Seeking Comfort

A few days ago, a "bomb cyclone" sent me looking for comfort. As the wind howled outside my window and lights flickered, I changed into cozy sweatpants and brewed a cup of hot tea to soothe my nerves.We use the word "comfort" on two levels in the English language: to talk about a state of ease and freedom from pain or constraint, and about the alleviation of grief and distress. In this week's parasha, Isaac seeks comfort on this higher, second level. He has a serious personal history of trauma and loss with which to contend: his upbringing in the context of a troubled blended family, where his parents pitted him against his older step-brother; the dramatic episode when his father came close to sacrificing his life on a mountain top. Now, his mother Sarah has died, leaving him grief-stricken. Where will Isaac turn for comfort?

A few days ago, a "bomb cyclone" sent me looking for comfort. As the wind howled outside my window and lights flickered, I changed into cozy sweatpants and brewed a cup of hot tea to soothe my nerves.

We use the word "comfort" on two levels in the English language: to talk about a state of ease and freedom from pain or constraint, and about the alleviation of grief and distress. In this week's parasha, Isaac seeks comfort on this higher, second level. He has a serious personal history of trauma and loss with which to contend: his upbringing in the context of a troubled blended family, where his parents pitted him against his older step-brother; the dramatic episode when his father came close to sacrificing his life on a mountain top. Now, his mother Sarah has died, leaving him grief-stricken. Where will Isaac turn for comfort?

The text of Parashat Chayei Sarah offers several answers to this question. The first comes at the end of Genesis 24, the long chapter detailing how Abraham sent his servant journeying to find a wife for Isaac. We the reader have already gotten to know Rebecca through this chapter, enough to understand her many positive qualities: generosity, kindness, strength, bravery. Now, we look on as Isaac meets her for the first time, in Genesis 24:67: "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death." In a single verse, Rebecca takes up her place as a formal successor to Sarah the matriarch. Love brings about this transformation; Isaac finds comfort through love.

I believe there are at least two additional ways Isaac finds comfort in this story, but for those, we have to do a bit more interpretive digging. Backing up a few verses, we read: "Vayetze yitzchak la-suach ba-sadeh lifnot arev," "And Isaac went out to walk in the field toward evening" (Gen. 24:63). The rabbinic tradition helps us here, reading the verb "la-suach," "to walk," as having a double meaning and also referring to "meditating" or "conversing." In other words, according to many midrashim (and also recorded in Talmud Berakhot 26b), this episode of Isaac going out into the field is the foundational instance of what will become Jewish tradition's daily mincha (afternoon) prayer. In other words, in the wake of loss and in the face of uncertainty, Isaac takes time out in the middle of his day to take a walk in nature, and finds comfort in a prayerful experience of spiritual expression.

Finally, an astute reader might notice that a place is mentioned which has great significance. Backing up yet another verse, Gen. 24:62 tells us that "Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi." Lest you miss it, the same place name gets another mention towards the very end of the parasha, in Gen. 25:11, which reads: "After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled near Beer-lahai-roi." What is this place, where Isaac apparently hung out while his father's servant was off finding him a wife, and then where he later chooses to settle to build a life and family with his beloved wife Rebecca? Beer-lahai-roi is a throw-back reference to Genesis 16:14, where it is associated with Hagar's distress and the birth story of Ishmael; this well is named after Hagar's own naming of God as the God-who-sees! Perhaps it's not a stretch to imagine that Isaac fled there after his mother Sarah's death to rekindle a relationship with his step-mother and half-brother Hagar and Ishmael; perhaps this well is a place where Isaac feels seen. In any case, the text shows that Isaac sought comfort in retreating to a place of safety.

Like Isaac, we find ourselves responding to trauma and loss, pain and constraint on a variety of levels. On a most basic level, NOAA projected this week that this winter will be a particularly cold and stormy one here in the Pacific Northwest. :( I can easily imagine that many of us will naturally turn to an array of cozy comforts -- whether that means curling up in front of a fireplace with a good book, putting on fuzzy socks, or cooking hearty soups -- to manage through these upcoming seasonal hardships. On a broader level, lest we forget, we are still navigating through pandemic times and the many layers of associated loss and grief. For comfort in the face of these losses, we will need even better tools.

Finally, on an even more intense level, today is the third anniversary of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which has come to be recognized as the worst antisemitic attack in American history. Although many of us gathered in the immediate wake of this traumatic event, I would venture that given all that has transpired since (a national election, a global pandemic, etc.), we've only just begun to process what this event really means, for each of us on an identity level, and in the context of the sweep of Jewish history.

In this moment -- as pain and constraint, grief, loss and trauma pile up in layers -- I believe we might do well to take a cue from the patriarch Isaac in this week's Torah portion. Using his formula, we might seek to comfort ourselves by:

1) seeking love, camaraderie and community,

2) taking time out for meditation or prayer or ritual (perhaps in nature, as he did),

3) giving ourselves permission to retreat to safe places (and extending these places beyond the physical, to include safe states of mind as well).

May the memories of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger all be a blessing to us on this yahrtzeit, as is the memory of our matriarch Sarah whose life we remember this week.

Wishing us all comfort,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum