Chayei Sarah is the fifth parsha in Bereshit (Genesis) and the third parsha in the Abraham cycle. The parsha takes its name from the second and third Hebrew words in the first sentence of the reading. “And the life of Sarah (Chayei Sarah) was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; (these were) the years of Sarah’s life. From Bereshit through Va-yayra we have been treated to a torrent of action including: Creation, Flood, a journey to a new land and a new deity, Earthquakes, a miracle birth and a mountain climbing expedition leading to a heightened level of spirituality. With Chayei Sarah, we enjoy a brief moment of tranquility where we can catch our breath before continuing on our journey through the Torah. The parsha divides into three parts. First, there is the death and burial of Sarah. Second comes the quest for Isaac’s wife and his marriage to Rebecca. Last, there are the final days of Abraham complete with his death and burial. Yet in this apparent sea of Torah tranquility there are many lessons to be learned. The Death and Burial of Sarah (23:1-20) What do we learn from the fact that the parsha begins with the death of Sarah but that it is called “The Life of Sarah?” Jews recognize that people have no control over the conditions of their birth. But, they do have control over how they lead their lives. We measure people by their accomplishments and we only know what they are when a person passes away. Jews do not celebrate the memory of the departed on the anniversary of their birth. Instead we observe their yahrzeit. How did Sarah die? The commentaries speculate that her death was somehow connected with the Akedah; that somehow, she had been misled to believe that Isaac had been killed and she died of shock or a broken heart. However, the text only says, “Sarah died….” Maybe this is a reminder of another Jewish view of life. All lives end in the same place. How they end is less important than how we spent the time getting to our final destination. In Abraham’s quest for a burial site for Sarah we see a precursor of many later Jewish customs related to death. Jews bury our dead in a respectful manner. We do not leave them by the side of the road. Traditional Jews do not even allow cremation. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, “You have to bury the whole body, not just part of the body in order to fulfill the entire commandment of burial.” Escorting the dead to the cemetery is considered to be an “ultimate” Mitzvah because the dead cannot repay us for what we have done. Jews are not buried with non-Jews.
Abraham’s quest for a burial site is another reminder that his life was a strange mixture of grand spiritual promises contrasted against the reality of daily existence. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. But he had to wait until he was an old man before he finally had a son. God promised him that his children would possess a great land, but in fact he was a landless nomad who had to pay an exorbitant price to secure a burial plot for his wife and himself. Centuries later, the Zionists would create the Jewish National Fund to buy land from the Arabs just as Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. The Quest for Isaac’s Wife and the Marriage to Rebecca (24:1-67) (The story line is pretty straight forward and, thanks to the fact that Eliezer repeats the details, we get to “hear” it twice. The following are a few highlights that you may find worth noting.) Sarah is dead. Abraham knows he is getting close to death. He wants to ensure that Isaac will have a proper helpmate to carry on the tradition begun by his parents. He does not want his son to marry a Canaanite. The text does not say why. Possibly he is afraid that by marrying a local girl, Isaac will be assimilated into the Canaanite culture and lose his identity. Abraham also does not want Isaac to leave Canaan to go looking for a wife. The fact that he is adamant that Isaac not leave the Promised Land may have something to do with a practical fear that if Isaac leaves, he will not return. And the promise of the Promised Land is a key part of the Covenant. When we meet Rebecca at the well, we see an almost idealized creature. She “was very beautiful.