Chayei Sarah: Navigating life’s ‘what ifs’
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Chayei Sarah: Navigating life’s ‘what ifs’

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

When I meet with engaged couples, we talk at-length about their future marriage together. We share a little bit about their likes and dislikes and ultimately this conversation leads us to talk about those things which warrant compromise and those things that are simply non-negotiable for each partner.

We all have those areas of our life, right?

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, the Torah describes how the courtship of a wife for Isaac poses similar questions. According to the Torah, Avraham is “blessed in all things” (Gen. 24:1). However, he still wants to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham instructs his servant, Eliezer, to go to Avraham’s native land and find a suitable partner for his son and bring that woman back to the land of Canaan. After receiving instructions, Eliezer responds by saying: “What if the woman does not consent to follow me to this land, shall I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” (Gen. 24:5).

What does Eliezer mean when he asks that question?

Now you might say that in this passage Eliezer is worried. This concern comes across through the “what if?” part of his question. It sounds as if Eliezer thinks through all possible outcomes and wonders what he might do if something does not go according to plan. He has concerns, doubts, and fears.

Like Eliezer, we all have our “what if” moments. Whatever the scenario might be, we have concerns about how we might react if something does not go according to plan. We think about the worst case scenario and feel nervous, unsure or fearful when visualizing the possibilities. Perhaps those “what ifs” along life’s journey relate to asking for a raise, or public speaking or trying something new for the first time. We all have our “what ifs.”

And during those moments of uncertainly, what do we want to hear from others? We want to be reassured. We want to know that everything will be okay. We want to feel as if the hard work will be justified. And you might think that this is exactly what Avraham did for Eliezer, providing him with the faith that he needs. After all, Avraham responds to him by saying that God will send an angel to be with him. How much more reassurance could one get than Divine companionship?

You might even say that through Eliezer’s interaction with Avraham the Torah teaches us the importance of flexibility or compromise. Perhaps Eliezer sought advice about how he might need to modify Avraham’s exact request. Can Eliezer change the plan, if necessary? What if a woman will not come back with him? Is it then okay to bring Isaac to her?

Of course, in our own lives there are times when life calls upon us to change our plans, to go with the flow, to adjust our expectations. This re-shifting of our intentions is helpful so that we don’t lose the forest for the trees, or experience resent or guilt after not accomplishing exactly what we had hoped. Life is a river and sometimes we must go with the flow, lest we find ourselves fighting the natural current. Compromise in our relationships is very much part of that ebb-and-flow.

Sure, one lesson that the Torah teaches us is about offering others reassurance during their moments of uncertainty. The Torah also normalizes the uncertainties of our lives by sharing Eliezer’s concerns. Perhaps it also teaches us about re-shifting our expectations or adapting to the ever-changing challenges that come in our direction.

But it also teaches us the importance of knowing our non-negotiables.

You see, when Eliezer questions what he should do if a woman does not come back with him to marry Isaac, Eliezer essentially asks of Avraham: “Where are you willing to be flexible and where are you not willing to compromise?” Avraham responds very clearly with certain conditions that must be met during this courtship, saying “if the woman does not consent to follow you, you shall then be clear of this oath to me; but do not take my son back there” (Gen. 24:8). In other words, Avraham would rather free Eliezer of his responsibility of finding a partner for Isaac than settle for a marriage for Isaac in a land other than the Promised Land. Avraham, in fulfilling a Divine request, knows what he wants for Isaac and because of the magnitude of this decision, he will settle for nothing less.

Life will never go according to plan. Whether these plans are related to our jobs, relationships, or our health, we all know how curveballs are thrown at us. Yes; it is normal to question or to ask “what if.” Yes; having a little reassurance feels good. And yes, sometimes we might benefit from a little flexibility in adjusting to the changing circumstances around us.

At the same time, it behooves us to be clear about our non-negotiables. Whether we experience a Divine call like Avraham or have a specific goal in-mind, we owe it to ourselves to stay on track, to not acquiesce on something so important to us and to not feel selfish or guilty about pursuing that dream.

Whether we are parenting our children like Avraham, searching for a partner like Isaac, or making sure we are clear about our job responsibilities like Eliezer, Chayei Sarah challenges us to think about the moments in our lives when we can compromise and when we stay true to our path that we so rightfully deserve.

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