Shabbat Shalom! – Chayei Sarah

Image: Hebron. The Tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are in caves beneath the large building at the lower left. Photo by See The Holy Land via Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah.” While the portion is named in the usual way (with the first distinctive words in the portion,) in this case it is ironic, for the first thing that happens in the portion is the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and our first matriarch.

In this portion, Abraham negotiates to buy a burial place for Sarah, and then sends his servant to negotiate a wife for Isaac. One of the striking things in the portion is that Isaac’s role in his own marriage is passive (Abraham sends a servant to find Isaac a wife,) Rebekah is a much more active participant, deciding the timing of her departure from her father’s tent.

The portion concludes with a brief look into the life of Ishmael, the other son of Abraham. He has 12 sons who will become chieftains of 12 tribes, stretching from Havilah, near Egypt, to Asshur (Mesopotamia.) We know them today as the Arabs.

Our divrei Torah this week:

The Crown of Aging – Rabbi Marc Katz

On Death and Land – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

The Blessed Burden – Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Getting On With Life – Rabbi Don Levy

Plan Ahead! – Rabbi Jordan Parr

Sarah – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions – Rabbi Ruth Adar



Shabbat Shalom: “And Sarah Lived”

This Shabbat we read a very strange love story: Rebekah and Isaac, following the death of his mother Sarah. For some drashot (brief words of Torah) on those topics from past posts:

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

Romantic Comedy – In Genesis?

Sarah’s Choices

There are some wonderful divrei Torah available on the net. Here are some I’ve particularly liked:

What’s Your (Back) Story? (Howie Beigelman)

The Blessed Burden (Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

I Will Go (Rabbi Stephen Fuchs)

Have you seen a d’var Torah you particularly like on this parashah?

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of Peace!

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

When I was a little girl, there was an old Bible on the bookshelves at home. It wasn’t our family Bible. I don’t know why we had it, but I loved the pictures. To this day, some of my mental images of Bible stories are rooted in those pictures.

Rebekah, for me, will always be the young woman in “Rebecca et Eliézer” by Nicolas Poussin. Poussin was a 17th century French Baroque painter, and his simplest canvases teem with details. While some of those details are set by artistic convention (for one thing, the two protagonists seem to be meeting at a well in Italy, not in ancient Mesopotamia!) it’s clear that he read the story closely.

Eliezer is the only man in the picture. He is standing by the well and he gestures as he speaks to the young Rebekah.  It appears to be the moment at which he asks her if she will allow him a drink from the jug of water at her feet. Women are all around them, some pouring water, some of them gossiping among themselves, and some watching Eliezer and Rebekah with curiosity.

It is the moment just before Rebekah passes his test: in a moment, she will tell him to drink all he wants, and then she will offer to water his ten camels, just as he hoped she would do. In Jewish tradition, she is a role model for the mitzvah of kindness to animals, because she offered to water the thirsty camels of her own volition.

There’s a great deal that isn’t in the picture, of course. Eliezer still had to talk with Rebekah’s father Bethuel, and her brother Laban, who would give her son Jacob so much grief years later. Later, she would leave with Eliezer to travel hundreds of miles to meet Isaac and marry him.

Rebekah was a woman of contradictions. She had a soft heart for a thirsty stranger and his animals, yet later in life she would calmly deceive her husband and direct Jacob in defrauding Esau of his birthright. In fact, the Torah doesn’t tell us much more about her than those two stories.

As a little girl, I scrutinized Poussin’s painting for clues about Rebekah. She seemed to me to be excited to see a stranger. Maybe she was tired of living in one place. Perhaps she was curious about the world. Looking back, I realize that some of my response to her story and the picture was projection: I was curious about the world!

Where did you get your mental images of the characters in the Torah? Are there Biblical figures with whom you identify strongly? Do you know why they feel so close to you?

Torah portion Chayei Sarah may be found in Genesis 23.1-25.18.

Romantic Comedy – in Genesis?

CamelsOne of my favorite stories in the Bible is the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac in Parashat Chayei Sarah:

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. – Gen 24: 63

The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that Isaac was out saying his evening prayers. He finishes them, and looks up. Note what he sees: he sees camels.

And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she alighted from the camel. – Gen 24: 64

There is a parallel structure and a little comedy here: Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees camels. Rebekah lifts up her eyes and sees Isaac. Then, despite the translator’s attempt at decorum, the comedy broadens to slapstick. Rebecca sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. This translator says “alighted” but the simplest translation of the verb  וַתִּפֹּל, מֵעַל הַגָּמָל is “and she fell from [her seat] upon the camel.” Rebecca sees Isaac, and she loses it: she quite literally falls for him.

And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her veil, and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. –Gen 24: 65-66

Rebecca, now sitting in a heap on the ground, asks the servant, “Who’s that?” And the servant gives her the answer she hopes for, and she realizes she’s a disheveled heap on the ground. She takes her veil and covers herself. She’s embarrassed: this handsome fellow has seen her and she’s come across as a klutz who can’t even stay on a camel!

The servant, though, is oblivious: his business is with Isaac. Interesting, isn’t it, that he now reports to Isaac, not Abraham?

Our story (or at least this chapter) has a happy ending, with a twist:

And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother. –Gen 24:67

He brought her into his mother’s tent, which isn’t as weird as it sounds to a modern ear. Earlier in the chapter, Abraham insists that Isaac not go to find a wife, but that the servant must bring her back with him. Modern commentators suggest that this is because the tribes at the time were matrilocal: men went to live with their wives’ relatives, not the other way around. Abraham was concerned that Isaac stay in Canaan, where he believed the future of his descendants lay. So by taking Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, Isaac is telling Rebekah that she is the new matriarch of this tribe.

There’s no elaborate wedding; the betrothal [kiddushin] happened back at Rebekah’s childhood home, with the gifts of gold, and sex [nisuin] seals the deal. Somewhere along the line, Isaac also falls for Rebekah: the text says that he loves her.

Then we get the line about comfort, and post-Freud, it all seems a bit much. Keep in mind that the Biblical author never heard of the Oedipus complex. Rebekah is the new matriarch, and she fills the shoes of Sarah.

Do you have a favorite love story in the Bible?