…” She is strong enough to draw water for all of the camels. In tending to Eliezer’s needs, including bringing him to her home, we see her as kind and hospitable. And in deciding to leave immediately with Eliezer we see her as moral and decisive. We also meet Laban for the first time. Here he has the manner of a trickster and a petty thief. By the time we see him again with Jacob we will see a much more sinister character. And in the Haggadah, Laban is described as being worse than Pharaoh. The marriage between Rebecca and Isaac was arranged. Such was the norm in those times. Note how this section ends “…and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” Compare this with the modern concept of love, which sometimes is little more than passion, that is the prerequisite for marriage. For some Jews, marriage is seen as the joining of two people with common values whose relationship will deepen as they develop a joint pathway on the road of life. The Final Days of Abraham (25:1-18) Sarah is dead. Abraham is alone. So, “Abraham took another wife.…” In Judaism, a man without a wife is seen as being incomplete, even Abraham. Who was this woman? The Torah calls her Keturah. Some commentators say that this was Hagar by another name. At a very human level, this does not make any sense. Abraham loved Sarah. Hagar had so insulted and mistreated Sarah that Sarah had demanded she be banished. It is hard to see Abraham elevating the status of a woman whom his beloved Sarah had had such a negative view. Regardless of who the partner was (and there those who claim she was merely a concubine) apparently this marriage was pleasurable because it produced several children and because Abraham died “at a good ripe age, old and contented.…” Isaac is Abraham’s chosen successor. Abraham provides his new offspring with material gifts, but he sends them away from Isaac and the Promised Land. In a touching moment of family devotion, Isaac and Ishmael (note Isaac is mentioned first) come together and bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah. There is no animosity or anger between the two sons. This will not be the last graveside reconciliation that we will read. The parsha actually ends with a recitation of the descendants of Ishmael and the announcement of Ishmael’s death. It is as if an era has come to an end. Sarah is dead. Abraham is dead. Ishmael is dead. The way is now clear for Isaac to assume his responsibilities as the leader of the next generation.
Dr. Jonathan Sacks writes, Immediately after the story of land purchase, we read, “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything. Again this sounds like the end of a life, not a preface to a new course of action, and again our expectation is confounded. Abraham launches into a new initiative, this time to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac, who by now is at least 37 years old. Abraham leaves nothing to chance. He does not speak to Isaac himself but to his most trusted servant, whom he instructs to go “to my native land, to my birthplace,” and find the appropriate woman. He wants Isaac to have a wife who will share his faith and way of life. Abraham does not specify that she should come from his own family, but this seems to be an assumption hovering in the background.
As with the purchase of the field, so here, the course of events is described in more detail than almost anywhere else in the Torah. Every conversational exchange is recorded. The contrast with the story of the binding of Isaac could not be greater. There, almost everything – Abraham’s thoughts, Isaac’s feelings – is left unsaid. Here, everything is said. Again, the literary style calls our attention to the significance of what is happening, without telling us precisely what it is.
The explanation is simple and unexpected. Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God had promised them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you”) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation,” as many as “the dust of the earth,” and “the stars in the sky”; he will be the father not of one nation but of many.
Despite this, when Sarah dies, Abraham has not a single inch of the land that he can call his own, and has only one child who will continue the covenant, Isaac, currently unmarried. Neither promise has been fulfilled. Hence the extraordinary detail of the two main stories in Chayei Sarah: the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. There is a moral here, and the Torah slows down the speed of the narrative, so that we will not miss the point.
God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, “Jewish grandchildren.”
Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, He gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the flood, but Noah had to make the ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfils our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God.”
