D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Getting something you've never had requires doing something you've never done.
When I made up my mind to go back to school and become a rabbi in mid-life, I knew it would be a difficult transition. It had been years since I was a full-time college student. Returning to school would also require me to leave a good government job, move from my home of twenty-three years in Washington, DC and find a way to support myself while in school in New York. I had never done anything quite so risky but I was determined to move forward with what I believed was my life’s mission.
At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which means the life of Sarah, Sarah dies. After burying his wife, Abraham decides it is time to find a wife for his son Isaac. He assigns this task to his servant Eliezer. Without much pomp and circumstance, Eliezer meets Rebekah, who he quickly decides possesses the right qualities for Isaac. One of those qualities is kindness. In response to Eliezer’s request for water, Rebekah not only provides him with a drink but then unprompted, draws water for Eliezer’s camels.
Rebekah agrees to go back with Eliezer and marry Isaac. In doing so she not only has to leave home but also travel to a place she has never been and marry someone she has never met. Whatever her plans for the future had been before Eliezer entered her life, Rebekah seizes the moment without hesitation. She somehow knows her fate lies with Isaac.
Not unlike my own decision to leave everything I had known for twenty-three years behind me, Rebekah decides to leave the only life she had ever known and go with Eliezer. It was a decision grounded in the belief that in order to get something you’ve never had you need to do something you have never done.
Do the Next Right Thing
As I sat down to write this week’s 12-Step Torah offering on what was a bright and sunny Wednesday afternoon, the presidential election was still undecided. Trying as best as I could to carry on with my day, I signed on that morning to a Zoom meeting hosted by Luther, a Christian seminary in Minnesota. The meeting was held for mentors of students at the seminary.
Just how I became a mentor for a student at a Christian Seminary is a story for another day, but during the meeting each mentor was asked how they were feeling. I mentioned that I was both physically and mentally exhausted, but also hopeful. Quoting the 12-Step saying Do the next right thing, I announced that when our mentor meeting was over I would be heading to a Protect the Results rally in my town. In other words, despite feeling a bit stuck and out of sorts, I decided to do the next right thing and head to a rally.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Abraham is also given an opportunity to do the next right thing. Upset at the wickedness of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, God decides to destroy the cities. When Abraham hears what God is planning, he challenges God:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע: אוּלַ֥י יֵ֛שׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר הַאַ֤ף תִּסְפֶּה֙ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א לַמָּק֔וֹם לְמַ֛עַן חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבָּֽהּ
Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty who are innocent in the city, will you indeed sweep away the place? (Gen. 18:23-24).
God responds that if there are indeed fifty innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities will not be destroyed. Abraham then continues to bargain God down – what if there are 45 innocent people, 40 innocent people, 30 innocent people, 20 innocent people, 10 innocent people? Each time, God assures Abraham that in that case, the cities will not be destroyed.
Abraham wastes no time and challenges God not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times. With each challenge overcome, Abraham knows immediately what he has to do to continue to try and save the innocent people living in Sodom and Gomorrah. He has to do the next right thing.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the next few years hold many challenges and hurdles for us, the people of this United States of America to overcome. Of course with all those challenges and hurdles will come no shortage of opportunities for us, the people of this United States of America, to step up and do the next right thing.