The opening words of the parashah (Chaiyei Sarah – “Sarah’s life”) suggest that we’ll be reading about Sarah, but we only hear about her death age (at the age of 127 years) and the arrangements for her funeral. This story is directly preceded by the tale about the sacrifice of Isaac. Consequently, the midrash concludes that Sarah died of shock when she heard about what Abraham was prepared to do. Abraham mourned her and then arranged to purchase a cave, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, as her sepulchre. The text describes in detail his negotiations and purchase from Ephron the Hittite. Incidentally, this represents the first time that a Hebrew owns land in Eretz Yisra’el.
In Chayei Sarah, we are introduced to Rebekah – perhaps the most powerful woman in Torah (or the Bible as a whole, for that matter). Abraham charges his servant to go back to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac from among his extended family. On no account is Isaac to go back there, nor is he to marry one of the local Canaanite women. The servant takes ten camels and heads off. He speaks to God and asks for a sign to know what woman he is to choose for his master’s son. He indicates that any woman who offers him water to drink and offers to water his camels should be the right woman.
Rebecca shows up. We are told that she is Abraham’s brother’s granddaughter. The servant asks for water and, sure enough, Rebecca offers to water the camels as well. The servant gives her two gold arm bands and a gold nose ring. He finds out that she is related to Abraham and praises God. She offers him lodging. He accepts. She runs off to tell her father and brother about the servant. Her brother Laban comes out to offer the man lodging. The servant tells his whole story. He asks if they will let Rebekah marry Isaac. They agree but try to delay the matter. The servant gives them gifts and requests an immediate response. They, in turn, ask Rebecca. She agrees to go. They bless her with the words, “O Sister , may you grow into thousands of myriads; may your offspring seize the gates of your foes.”
Rebecca, her maids, and the servant head back to Canaan. As the caravan approaches, Isaac is out walking – or meditating – in the fields. They see one another, and the Torah tells us that as she alights, Isaac takes Rebecca into his mother’s tent, loves her, and “finds comfort after his mother’s death.” (Rashi comments: “It is the way of the world that as long as a man’s mother is alive, he is bound up with her. And when she dies, he is comforted by his wife.”
In Chapter 25, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah who bears him six children. Before dying he wills all his possessions to Isaac, and gives gifts to his other children. When Abraham dies at 175 years of age, “old and contented.” Ishmael and Isaac bury him in the cave of Machpelah. God blesses Isaac. Isaac settles near Beer-lahai-roi. The portion ends with the genealogy of Ishmael. Ishmael dies at the age of 137.
“Apologetic” literature is the name given to writing aimed at portraying Jews (or any other group, for that matter) in the best possible light. Just after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, a Jewish writer named Josephus tried to prove that Abraham’s granddaughter (through Keturah) was to marry Hercules. Josephus wanted his Roman readers of the 1st century to regard Abraham as the ancestor of Greek superheroes and gods! Today the message of this apologetic is still relevant. We also tend to link our Jewish “superheroes” past and present with the best elements of society. The success of a Jew in the public square elevates our communal sense of self-worth. When a Jewish pitcher throws a no-hitter, don’t we, as Jews, feel wonderful? Conversely, when a prominent Jew goes to jail, do we not feel collective shame? Is it appropriate for us to live our lives vicariously as Jews?
The Midrash, which identifies Abraham’s servant as Eliezer, adds to our understanding of Rebecca’s character with the following: As Eliezer waited by the well he saw a beautiful maiden approaching with a jug on her shoulder. She stopped next to a crying child, whose foot had been cut on a sharp stone. She washed the cut and bandaged it with her own veil. She comforted the child by saying the cut would soon heal. Then a woman who was nearly blind came to the well to draw water. Rebecca helped her carry the full pitcher home. When Rebecca returned, Eliezer asked her if she would give him a little water. She assented and then drew water for his camels. The other girls mocked her because she had served a stranger, but she ignored their taunts. Eliezer felt that she would make a suitable wife for Isaac because she was kind as well as beautiful.
Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium b.c.e., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac. On the basis of radiocarbon dating, Israeli archaeologists have pinpointed the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century b.c.e. – centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David. These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.
The Torah tells us that in addition to being beautiful and extraordinarily kind, Rebecca is modest and pious. Upon being introduced to Isaac, “she took her veil and covered herself ” (24:65); and when afflicted with two children struggling within her womb, “she went to inquire of the Lord” (25:22). At the same time, Rebecca is a confident woman, willing to assert herself and use the power available to her. When asked whether she would accompany Eliezer to Canaan, she responds without hesitation: “I will go” (24:58). After God reveals to her which of her sons would rule the other (25:23), she does not hesitate to orchestrate affairs so that God’s will would be done. Rebecca is the insightful partner, the protector of the covenant; Isaac is blind to it all – until the very end.
Some Thoughts and Questions
Rashi, using the Midrash as his source, identifies Abraham’s wife Keturah as Hagar. Another commentary tells that after Sarah’s death, it was Isaac who brought Hagar to Abraham. How does the idea that Hagar and Abraham had an enduring love for each other affect your opinion of Sarah? … of Abraham … of Hagar? If you were Hagar, would you want to return to Abraham’s tent after everything that had happened to you?
The Samaritans read all of Genesis 25 as part of their marriage ceremony. Why? How much of the chapter do we utilize?
In Pirkei Avot we learn, “Do not look at a flask but at what it contains.” How does this saying apply to Eliezer’s character test to determine if Rebecca was a suitable wife for Isaac? According to the midrash recounted in the Commentary section, Eliezer was initially attracted to Rebecca because of her beauty. Why was it important to know about her character? What virtues do you look for to determine someone’s character upon meeting them for the first time? Who do you know who possesses Rebecca’s character traits?
How are the values of our matriarchs (and patriarchs) represented in your life? Rebecca is a wonderful role model. Who are some of today’s role models? Do they possess “real beauty”? What have you done recently for which you would like to be remembered?
Our sages maintain from Genesis 25 that Laban is wicked. What verses might they focus on to draw this conclusion?