THEMES Death The Parsha is permeated with death. It begins with death and ends with death. As depicted here, for the Jew, death is a part of the life cycle. It is neither feared not embraced. Rather, it is accepted. Sarah The question is “Who was Sarah?” It is of major importance since she was the first Matriarch and is a role model for Jewish women. Sarah is unique in many ways. Apparently, God saw her as being special. She is the only woman in the Torah whose name is changed by God. She is the one who will provide the child who will follow in Abraham’s footsteps (17:19). She is the only woman to whom God speaks directly (18:15). Finally, in the case of Hagar and Ishmael, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. Sarah is Abraham’s partner. Together they traveled to a new land, creating a new environment in the image of the God to whom they were both now bound. In the life of Sarah, we can see that “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen” is not the Jewish ideal for women. Long Life Moshe will live to be 120 years old and that is supposed to be the ideal number of years for the righteous. Yet Sarah dies at 127. Ishmael dies at 137. And Abraham lives to be 175 years. When completing the Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, one always says a verse that is first found in this parsha, “Now Abraham was old, well on in years and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.” (24:1). There are several commentaries on the formula used to describe the length of Sarah’s life. Instead of saying she was 127 years old, the Torah breaks it down into three parts, 100 years, 20 years and seven years. Most of these commentaries have to do with the tri-partite nature of perfection. In his discussion on the subject, Rabbi Schneerson includes the following thoughts: “…when a man finds himself in an environment detrimental to his standards, there are three ways in which he can preserve his integrity: 1. He can strengthen himself inwardly not to be influenced by his surroundings. This is an incomplete victory because; if he were to relax his self-control he would capitulate and lower his status. 2. He can separate himself from those around him. This victory is also incomplete because he has not met temptation head-on and is as prone as ever to lower his status. 3. He can set out to influence his environment and raise it to his own level. This is a complete triumph over one’s surroundings - the dangers have not only been avoided, they have been removed entirely.” Meaningful Life From Abraham we learn that is not just important to lead a long life. A long life is only a blessing when it is filled with meaning. As Rabbi Schneerson wrote, “Time in this life is granted to us not merely to achieve a certain amount of good works, but also so that time itself be sanctified by our actions. A day filled with Mitzvoth is a day which has been made to fulfill its purpose.” Burial Site Yes, the Hebron mentioned in this parsha is the same Hebron you read about in the newspapers today. Our claim to it is even more ancient than the claim to Jerusalem. In purchasing the Cave of Machpelah, Abraham bought not just the cave, but the land around it. So when the Israelis agreed to partition in 1947 and the Oslo Accords they were willing to give up a very real piece of real estate and our tradition for a real peace. The Nature of Prayer In The Bedside Torah, Rabbi Stanley Artson points out that this week’s reading contains a valuable insight into the nature of prayer. When most of us think of prayer, we think of the stylized world of ritual and the Siddur. We forget that prayer is, in one sense, a sincere and often spontaneous conversation between the individual and God. When Eliezer arrives at the well and starts looking for a wife, he really is not sure if he will be successful. So he prays. Not some set blessing, but a spontaneous, heartfelt plea for Divine guidance. Even when we are following the set rituals of prayer, it is not supposed to be some rote mumbling. Like Eliezer’s prayer at the well, our prayers, either spontaneous or from the rich well of tradition, should be heartfelt and sincere. Minchah “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the approach of evening; and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold, (there were) camels coming. And Rebecca raised her eyes, and saw Isaac…” (24: 63 & 64). In other words, Isaac and Rebecca saw each other for the first time in the late afternoon after the Patriarch had just finished praying. Each of the Patriarchs is connected with one of the three daily services. Because of this verse, Isaac is tied to Minchah, the afternoon service which is traditionally performed in a time frame that starts 2.5 hours before nightfall and sunset. The Children of Abraham There is an interfaith group styled The Children of Abraham that seeks to find the common ground between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While a case might be made that the common ancestor is Adam and thus the effort should be styled The Children of Adam, it is a bit of stretch to say that Christians and Moslems are Children of Abraham since each of them claim to have come to supplant Abraham’s heir, Isaac. However, this parsha does provide us with a chance to examine the common expressions of faith found in the TaNaCh and the Koran. In the spirit of open dialogue that is the true measure of Torah Study, consider the following commentary by David Curzon, an Australian Jew living in Manhattan. The Ones Cut Off Today when I read in the portion of Chayei Sarah of Abraham's purchase of the cave at Machpelah, the massacre at that site in February 1994 intrudes on my thoughts. Its intrusion forces me to see the theme of reconciliation that exists in the Jewish tradition concerning Chayei Sarah. In the text itself we have Abraham bowing to the Hittites and describing himself as a stranger among them who wants to purchase a permanent claim to a small part of their land. Abraham is portrayed as willing to ignore the advantage taken of him by the seller in order to have the privilege of owning some of this land. Later in the Torah portion, at Genesis 25:1, we are told that at the end of his life "Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah." In the Midrash of Breshit Rabbah we find the flat assertion, attributed to Rabbi Yehudah, that Keturah was none other than Hagar. This Midrash implies that Abraham kept in touch with Hagar and Ishmael after he expelled them from his home, which was also their home. As the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz commented, in remarks on Israel's Army Radio: "We can see from the Midrash and Aggadah to what extent this incident bothered pious Torah scholars." In the midrash's version of events, Abraham must have made secret trips to see Hagar and Ishmael during the intervening years before he married Hagar, like the secret meetings held over many years between Israeli prime ministers and King Hussein. At the portion's end, after Abraham's death, there is the surprising reappearance of Ishmael, apparently mourning his father Abraham in harmony with his estranged brother Isaac: "And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah" (Bereshit 25:9).
