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Friday, November 5, 2010

Chayei Sarah: Love at First Sight

I like to teach Chayei Sarah by asking my students to think about two people in their family who are happily married. How, I ask, did those people meet?

Over the years, I've heard some wonderful stories. For example, one time  a student told me that his grandparents met on a beach, when his grandfather walked up to his grandmother and said, "That is an ugly bathing suit!"

But my favorite story came from a boy whose parents -- I'll call them Jackie and Seth -- met while they were traveling through Europe on a post-college jaunt. Jackie was with some girlfriends and Seth with some guys, when their paths crossed in southern Italy. Although they didn't have a lot of time together, Jackie and Seth saw something in one other that they didn't want to lose, so they exchanged phone number for when they got back to the States.

But things weren't easy when they returned home, as they lived in different states and each had careers underway. Still, they made room for one another in their lives, eventually building a life together. And today, they are soon to celebrate 20 years of marriage, with a beautiful family to show for it.

I think about fateful encounters like that serendipitous meeting in Italy the unlikely when I read Chayei Sarah, a portion that which  arguably the most beautiful love story in the Torah -- the story of Isaac and Rebecca.

As the portion begins, Sarah has died, and after arranging for her burial, Abraham goes about finding a wife for their son, Isaac. He tells his servant to travel to the land of his birth to find a suitable young woman. The servant is understandably nervous, because he wants to please his master. So when he arrives at his destination, he prays for God to send him a sign so he'll know what girl to choose.

"The girl to whom I say, 'Tip your pitcher and let me drink,' and who replies, 'Drink; and let me water your camels too' -- let her be the one You have designated for Your servant Isaac," he prays.

And at that very moment, out comes Rebecca, who says just what the servant prayed she would. What's more, when the servant proposes that she come with him to Canaan to marry Isaac, she agrees on the spot; and when Isaac sees her arrive, he immediately finds a comfort that has eluded him since his mother died.

It is love at first sight, and in many ways, a match made in Heaven.

It seems to me that we all make deals and strike bargains just as Abraham's servant did, as we try to make sense of the mysterious and incomprehensible process by which we fall in love. "If he calls me tonight, it means he likes me," we'll say, or "If she looks up at me, then I'll go over and say hi." How else can we cope with the uncertainties of attraction? How can we accept that we have no control over the  unknowable moment when an ordinary person turns into "the one"?

I like to talk about coincidence and chance with my students, because it gets them to look at themselves and their lives in a new way. After all, they are only eleven, and from their perfectly appropriate narcissistic perspective, parents exist in the world only to take care of them. I like to get them to think about these lucky and entirely coincidental encounters that set the course for their very existence.

What if that bathing suit hadn't been so ugly? What if the grandfather had decided not to go to the beach that day? What if the girls in Europe had not walked right into the boys' path? What if they had headed north that day? What if Rebecca hadn't spoken the precise words of the servant's prayer? The fact is, we are each the product of a sequence of events that may not have happened -- but did.

The girls could very well have headed north, but they didn't -- and as a result, there's an eager 11-year-old sitting at his desk, with his mother's smile and his father's sense of humor, raising his hand to the ceiling, dying to tell me how his mom and dad met.

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