Parshat Chayei Sarah
2002After the drama of the akeda (binding) of Isaac in last week's parasha, the Torah continues with the ironically titled Chaye Sarah (life of Sarah), which begins with Sarah's death and burial. Abraham, after making arrangements for a burial plot and grieving for Sarah, immediately sets out to find Isaac a wife, working to fulfill God's promise to continue the brit (covenant) through Isaac. Abraham sends his servant to his birthplace to find a wife for Isaac. Before going forth, Abraham asks the servant to swear to the following oath:
Who Depends on Whom?
Genesis 24: 2-9
And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, "Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac," 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?" Abraham answered him, "On no account must you take my son back there! 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' - God will send an angel before you and you will get a wife for my son from there. 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." So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore to him as bidden.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why was it so important to Abraham that Isaac's wife come from his birthplace? Why wouldn't he have wanted Isaac to marry someone from Canaan?
2. Twice Abraham makes the servant promise not to take Isaac out of Canaan. What might he have feared if Isaac left the land?
3. The concept of oaths plays a central role in this story. How many oaths are made reference to, what are they, and who is making them?
One of the central concepts in Jewish thought is that human beings are in partnership with God. Not only do we need and depend upon God, but God also needs and depends upon us to fulfill God's plan. God promised Abraham that eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) would be for his descendents for eternity. But it is Abraham who works to fulfill the promise by not letting Isaac leave the land, for fear he might not return. This partnership is even more explicit in some of the commentaries on the verse.
Rashi, the classic 11th century commentator on the Torah, notes that Abraham refers to God in two different ways in verses 3 and 7. In verse 3, which was happening in the present tense once Abraham was already in Canaan, Abraham refers to "the God of heaven and the God of the earth." However, in verse 7, which refers to the past, before Abraham went forth from his birthplace and before God had established the covenant with him, Abraham refers only to "the God of Heaven." Rashi explains that this is to teach "now that people refer to God regularly, God is the God of heaven and earth, but before God took Abraham forth from the land of his forefathers, God was only the God of heaven and not earth, because people did not regularly recognize God's presence on earth."
A midrash (rabbinic folklore) takes this concept even a step farther:
Until Abraham, our father, came to the world, it was as if the Holy One of Blessing was only ruler over the heavens, as it is said "Lord, God of the heavens who took me..." (Genesis 24:7), but since the time that Abraham, our father, came to the world, God has ruled over the heavens and the earth, as it is said "I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth" (Genesis 24:3)
Your Midrash Navigator:
1. What does the statement "it was as if the Holy One of Blessing was only ruler over the heavens" mean? What are the implications of this statement?
2. Taken together with Rashi's comment, what is the key to Abraham helping establish God's presence on earth?
3. What do these commentaries teach us about our own relationship with God?
Judaism allows for a wide-range of God concepts within our monotheistic belief, but all of them understand that God depends on humanity as an essential partner in God's plan for creation. It is not God's existence that is in question - the commentaries all note that God ruled over the heavens long before Abraham - but, rather, God's presence on earth, which depends on us living our lives according to the values of the Torah and our tradition. In our world, which is too often marked by terrible hatred and violence, each of us can do our part in repairing the world by being like Abraham and serving as living examples of God's presence on earth.
Prepared by Rabbi Marc Israel, Director, KESHER and UAHC College Education Department.