Blogging the Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah, Ulai


On most days, I usually think that it must be a good day if I do not say, “mah la-asot?” (what can you do?) or “yiyeh-tov” (it will be all right) too early in the day.  On some days I say both. On Thursday, I was delighted to hear an alternative from my friend and colleague Daniel Reiser, in his senior sermon presented at HUC-JIR in New York.  “Ulai– what if!”  What if we are open to new possibilities?  What if we see ourselves and others through the lens of the future and not the past?  What if we are willing to take risks instead of following the certain path?

Ulai?  What if?



Posted by Daniel Reiser

The following was delivered as my senior sermon at HUC-JIR.

In the spring of 1940, as a war was raging in Europe, Harry Reiser, a postal worker from Brooklyn, met a young woman in his neighborhood named Sally Finkelstein. He thought she was sweet; she thought he was funny. They started dating that summer.

On December 7th the following year, “a date that will live in infamy,” Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. America was at war. Troops were needed for the front. Nurses were needed for the wounded. And postal workers, like Harry, were needed to circulate messages between battalions. And so, at the risk of his life, funny Harry Reiser shipped off to the Philippines, leaving sweet Sally Finkelstein behind in Brooklyn.

This is the story of my grandparents. This is the story of “when Harry met Sally.” And like that romantic comedy, my grandparents’ story is a tale of risk and uncertainty. Although he promised to return, and although she promised to wait,  certainly, both of them endured many sleepless nights wondering: “What if…?”

Similarly, “when Isaac met Rebekah” is a story of risk and uncertainty. Abraham sends the chief of his household, an unnamed servant, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. It is a critical task. The future of the covenant is at stake. Isaac’s young life—already torn by an estrangement from his half-brother, the trauma of Mount Moriah, and most recently, the death of his mother—Isaac’s very personhood is at stake. Recognizing the weight of his task, Abraham’s servant asks: “Ulai lo toveh ha-ishah la-lechet acharai / What if the woman isn’t willing to follow me?”

Ulai. “What if…?” Our whole lives are staked on the uncertainty of “What if?” Ulai the woman won’t follow me? Ulai a war breaks out and someone that I love is shipped off to the Philippines? Ulai an unexpected illness, or a hurricane, or a car crash suddenly alters the course of my life forever? Ulai today is the day I loose someone that I love?

Where do we find the courage each day to endure the uncertainty of ulai—the uncertainty of being alive? Our parashah presents three possible responses: the response of Abraham’s servant, of Rebekah, and of Isaac.


Abraham’s servant is charged with the task of finding a wife for Isaac. But ulai—what if he can’t find the right woman? How will he know which one is “the one”?

Our Torah text doesn’t give Abraham’s servant a name, but the midrash calls him Eliezer. El-i ezer—“my God is a helper.” And indeed, Eliezer does ask for God’s help. But the kind of help he requests is not the kind of help that God can give. Eliezer doesn’t ask for courage, or strength, or focus, or wisdom. Rather, Eliezer asks for God’s help in the form of a sign: “Let the woman who waters both me and my camels be the one that You, oh God, have designated for Isaac.” Eliezer asks that God intervene with a shooting star or a bolt of lightening. When the highway of life threatens with the intimidating words “What if…?” Eliezer asks for a flashing billboard that says: “Here! Turn here!”

Looking for a sign is not as strange as it sounds. While few of us expect that the faces on TV will turn and address us personally, many of us, at least sometimes, believe the fortune cookie or the horoscope when they tell us that good things await. I remember standing in my driveway as a third grader and wondering whether I would get a certain part in the school play. “If I can just make this basketball shot,” I thought to myself, “then I’ll know that the part is mine.” But this is a child’s prayer, an attempt to know the future, a hope to build an impossible bridge between two unrelated events.

Eliezer is playing a game of “She’ll love him; she’ll love him not,” imagining that by plucking petals off of a flower, he might avoid the risk inherent in looking for love.

It’s no wonder, then, that a midrash imagines that Eliezer arrived at Rebekah’s well on the very same day that he left Canaan. According to the midrash, the road contracted before him, and in just one step, Eliezer traveled a distance that should have taken him several days.

But there are no shortcuts from here to there, no contracting roads, no magic, no fortune cookies. When the universe says ulai, there’s no use in waiting for God to intervene with a miracle. And so we must seek a different model of enduring the challenge of ulai. And this is where we meet Rebekah: at the well.

Our tradition praises Rebekah for being generous, kind, and industrious. When a stranger asks her for a sip of water, she helps him. When his camels are thirsty, she draws water, unprompted, for them all. When he needs a place to rest for the night, she offers her house. The Kli Yakar calls her “the bride with the beautiful eyes,” because she was both a beauty to behold, and because she saw the world through a lens of beauty. Where others might have seen a foreign beggar, Rebekah saw a traveller in need.

But Rebekah’s well is much deeper than this. More astounding even than her generosity is her courage. When she’s asked whether or not she will follow this strange man and his invisible God to a foreign land in order to marry a man she’s never met, Rebekah gives an elegant, bold, two-syllable reply: “eileich / I’ll go.”

By saying “I’ll go,” Rebekah sets herself apart even from Moses, who asks hesitantly: “Mi anochi ki eileich el Paraoh? / Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Rebekah more closely resembles Abraham, who was willing to leave behind his home and family in order to lech lecha to a land that God would show him. Avraham, Ha-Ivri / Abraham, the one who crosses from there to here. Abraham, of radical departure. Rebekah will be a natural fit as his daughter-in-law. Rivkah, eileich / Rebekah, who dares to go. Rebekah, who has the courage to set out on a journey even before she knows the destination.

