Sunday, November 9, 2014

To Give is to Receive (Portion Chayei Sarah)

Even after all this time
the sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
Look what happens with
a love like that—
it lights the whole sky.
From the moment we meet the second of our matriarchs, Rebecca, she embodies the trait of chesed—unconditional lovingkindness.  On his mission to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s servant Eliezer first encounters her at the communal well, where she goes out of her way to provide water for him and his camels.  Aviva Zornberg notes: "As she runs back and forth at the well, eagerly providing for the needs of the servant and the camels, she resembles Abraham welcoming his angel-guests - impatient, energetic, overflowing with love (chesed)."
We live in a world in desperate need of chesed.  So much of our culture is based on a philosophy of scarcity.  The Scottish scholar Thomas Carlyle famously described economics as the “dismal science” because it is grounded in the bleak notion that there will never be enough for everyone.  This premise permeates our current politics and leads us to hoard our resources rather than sharing them.  It plays out, negatively, in everything from environmental policy to immigration to the social safety net (or lack thereof).  Our selfishness is destroying us.
Actually, when it comes to the things that matter most—love, wisdom, justice—this philosophy of scarcity is dead wrong.  The contrary principle, that ought to guide us, is that of chesed: the more you give, the more you get.  As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in his wonderful guide to the Jewish mystical tradition, Honey from the Rock, the fundamental challenge we face in growing into adulthood is this: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you.  That I have a stake in their love.  That if I hoard it, I lose it.  That if I give it away, I get it back.

In a world governed by scarcity, we are all, essentially, pitted in endless war against one another.  But in a universe founded on chesed, acts of love, like the sun, light up the entire sky. 

As you go through the week, try to learn from our mother, Rebecca.  When you feel the prevailing cultural notion of scarcity (and its constant cohort, fear) pulling at you, resist the temptation and respond with chesed.  When you are tempted to take, try giving instead.  Like Rebecca, you may just find that in slaking the metaphorical thirst of others, you slake your own as well.  

For another poem on the subject, here's Mary Oliver's The Sunflowers:

The Sunflowers
Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines
creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky
sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy
but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young -
the important weather,
the wandering crows.
Don't be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,
which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds -
each one a new life!
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,
is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come
and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

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