Parshat Chayei Sara
Parshat Chayei Sara
In the early 80's the neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio came across a unique patient he referred to as "Elliot." Elliot was an ordinary person who owned a thriving business, until he underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor in his right frontal lobe. After the surgery he recovered most of his physical and mental capacities, with one curious exception: he was completely unable to make decisions. He was paralyzed by even the most mundane choices such as where or when to eat lunch, which pen he should use, or where to put down his keys. His life deteriorated and his family fell apart. Damasio explained that Elliot's inability to make decisions was the result of his inability to feel emotion. He had the same IQ he had before the surgery but he could no longer feel emotion.
Damasio's groundbreaking discovery was only possible because he understood that a lack of emotion does not lead to more rational decision making; rather, the opposite is true- an unfeeling mind is incapable of making any decisions at all. The idea that if we were able to remove our emotions from the equation we would be able to make fully rational decisions is completely unfounded. Only people who are in touch with their feelings can make decisions.
The significant impact our emotional wellbeing has on our decision making can help us understand why it is so vital that children receive a proper education and grow up in a warm and empathetic home. These are the building blocks that are necessary for a person to establish themselves in their adult life, enabling them to make smart choices and deal with challenges.
Perhaps this is the reason that people often advise others who are dating to pay attention to how their potential mate acts in stressful situations. These are the moments that challenge us and reveal who we really are and what we are made of. A similar idea can be found in our traditional sources as well. In Tractate Kiddushin a question is posed: is a woman considered to be married (mekudeshet) if she is given a wedding ring and reacts by throwing it into the fire? One opinion says she is not married in such a case, since throwing the ring into the fire indicates that she has rejected the proposal. The other opinion says the opposite that her reaction reveals that she has accepted the proposal and she threw the ring into the fire to see how her groom would react. (T.B. Kiddushin 8b) In this intense moment his true colors are revealed.
Our parsha, Chayei Sarah, begins after Sarah's death. Yet we are not told how Yitzchak deals with his mother's passing. We are not told if he cried or mourned or eulogized her. The only glimpse into the whirlwind of Yitzchak's emotions that the Torah allows us happens after Yitzchak marries Rivkah. In something almost like a flashback the Torah uses a few simple words to convey the enormity of the emotional burden Yitzchak has been carrying since the loss of his mother:
"And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother
And he took Rivkah and she became a wife for him
And he loved her
And Yitzchak was comforted after his mother."
This brief, informative verse tells us a number of things about Yitzchak. Yitzchak has clearly been in a great deal of pain since his mother died, his sense of loss is tremendous. We can only imagine that every time he ventured into his mother's empty tent he would remember how she cared for him, the warmth of her touch, the smell of her cooking, and the joy that she would bring to the home. In addition it seems that Yitzchak knew that the success of his marriage would be judged by the way his new wife functioned in this house and whether or not she would be able to step into the role of the matriarch of the family and continue the model that he was familiar with. Finally, it is clear that Yitzchak is both highly sensitive and also able to make the significant decision to marry Rivkah and bring her into his home, into his mother's tent.
From here we can conclude that the different sections of the verse are connected. There is a connection between the ability to make big life decisions, the ability to plunge to the depth of our emotions, the ability to love and feel attachment, and the ability to be comforted. To understand that while our mother may no longer be alive, in some ways she still exists. She exists in the ability to feel. She lives on in with every breath we take and is revived through our determination to continue living life.
Note: All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please visit www.lss.org/beitmorasha. You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns.