Friday, November 10, 2017

Parashat Hayei Sarah: Community

A Message for Parashat Hayei Sarah 2017
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...And the servant said to him [Avraham], “Perhaps the woman will not want to come after me to this land. Shall I indeed bring your son back to the land you left?” And Avraham said to him, “Watch yourself, lest you bring my son back there…” (Bereshit 24:5-6)

Avraham’s absolute demand that Yisshak remain in Canaan is perplexing. What did he fear? Raised with the values of Avraham and strengthened by God’s promise of the Land, it seems likely that Yisshak would succeed even in exile. Why, then, was Avraham so deeply concerned?

The final verse of this episode may illumine its preceding motive:
And Yisshak brought her [Rivkah] into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rivkah as wife. And he loved her, and Yisshak was consoled after his mother’s death. (67)
The Torah highlighted Rivkah’s entrance into Sarah’s tent as an act of continuity that concluded the search for Yisshak’s wife. But why did it need to end in Sarah’s physical tent? Couldn’t Yisshak and Rivkah continue the family’s moral and theological legacies while starting out in a different land?
* * * *
In the introduction to his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell described the fascinating story of the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania.[1] He wrote that in the late 19th Century, several thousand residents of the Italian town Roseto Valfortore set sail for America. The people founded and settled a small but self-sufficient town on a rocky hillside in Pennsylvania. They established a centralized church, and built schools, a park, small shops, bakeries and various other community venues.

In the mid-1950’s, Dr. Stewart Wolf stumbled upon an astonishing phenomenon in Roseto. Studying the results of an extensive study that he had conducted, Wolf found that virtually no resident of Roseto under the age of fifty-five had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. He discovered that the death rate of men over sixty-five was roughly half that of the United States, and the death rate from all causes in Roseto was 30 to 35 percent lower than expected. Pairing up with sociologist John Bruhn, Stewart then found that there was no suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and very little crime in Roseto. Bruhn summarized their findings: “These people were dying of old age. That’s it.” Informed of the facts, their next step was to determine the secret of this tiny town in eastern Pennsylvania.

Thinking that a unique dietary practice may have contributed to their health, Wolf investigated but found that it was anything but healthy. He then checked their exercise habits, soon realizing that they too were deficient. Many struggled with obesity and others smoked heavily. He studied the lives of the Rosetan relatives who lived in other areas of America for a potential genetic link, but found no evidence of remarkable health in them. Finally, he analyzed the lives of the residents of Roseta’s neighboring communities, but found nothing special in them either.

Wolf began to realize that the secret of Roseto wasn’t diet, nor exercise, genes or location. It was Roseto itself. Walking around the town, he and Bruhn figured out why. They watched the Rosetans stop to chat with one another in the street. They saw them cook food for each other. They realized that many homes had three generations living under one roof, and noticed how much respect the grandparents demanded. And in that modest town with a population below two-thousand, they counted more than twenty separate civic organizations. They discovered, to their astonishment, that the physical health of the Rosetans was rooted in the community.
* * * *
Someone recently argued to me that in today’s era we must expand our conception of community. She argued that technology’s advances in communication have forced the transition from many local communities to one large international community. Though I believe that her general logic is correct, I nonetheless know that the existence of a local community will forever maintain a vital function. As Wolf and Bruhn learned, our personal interaction with one another engenders within us capabilities that would otherwise be impossible. The physical proximity and close spaces that we share create unfathomable realities.

Insisting that Yisshak and Rivkah continue in Canaan, Avraham understood that the unique entity which he had tirelessly built could only endure within the structure of its physical community.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

* In memory of Naomi Houllou z”l, and in appreciation of her tireless efforts for our community.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York, NY, 2008), pg. 3-11.