ended up as a four-hour conversation. Then our conversation became a series of e-mails about Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, all while I was on vacation. The emails led to nightly phone calls. The phone calls became visits half a continent away. The visits led to moving in together. A year after that first thank you on Facebook, I asked her to marry me. Next year, the woman of my college dreams, the love of my life, will be my wife.
When someone asks me if there is such a thing as prayer that gets answered, I think of this woman who I say the Shema with every night before going to sleep. Someone to say the Shema with was my “let me water your camels”. That a snowstorm hit on that December day paralyzing her city, leading her to log on to Facebook and then to talk to me, was a miracle of a magnitude like the Red Sea. Yet, I look back on that list of what got me to that moment in my life, and I see there are two things that are true about prayer being answered: what you get is not what you expect, and when it does come, you have to act.
Circumstances both good and bad have happened to me over and over again. Only in hindsight do I see that each put me in the place where I am now. The beginning of our romance was over the grammar of Hebrew and Aramaic. I keep asking myself if I would be getting married to her, had I not gone to Hebrew school when I did. I ask myself had I not had the confidence I gained in my self-help courses, would I still be as invisible to her as I was in college? Had I not gained confidence, would I even have tried to talk to her, or would I have stayed as silent as I was twenty years ago?
When we talk of miracles and answers from God, we expect the splitting of the Red Sea, a burning bush, or the revelation at Sinai. But most miracles are so little and subtle, we often miss them. Often, they are near impossible to see, except in hindsight. Often, we are so self-occupied we miss them. On the occasions that we do see them, it is a time for blessing, of thanking God for the Blessing and the gift bestowed on us.
I’ve used this portion as a prayer of petition for close to a decade. Now I want to pray in thanksgiving. Blessed are you, God, for answering my prayers. Like your matching of Isaac and Rebecca, the great wonder of two people united in both love and marriage so far away have you bestowed such a miracle on me and my mate.