To say eileich in the face of ulai requires a well-spring of courage. It is therefore appropriate that a midrash imagines that—unlike the other women at the well, who had to dip their buckets into it—for Rebekah, the water rose up to meet her, overflowing the mouth of the well. Like the well, Rebekah overflows with bravery—a spring of courage. Her name, Rivkah—Avivah Zornberg points out—is an anagram of kirbah, inside. As with an overflowing well, the courage that is kirbah Rivkah cannot be contained. When life says ulai, the waters of courage rise up to meet her, and out of her mouth pours the wordeileich.

And while Rebekah’s bravery is impressive, it may be too high an expectation to set for ourselves. For most of us, when the universe says ulai, our waters of courage don’t rise, but rather, recede. And so we must seek yet another model of enduring the challenge ofulai—a model somewhere in between Eliezer’s and Rebekah’s, a model that is at once braver than looking for a miraculous contracting road, and yet more realistic than expecting that our well of courage will miraculously overflow. And this is where we meet Isaac: standing in a windy field at dusk.

Throughout his young life, Isaac had learned to guard himself against the messiness ofulai. When his only friend—his half-brother, Ishmael—was banished from the family, leaving Isaac alone and friendless, Isaac would hide safely in his tent. When the neighbors would mock him with the thought that Abraham and Sarah were far too old to be his real parents, Isaac would hide safely in his tent. For months, after his father had stolen him away early one morning to do unspeakable things to him on the top of Mount Moriah, all Isaac could do to hold back his tears—to wall himself in, to keep people out—was hide safely in his tent.

But for all of us, there comes a time when the cold desert wind of ulai rips through the flap of the tent, reminding us that these walls that we build to guard ourselves are made only of burlap. Isaac’s mother—who unguardedly loved her guarded son—dies, unexpectedly. Isaac, who didn’t like to show his feelings—Isaac, who’d been hiding out, safely in his tent—never got to say goodbye.

The tent that had once kept him safe now only reminds him of all that he didn’t let in. And so Isaac runs away, in search of a new safe-haven—somewhere in which he can try to put the pieces of his broken life back together. He goes out looking for the only other home he’s ever known. As a midrash has it, Isaac goes looking for Hagar.

He finds her out in the desert, by a well called Be’er Lachai Roi—the Well of Living and Seeing. The minute Hagar sees his face, she knows all that has happened. She opens her arms to him, and he cries—sobs—letting out all of the tears that he had held in for so long.

Isaac stays with Hagar for many weeks at Be’er Lachai Roi. One afternoon, as they’re drawing from the well, he notices Hagar’s reflection in the water. In the reflection, Isaac sees Hagar not as she looks today, but rather as she once looked, many years ago. Can it be? Isaac looks a little closer.

He peers into the Well of Living of Seeing, and he sees Hagar. Her face is younger, less wrinkled. She is clutching young Ishmael—a morsel of bread in one hand, a skin of water of in the other—as they set off, forever, into the wilderness. He sees himself tied to a bundle of wood on Mount Moriah, his hands and feet bound, a ram caught in the thicket, the glint of the knife. He sees his mother’s empty tent, his father sobbing, the wet, bleak Cave of Machpelah, the Hittites watching as they bury her body. Isaac peers into the Well of Living and Seeing, and for the first time, he sees the life that he had been hiding from—all the mess, all the uncertainty, all the pain of being alive.

Before Hagar even realizes what has happened, Isaac plants a kiss goodbye on her wrinkled cheek. He’s headed home.

As Isaac approaches the field outside his home, and dusk is rolling in, a caravan of camels appears on the horizon. Isaac instinctively begins to turn towards his tent, to protect himself from the approaching ulai. But then he stops. His whole life he’d been in hiding. But hiding hadn’t kept him safe. And so, Isaac tries something he’s never tried before: vayisa einav, vayar—Isaac lifts his eyes, and faces the unknown.

When we allow ourselves to see our own mess and uncertainty—when we peer into the Well of Living and Seeing—that’s when we become fully human. Because the goal isn’t to overcome the uncertainty, but rather, to have compassion for ourselves as we mess our way through. And with compassion for our own beautiful mess, we may find ourselves willing to take the greatest risk of all: “Va-t’hi lo l’ishah, vaye’ehave-ha. And Isaac took Rebekah as his wife. And he loved her.”


On August 26th, 1945—just two weeks after World War II ended in Japan—funny Harry Reiser, dressed in his army uniform, married sweet Sally Finkelstein. The world had saidulai—he had gone to war; she had waited in Brooklyn. But unlike Eliezer, they didn’t pray for God to miraculously intervene. And unlike Rebekah, they didn’t imagine that there was no risk at all.

Harry and Sally—like all of us—most closely resembled Isaac. Of course, they were afraid. Of course, they were uncertain. But they did they only thing that any of us can do: they lifted their eyes, and faced the risk of being alive.

If, by some triumph of the imagination, I could have been at their wedding, I would have liked to have lifted a glass and toasted: “L’chaim!” Not “To the good life!” or “To the sweet life!” Not “To the easy life!” or “To the certain life!” Just “To life,” with all its mess and uncertainty. To living. To seeing. We’d lift a glass. We’d lift our eyes. And together, we’d say: L’chaim!


Re- posted with permission of the author:

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
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