Inviting Small Acts of Generosity and Kindness (in the spirit of Rebecca and in memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

The Torah is usually terse and concise, but this week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, centers around a long story that is anything but! All 67 verses of Genesis chapter 24 are devoted to a single narrative: the tale of Abraham sending his servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, and returning with Rebecca, a woman of great agency, strength and generosity.

The Torah is usually terse and concise, but this week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, centers around a long story that is anything but! All 67 verses of Genesis chapter 24 are devoted to a single narrative: the tale of Abraham sending his servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, and returning with Rebecca, a woman of great agency, strength and generosity. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg uses the remarkable length of this story as a jumping off point for a compelling D'var Torah in which he argues that Rebecca was sought out for her kindness and caring, "so ingrained that she would respond to a thirsty stranger's request for water to drink" and would also go above and beyond, offering water for his travel-weary camels and livestock. In Rabbi Greenberg's words, this long narrative demonstrates that the Torah is fundamentally "a covenant of hesed - love, caring, human solidarity, striving for a better world." (Click here to listen or read this D'var Torah, "The Torah Came to Make a Mensch" in its entirety - I highly recommend it!)

On Saturday -- the same day on which we finally learned that the presidential race was over -- I also heard the news that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had died. Rabbi Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, was respected and beloved across the Jewish world. His Torah was a Torah of morality, wisdom, decency and civics, and wow was he ever a prolific writer! (If you're curious to learn more about him and his Torah, here's a great NPR story from Monday.) One quote I especially love -- from his book To Heal a Fractured World -- is this:  "Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world... A single message of support can tell threatened populations that they are not alone. One act of hospitality can redeem a lonely life on the brink of despair. A word of praise can give strength to someone losing the will to carry on. We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness."

Right now, we find ourselves in a particularly unsettling moment. The emotional arc of the past week has been strange for me (and I suspect that I'm not alone in this, knowing our Kavana community): having moved from the uncertainty of election night (which lasted from Tuesday through the weekend and all feels like one big, blurry day in my mind!), to a sense of relief and joy on Saturday (decency prevails! another glass ceiling shattered!), and then back to a different type of anxiety and unease over the last few days (concerned about the threats we're witnesses to our core values and to American democracy). And of course, this whole emotional arc is set against the backdrop of the continuing Covid pandemic, where numbers are once again on the rise.

Especially during a time like this -- when it can feel so hard to find our balance, atop rapidly shifting ground -- it's always a good practice to return to the basics:

  • Breathe
  • Read this week's Torah portion
  • Recenter on basic values like kindness and generosity
  • Choose a small action to do (one slight act that -- as Rabbi Sacks teaches -- could possibly generate a ripple of positive consequences)

Your small action might be showing up for Kabbalat Shabbat services this Friday or Havdalah this Saturday night, or checking on a friend or neighbor. Your small action could also be related to the election: perhaps you know someone who voted differently than you, and you feel ready to reach out and strengthen that personal relationship... after all, now that we can see just how deep the divisions in this country run, we know that eventually we will need to repair the rift, and we have to start somewhere. Or, perhaps you are feeling generous like Rebecca -- maybe not ready to go out and draw water for a whole caravan of camels, but ready to channel the same spirit of kindness she possesses into making a donation, volunteering your time, sending a gift, or preparing a meal for someone else -- all opportunities you can find in the Community Announcements section below!

Following in the footsteps of our ancestor Rebecca, let's channel all the chesed we possibly can this week, into a world that is very much in need of this spirit of generosity, kindness and love,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum