“Reaching Out to Family Members”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, the aged Abraham instructs his Damascan servant, Eliezer, to swear to him by the G-d of Heaven and Earth (Genesis 24:3): “Ah’sher lo tee’kach eesh’ah liv’nee mib’not hak’nah’ah’nee, ah’sher ah’noh’chee yoh’sheyv b’kir’bo,” that you not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But rather, he instructs his servant to go to his land, Aram Na’ha’rah’yim, and to his kindred, and take a wife from there for his son, Isaac.

Our rabbis offer a number of reasons why Abraham is so set against his son marrying one of the local women. While it is true that both the people of Aram Na’ha’rah’yim and the Canaanites were idolaters, the residents of Canaan were, presumably, morally degenerate. Since the people in Aram Na’ha’rah’yim had not sunken into moral degeneracy, it might still be possible to find someone there who had not yet been tainted by the idolatry of Mesopotamia or, if necessary, cleanse someone who had been exposed to idolatry. To cleanse someone from moral degeneracy, however, would be virtually impossible.

Other commentators state that Abraham’s true intentions were to help his own family. While the people in Mesopotamia were hardly perfect, and perhaps no less tainted than the people in Canaan, if he was going to reach out and invest the effort to help, Abraham was determined to start with his own family.

Reaching out to one’s family is a difficult challenge. As we see with Abraham and his family, there may be issues of physical distance. Abraham was approximately 450 miles away from the City of Nachor where his family lived, yet he didn’t hesitate to undertake the effort or the expense to send a qualified emissary to bring them back, or at least engage them in dialogue.

Abraham uses all the “chips” that he has at his disposal in order to win over his relatives. He sends ten camels laden with all the bounty of Canaan, in effect, sending ten “stretch limousines” in order to impress his relatives with his wealth. Abraham uses this effective strategy as a means of opening up his family so that they would at least give ear to his message. Rather than go himself or send Isaac, his son, Abraham instead sends an intermediary, the Damascan, Eliezer. Often when dealing with family members, it is easier to send a third “disinterested” party to engage family members. Third party intervention is far less threatening, because in face-to-face negotiation the emotional issues often get in the way. What is perhaps most impressive about Abraham’s decision to reach out to his family in Aram Na’ha’rah’yim was the fact that, despite the distance and the many years that had elapsed, Abraham never forgot about his relatives and never gave up on them. He could have easily said, they are so far away from me physically, and so distant from me theologically and philosophically. Yet he never despaired of bringing them into the fold of monotheism.

In Exodus 12:30, after the plague of the first born, the Torah describes the terrible devastation visited upon the Egyptians: “Ayn bayit ah’sher ayn shom mayt,” there was not a single Egyptian home in which there was not a victim. Unfortunately, the same may be said about Jewish families in contemporary America. There is almost no Jewish home in America where there is not at least some assimilation. As assimilation and apostasy rates grow every year, there seems to be little or nothing that we can do to stop the hemorrhaging that is taking place in our community.

But we can learn from parashat Chayei Sarah that despair is not an acceptable response. Abraham only rescued a single soul from Aram Na’ha’rah’yim. Yet that soul, little Rebecca, becomes the Matriarch of the Jewish people and changes the course of Jewish history.

I hail from a typical American Jewish family. My mother, born in America, was one of four children, my father was one of six, born in Poland. Today there are fewer Jews in my generation than there were in my parent’s generation. Of my fifteen first cousins, six have married out of the faith, and three have never married. Through my work at Lincoln Square Synagogue and the National Jewish Outreach Program I have had the good fortune of helping hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews reconnect to their heritage, and yet the most difficult challenge for me is my own family. I have learned through the years that one should never say “never,” that there is always hope, and I have been fortunate to see in my own family the return of nieces and cousins to Jewish life and to ritual observance. The likelihood of their return was so remote, that it can only be a fulfillment of G-d’s promise to His people (Deuteronomy 30:4), “Im yee’yeh nee’dah’cha’cha bik’tzay ha’shah’mayim, mee’sham y’kah’betz’chah Hashem Eh’loh’kecha, u’mee’sham yee’kah’cheh’chah,” though your dispersed be at the far ends of heaven, from there the Lord will gather you in, and from there He will take you!

I think I know how Abraham felt when he saw little Rebecca arrive from the City of Nachor, and watched her develop into a most wonderful wife and mother, and turn into a true believer and activist on behalf of Abraham’s monotheistic G-d. I see it today, when I look at my nieces, their husbands and their children, and my cousins, their spouses and their children. This past May (2004) I attended the Bar Mitzvah of my assimilated cousin’s grandson. The Bar Mitzvah boy led the services, read the entire Torah portion and Haftorah, delivered a magnificent D’var Torah, with his tzitziot dangling out from under his jacket. I never in my wildest dreams would have believed that I would have a relative who would be capable of such commitment and accomplishment. It was a fantasy. It was like going to Mesopotamia, and bringing back a Jewish soul.

As long as there is life, there is hope. Every Jewish soul contains a spark that’s waiting to be kindled or rekindled. There is much to learn from father Abraham, and from his decision not to give up on his family. We must emulate his ways. Let us not despair of finding the next Rebecca!

May you be blessed.