October 31, 2010
The Transitive Property
This week was tough. Someone in my life lost a job. Someone in my life was losing their home. A friend was physically assaulted by a family member. Another loved one was hospitalized for addiction. A friend’s mother is very sick. And that’s all just this week!
It seems that the more people you know and love, the more tsouris you encounter. Tsouris (which is Yiddish for trouble) has a transitive property. Each person’s struggle not only affects them but a web of family and friends. These supporters consequently walk around, trying to go about the tasks of their day while carrying around heaviness in their heart. Family and friends bear a combination of sorrow and powerlessness over situations that spiral out of control.
With this heaviness, I turn to this week’s portion and ask: what do you have to say to me? What comfort can you offer to my aching heart?
At the opening of this week’s parasha, the characters must have felt heavy-hearted as well. Abraham had nearly killed Isaac in last week’s portion, and Sarah dies in this week’s portion. According to the rabbis, Sarah died because she heard about Isaac’s near-death and couldn’t bear the news. So now, Abraham and Isaac each face dual traumas – that of Isaac’s near-death and Sarah’s actual death. They certainly had tsouris!
So what did they do with their tsouris?
The portion recounts that Abraham immediately sent his servant back to his hometown to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham didn’t leave the servant Eliezer with directions on how to find the right woman; he was left to his own devices. Eliezer’s plan was curious. He went to the well of the town and prayed to God for a young woman to come. He would ask for water, and if the woman gave water not only to him, but to his camels, then he would know that she was The One.
Lo and behold, a woman came and when he asked for water, she gave it both to him and his camels. Eliezer then knew he’d hit the jackpot. After some negotiations with her family, he brought the woman home to meet Isaac. When she arrived, “Isaac took Rebecca as his wife, Isaac loved her and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
Eliezer’s bride-selection method seems odd by modern standards, but it highlights what he was seeking – kindness. When Rebecca gave the camels water, she went beyond Eliezer’s request. As Rabbi Harold Kushner explained, “Abraham and Sarah, for all their pioneering religious achievements were sometimes insensitive to members of their own household. Rebecca’s kindness and generosity may have been what was needed to correct those family dynamics.” Like tsouris, caring too has transitive properties; it brings healing to wounded hearts.
In this cruel world, this week’s portion teaches: Seek out kindness, and when you find it, hold onto it with all your might.