Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

by

Howard Adelman

See Rachel Adelman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDz_isnR0RI) “Reading Rebekah Unveiled: A Study of the Female Ruse in Genesis” presented at the Harvard Divinity School last spring.

There is nothing original in my interpretation, in contrast to that of my daughter. I simply fuse her innovative reading with those of others and my own. I steal freely from my daughter, but I take full responsibility for what I have written. Though there are differences over the particulars, the general meaning is more or less clear and my take is not idiosyncratic. The parsha is called, “The Life of Sarah,” but it is really about her afterlife and the heritage she left behind, both through her only son Isaac and herself as resurrected in Rebekah. For the parsha is about both Abraham’s negotiations for a burial space for Sarah after Sarah died as well as about obtaining a wife for Isaac and its consequence. It is about the meaning of Sarah’s life as it is revealed in the unveiling of spirit as it is realized in history after her death.

Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Sarah is buried there in the Cave of Machpelah with the permission of the local people who offer not only the cave, but the field around it to Abraham who is by then a wealthy and notable person. However, Abraham refuses to accept the grave site as a gift and insists on paying for it. To repeat what I have written before, this is an axial moment of the shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Some of the local people of Canaan, specifically the Hittites, may have converted to the belief in a single God. Yet what is now called the West Bank is not seen as a place from which a proper wife can be found for Isaac. Isaac is not allowed to have a bride from the local people. The locals, even when they have adopted the beliefs of the Hebrews, are not into a contractual system. They look askance at getting 400 shekels from Abraham for the burial site. Ephron initially treats the offer as an insult. But Abraham insists on paying the money. He wants a contract, a quid pro quo. With contracts there is guilt, either before the law or in moral terms, for failing to fulfil the terms of the contract.

Yet, Abraham wants a wife for Isaac who does not have initially to be observant, but one who is akin to his own beautiful wife, Sarah, someone from his own homeland. Isaac really loved his mother. Three years after she died, he is still mourning her death. He needs a wife, but he needs a wife to replace and fill his soul as his mother had. His mother had been dedicated to him, her long promised son, born of her old age. But she could not prevent her husband from taking him off to sacrifice him. And she dies when her husband and son return. From the shock of his return? Is that why she dies? Or is she the real sacrifice so that her son may finally leave his studies and his prayers and go in search of a wife to replace the love she had for him. It is ironic that a child named after laughter turns out to be studious, pious and introverted.

Sarah’s death produces in her other-worldly nerdy son a desire for a wife, a desire for a woman that can fill his mother’s shoes. Isaac is a momma’s boy. Sarah sacrifices herself for the future of her son. And Abraham sends his most trusted servant to organize an arranged marriage between Isaac and someone from the homeland, the place of his and Sarah’s birth. Unlike the tradition of arranged marriages, this is a love story, a story of two who contract the marriage themselves in spite of whatever external arrangements have been made.

Eliezer, Abraham’s most trusted servant, travels to Mesopotamia to seek a wife for Isaac. Before Eliezer can arrange a shidduch, organize an arranged marriage, he sees Rebekah at the well at dusk when the women draw their water. Rebekah happens to be the niece of Abraham. the daughter of Bethuel, son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Rebekah offers Eliezer not only water from her jar, but also water for all his camels. That is about 250 gallons; she has to draw all that water. Camels can really drink water! Eliezer is overwhelmed. Rebekah has passed the test of loving kindness.

Rebekah is unique in the Torah. She is the only one of the matriarchs who is given a family tree and is chosen as the real mother of the Jewish people. She is the essence of the Jewish people – giving to another out of sheer goodwill. Only then does Eliezer learn that she is related to Abraham. Rebekah’s older brother was Lavan. Eliezer tells Lavan of the dowry that awaits Rebekah if he agrees to give Rebekah as Isaac’s wife. But Lavan knows his sister’s character, her independence of mind, forthrightness and wilfulness, even though she is also kind-hearted. He knows he cannot force her to leave her homeland. And he asks Eliezer, what if she chooses not to come? Eliezer replies that it will depend on God’s will, with the implication that God’s spirit will speak through her actions. It does. She is asked whether she will go to a new land, to Isaac. She, without hesitation, says, “I will go.”

She and Isaac fall in love, but not because the two are related. That is only revealed later. But because they are related, the love may have come easier. Isaac falls in love with Rebekah. Rebekah in turn loves Isaac. The love seems instant. But is it? How does it come about?

Look at the way they first see each other. Isaac continues and is heir to the blindness of Adam and in his old age he will actually be physically blind when he has to give the blessing to one of his own sons. For when Isaac first sees Rebekah, he does not actually see her. He sees camels approaching in the distance and the picture is a haze produced by the sand of the camels’ feet. He sees patience and tolerance. He sees long-suffering and endurance. He sees the Ships of the Desert. In that haze is the hidden Rebekah, someone who is calm and collected, direct and responsive on the surface, but underneath is resolute and will never forget. She will protect and eventually realize what is deepest in her heart, not with malice aforethought, but through cunning and subversion. Finally, she will carry that burden of trickery on her shoulders so that her son Jacob will not be burdened with the guilt of tricking his father. She will be the true purveyor of what it means to belong to a guilt culture.

