One of Webster's definitions of grace is "unmerited divine assistance given man for his regeneration." We often think of grace as a Christian concept, but Judaism also has a concept of undeserved lovingkindness from God. This is the Hebrew concept of hesed.
Hayei Sarah, the "life-span of Sarah," opens with the news of Sarah's death, but the portion itself abounds in hesed. There is a feeling of resting after taking a long, deep breath. In previous portions, we read of the struggles of Sarah to become pregnant with a son, the resulting tensions between herself and Hagar and Ishmael, and the trauma of the Akedah when Abraham attempts to sacrifice his and Sarah's son Isaac. In this portion, we finally have the feeling that, almost effortlessly, things are finally going right.
Hesed begins with Abraham's smooth negotiations with the local Hittites for a desirable place to bury Sarah. There are good feelings all around; everyone puts their best foot forward. We then learn that "the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things."
Abraham then trusts his senior servant with the task of finding a wife for Isaac from the land of Abraham's birth. When the servant arrives in Nahor, he prays to God for good fortune and asks God to do hesed for Abraham. He imagines a scenario where a maiden will come and offer drinks to the servant, stating, "Let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.
"Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously (done hesed) with my master." The sense of grace is palpable as Rebecca comes to the well, showing hospitality in just the manner that the servant had hoped for, and extending an invitation for the servant and his camels to lodge in her family's home for the night.
The servant relates this event to Rebecca's family, again invoking the word hesed at the end of his story, this time asking if Rebecca's family means to treat Abraham with hesed by saying yes to the marriage proposal. Rebecca herself is ultimately the one to bestow this kindness -- the men agree to the proposal, but she has the final say about whether or not she will marry Isaac. She agrees to go right away, even while her brother and mother want to delay her 10 more days.
When she arrives at Abraham's family, she continues enacting hesed. Isaac marries Rebecca, and in a verse that uses the word "love" for the first time to describe the feeling of two partners for each other, we learn: "Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death."
The portion ends with Abraham remarrying a woman named Keturah, whom Rashi identifies as Hagar, citing the midrash of Genesis Rabbah. The text tells us that Abraham is generous to all of his sons before he dies, "old and contented." Isaac and Ishmael bury him together next to Sarah.
This reunion with Hagar as Keturah and the joint effort of Isaac and Ishmael to bury Abraham speaks to a great healing that has occurred in Abraham's life. The healing flows from the hesed that God shows Abraham and Isaac in revealing Rebecca as Isaac's wife. As author Aviva Zornberg has observed, Abraham is in dire need of hesed after the trial of the Akedah. We can only imagine that Isaac is as well. Isaac is comforted by Rebecca, and Abraham is able to move forward.
May we too find hesed in our lives: unexpected moments of kindness and grace. And may we find comfort in it, and the strength to move ahead.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected] .