Parshat Chayei Sarah
2001Ironically, while this week's parsha is called Chayei Sarah ("the life of Sarah"), it opens with details of Sarah's death. The parsha's first two lines provide specifics about her age and place of death. What follows is a lengthy account of Abraham's negotiations for a cave in which to bury Sarah. Thus, Genesis 23, the parsha's entire first chapter, seems to place exclusive emphasis on the procedure following Sarah's death; the life for which the parsha is named seems oddly absent.
One way to approach this apparent discrepancy is to examine the scene that evolves in chapter 24. Consider the following verses where Abraham and his servant discuss Isaac's future wife, whom the servant must bring back to Canaan from Abraham's native land:
5. And the servant said to him, "What if the woman does not consent to follow me to this land, shall I then take your son back to the land from which you came?"
6. Abraham answered him, "On no account must you take my son back there!
7. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from my native land, who promised me on oath, saying, 'I will assign this land to your offspring'-He will send His angel before you, and you will get a wife for my son from there.
8. And if the woman does not consent to follow you, you shall then be clear of this oath to me; but do not take my son back there."
After swearing that he will follow Abraham's instructions, the servant journeys to Aramnaharaim. There, he prepares to meet Isaac's mate:
11. He made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water.
12. And he said, "O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham:
13. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water;
14. let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels'-let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master."
Your Torah Navigator
1. What appears to be Abraham's primary concern in addressing his servant? Why do you think this concern is so important to Abraham?
2. How does the servant craft a scene in which to meet Isaac's future wife?
3. What is at stake in the scene by the well? Does the servant's test for Isaac's future wife remind you of other tests we have encountered so far - why or why not?
4. The well was both a valuable resource in the desert and a common meeting place in this period. Are these the only functions played by the well in this parsha (or other places in the Torah)? Can you think of a deeper level of meaning for the well and the water it contains?
The scene between Abraham and his servant is electrically charged. Twice, Abraham adamantly forbids the servant to even consider taking Isaac "back there" to Abraham's homeland of Ur. God's promise to Abraham entails assigning "this land" -- Canaan - to Abraham's offspring. Clearly, Isaac's life, and the lives of Abraham and Sarah's offspring, must begin in "this land." The servant is fully aware that the very future of his master's progeny depends on whether he can convince a worthy woman to "consent to follow" him to a strange land and a partner she has never met. In a parsha named after the life of Sarah, the life of Isaac becomes the primary concern.
The prevalent water imagery in Genesis 24 makes it even more clear that life truly is the central focus of this parsha. Water is a long-standing symbol of fertility. We associate water with our origins in the ocean; we also begin our lives in a watery state in utero. From water we grow, and water continues to sustain life for all beings. Water's literal potency is amplified by the frequent Biblical connection between water and women, who are also fundamental fertility symbols. Consider Hagar, whom God's angel found "by a spring of water in the wilderness" (Gen. 16:7); Rachel, whom Jacob embraces by a well (Gen. 29:11); the daughters of Reuel, including Zipporah, whom Moses encounters by a well after fleeing from Pharoah (Ex. 2:15-21). There is also the traditional association of Miriam with several sources of water, including the Nile River and the Red Sea.
Rebecca's appearance at the spring represents the fertility and life-force connoted by the very water with which she fills her jar. She soon shows herself to be a woman worthy of sharing a life with Isaac: not only does she offer to quench the thirst of the servant, but she also fulfills the second part of the test by providing water for the camels. Rebecca tends to the needs of the individual man as well as his (animal) companions, a sure sign of her ability to nurture both her husband and a fledgling nation. Her status as daughter of Abraham's kinsman solidifies the servant's belief that Rebecca is the right answer to the crucial errand on which he has been sent.
So it may seem that the parsha named for Sarah's life is a misnomer, but indeed, it is not. Sarah's lifeline continues most evidently in her son Isaac, the inheritor of Abraham's promises. The rightful progression of Isaac's life is the way to honor and fulfill Sarah's life. The servant, much more than a mere messenger in this situation, knows full well that his success in finding Isaac's future wife will ensure that Isaac's life will be in accordance with God's plan. In the wake of Sarah's death, Isaac finds comfort in his wife Rebecca. As they enter Sarah's tent together, the forces of death and life intersect into an expression of love between the next generation of Israelite leaders.
Prepared by Hannah Graham, Iyyun Fellow, Hillel's International Center.