Isaac, on the other hand, is walking with his camels. Rebekah can clearly see him. She is struck in awe. She knows. But knows as Eve knew in a deeper way than requiring any direct test or examination. Though she has the ability of this inner sight, it is she who is attuned to the smell of the camels, the taste of the sand, and the rest of the unforgettable sensuous experience of that first moment.

Rebekah covers her face, but in embarrassment, not in shame. She is awestruck. And the gesture will adumbrate her whole marriage with Isaac. For although she never surrenders her esteem for him, for his holy ways, for his learning, she herself will reveal that she has a more direct access to God. She need not receive instructions or revelations from Isaac. She can get them directly from God. But she must also veil this non-rational, non-deliberative direct intuitive contact with the spiritual world. That part of herself must remain hidden from Isaac. She does not don a naqib because her parents tell her, but to hide her awe, to hide her embarrassment at her flushed cheeks and feelings, and most of all, to hide that SHE KNOWS. For a woman of audacity even as a young teenager, of decisiveness and one who clearly knows her own mind, she also has to hide her superior access to God’s word in spite of her enormous respect for her husband.

One cannot avoid that the story is about love. But what kind of love? For Rebekah it is love at first sight. This is the only real love story in the whole of Torah. Yet the section is called “The Life of Sarah”. Last week I jumped ahead to understand Sarah’s death to comprehend her character and the role she plays. But this tale ends up being about the lifelong love story between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac loves Rebekah all his life. The parsha is not ostensibly about Sarah. Yet it is called the story of the life of Sarah when it is about what happens after Sarah dies. But it is a story of how love begins and grows between Rebekah and Isaac. He not only never takes another wife, he never sleeps with another woman. What has this love story to do with Sarah’s death?

Because Rebekah is very forthright, though also very modest, she literally falls for Isaac at first sight. She falls off her camel and then puts on her veil to hide her flushed cheeks. She is embarrassed at what she feels. She is also afraid – not of Isaac, but at what she is feeling. Instead of Abraham’s fear and trembling when he takes Isaac to fill the command of the sacrifice, we have awe and embarrassment.

Isaac, is also overwhelmed by her kindness, by her loving kindness, her hesed. Though she is described as beautiful, he cannot see that physical beauty since she wears a veil, but he does see the beauty of her character. The match is beshert. It was meant to be. So though there is an element of preparation, of calculation and judgement by Abraham’s servant, a response to what is observed, what basically happens is that each is struck with Cupid’s arrow. They barely talk to one another. He knows but requires evidence to come to that knowledge, the very evidence Abraham’s servant brings back to Canaan. It is akin to the same type of empirical evidence that will later fool him when he gives his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. Though they love one another, Rebekah is also the trickster without whom Isaac could not have fulfilled his mission. Requiring evidence is Isaac’s weakness.

Rebekah, in contrast, knows directly. She does not need evidence. But why for Isaac is she the right one? She is a woman from Abraham’s homeland in Mesopotamia and not yet a follower of Abraham’s faith in the belief in the one God. Isaac is religious and sees her after he finished his afternoon prayers. He does not fall in love because she observes the same faith in the one God, but because she comes from the same homeland as Sarah. And because she is a very kind woman. She is sensitive. She can pick up social cues that go beneath appearances. But like Abraham, resolutely and immediately, she decides to leave her homeland as a young teenager to return with Isaac. She is very decisive. She is very straight. She knows what she wants. There is no hesitation. The spirit of Abraham is now to be transmitted through Rebekah even though Isaac is the pious one.

Isaac and Rebekah remain faithful to one another their whole lives. It is indeed a love story. But this is not because they were totally compatible. They are not. They come from opposite poles of human existence. They are two very different characters. Isaac is other-worldly. Rebekah is very grounded. Further, Rebekah has to trick Isaac – this other-worldly nerd – into giving his blessing to Jacob and not to Esau. Isaac is a social conformist who believes in continuing the tradition of bestowing the blessing on the older one. But Rebekah, like Abraham, is the rebel. Primogeniture be damned. She knows what social science and psychology will discover in the twentieth century, that first-borns tend to be rash and adventurous – they become the fighter pilots. Second-borns have a propensity to be more reflective, more contemplative, more cautious.

Rebekah chooses Isaac to get the blessing, not because she does not love Esau, her other twin and older son. But she is the one with common sense who recognizes the child who can best carry the future of a people on his shoulders. Rebekah is not only the epitome of loving kindness, but she is shrewd and calculating, careful to take into account the best interests of her family and both her children. She knows what Isaac can never know even with all his time spent in study.

Rebekah, however, is not the woman who divides her family, but the one who yokes the two different peoples that will arise from her children. As her name suggests, she is the link that ties differences together, between her and her husband and between her two very different sons. She recognizes the real differences between the twins. She is the true visionary. But she will pay for her sin of foresight by assuming the guilt for the trick played on Isaac. She remains to the very end a woman of virtue, a woman wiling to give of herself for the future.

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