Parasha Chayei Sarah

To Choose to Be JewishThis evening I am going to talk about two people. One of these people chose Judaism. The other person did not choose Judaism, but wished he had. In my experience, people come to Judaism for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they fall in love with a Jewish person and want to establish a Jewish home. They believe that the best way to do this is to join the Jewish people through conversion. Other people are married or partnered to a Jewish person for a long time before they decide to convert to Judaism. These individuals eventually fall in love with Judaism, through participation with their partner or spouse in holiday celebrations, synagogue life, life cycle rituals or through living the rhythms of the Jewish year. I’ve also had more than a few people who seek to convert because they know Jewish people and admire them.  They admire the kindness of their Jewish friends, their strong sense of community, their intellectual curiosity, their warm family relationships, and their commitment to making the world a better place. These people come to Judaism seeking to integrate those values into their lives and the lives of those they love.  In this week’s parasha, we have an example of the latter.  Abraham sends his servant back to the place of Abraham’s birth in order to find a wife for his son, Isaac. This is a long journey across a harsh landscape. The servant finds the right woman for Isaac –Rebecca. Abraham’s servant is attracted to her kindness, as she offers him water by a well and then offers to water his camels as well.   Based on these attributes the servant  concludes Rebecca would make a good wife for Isaac. But why does Rebecca agree to marry a man who she has never met? Why does she agree to leave her home and her family and her gods to undertake the arduous journey to the land of Canaan? Once there, she will not be able to return home. The rabbis of the Talmud noted that Torah is unusually lengthy when telling the story of Rebecca at the well. It first tells the story in a third person narrative form. When the servant later meets Rebecca’s family, he tells them the story of what happened at the well in the first person, following the narrative version almost word for word. Why doesn’t the Torah just say, “The servant told them what had happened.” Why the repetition? My teacher and colleague Rabbi Isaac Mann offers the following thoughts on the matter. In repeating the narrative word for word, the Torah wants to hint at the reason for Rebecca’s decision to leave her family and join the Jewish people. The Torah is demonstrating the servant’s humility and sincerity and his ability to pierce the heart of this family.  His pious words and simple faith in G-d make an enormous impression on one and all. It convinced Rebecca to join the family of Abraham, and allowed her parents to let her go. Not unlike some people who talk with me wanting to join the Jewish people, Rebecca is influenced by her friendship with a man she has come to admire and who represents what Judaism has to offer. Rebecca chose Judaism. She is the world’s first convert to our religion. I will now share the story of a man who would have chosen Judaism, but he could not. His name is Louis Brandeis. Brandeis served on the United States Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939. He was the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court. Brandeis graduated from Harvard Law School at the age of 20 with the highest grade point average in the school’s history. His fellow students recognized his brilliance. They also realized that one thing was holding him back. He was Jewish. At that time in our American history, there was a great deal of prejudice against Jews in our country. Louis Brandeis’ Christian friends urged him to convert. If he were Christian, they said, he might well be appointed to the Supreme Court some day! Brandeis never responded to their suggestion. In his final year of school, Brandeis was inducted into the honor society. Brandeis’ name was called, and he went to the podium to speak. Slowly, he looked around the room. “I am sorry,” he said, “that I was born a Jew”. The room erupted in applause. “Finally, we convinced him,” members of the audience said to one another. “He has finally seen our point”. Brandeis waited until the applause subsided. Then he continued, “I am sorry I was born a Jew –but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.” This time there was no applause. The room was silent. Then members of this exclusive honor society began to stand. But they did not walk out. Instead, awed by Louis Brandeis’ conviction and strength of character, they gave him a standing ovation. Of course, in many ways, Louis Brandeis did choose Judaism. Just like Rebecca did thousands of years ago, at the beginning of our history.  Just like we all must.  To live a Jewish life means making a conscious decision to make a deliberate effort to live a Jewish life. To be a Jew by choice is the most fulfilling kind of Judaism of all. Shabbat Shalom