Cave of Machpelah and Hebron
The Cave of Machpelah described for the first time in this portion becomes the burial place of the patriarchs and the matriarchs with the exception of Rachel. By describing it as being located at Hebron, this ancient city takes on a special significance for the Jewish people which has lasted into modern time. But this connection might be read as an etiological tale designed to give a special importance to Hebron by King David and his heirs. As we are reminded in Kings 2:11, David’s 40-year reign began with a seven-year stint in Hebron before moving on to Jerusalem. By tying his first capital to the patriarchs, later generations were giving it a special importance. Furthermore, Leah, the mother of Judah, the tribe of David, is buried in Machpelah at Hebron. And Rachel, the mother of the “Joseph tribes” who rebelled against the House of David is not buried at Hebron.
The Cave of Machpelah and Hebron II
Jews have lived at Hebron since Biblical times. There have been periodic expulsions, the first one probably coming at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. But the Jews have always returned. The most recent expulsions were as a result of violent Arab riots in the 1920’s and 1930’s and the failed Arab attempt to destroy Israel at the moment of its birth in 1948. As is the case with so many other sites sacred to Jews, other religions have laid claim to Hebron and then sought to deny it to the Jewish people. Deploring the murderous behavior of Baruch Goldstein does not mean that Jews have to give up their connection to the ancient burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs. After all, the Bible clearly states that Abraham paid an exorbitant price for the cave and the land that surrounds it so that nobody could contest the right to ownership.
Aging and the End of the Life Cycle The lives of the Patriarchs offer us three views of the approaching end of the life cycle. In Isaac’s case, he spent his last days in a state of physically infirmity. “His eyes were too dim to see” and his mobility must have been limited since he had to have Esau catch, prepare and serve “the dish he likes so much.” But even worse we can assume he spent his last twenty or more years in a house overhung with sorrow and remorse. Esau was angry with him for having given the blessing to Jacob and Rebecca must have been consumed with an overwhelming sadness at not being able to see her beloved Jacob.
In Jacob’s case there is no need to assume. The Torah is very specific about how the Patriarch felt in his final years. When Pharaoh asked “How many are the years of your life?” “Jacob replied, ‘The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life.” But he does not stop there. The blessings for Ruben, Simeon and Levy read almost like curses. There is no mistaking the undercurrent of anger he feels for each of them. Even at the moment of death he cannot let it go.
And then there is Abraham. The death of Sarah does not put an end to his active life. First he conducts the very detailed and successful negotiations for the purchase of the burial ground. This is certainly not the behavior of somebody suffering from diminished capacity. Then he arranges the search for his son’s wife. He actively works to ensure that the next generation will be able to fulfill the commitments of the Covenant. Last but not least his “second family” shows that he is not diminished physically or financially since he has able to “give gifts” his sons and their children “while he was living” and before “he sent them away from his son Isaac.” In Abraham we see the ideal - a person who remains active, engaged in life, until the end of days.