Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

November 6, 2004 - 22 Heshvan 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 23:1-25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 23:1 - 24:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 - 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 143; Hertz p. 90)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Upon the death of Sarah at the age of 127, Abraham mourns his wife. He enters into protracted and formalized, public negotiations with the Children of Heth (Hittites) to secure a burial place for her, purchasing the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron at an apparently inflated price. Abraham subsequently dispatches his servant to Aram Naharaim (Mesopotamia) to find a suitable wife for Isaac, first administering an oath that he not select a Canaanite woman. Although traditional sources identify this servant as Eliezer, explicitly mentioned elsewhere, the marital emissary is not actually named in the Biblical text. He is properly referred to simply as "the servant of Abraham."

The servant's prayer for guidance and a divine sign in identifying Isaac's future wife is immediately answered with the appearance of Rebekah. Beautiful and chaste, Rebekah approaches the well where the servant has stationed himself. In keeping with his prayer, she draws from the well, generously providing water to the servant and his ten camels. Rebekah is identified as the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham's brother. The servant presents gifts to Rebekah and then her family, to whom he recounts the events that transpired at the well.

Rebekah consents to marry Isaac and receives her family's blessing. Isaac and Rebekah meet. Rebekah covers herself with a veil, in a gesture of modesty still reenacted at traditional Jewish weddings (frequently accompanied by the recitation of a verse from this Parsha -- Genesis 24:60).

Isaac takes his bride "into his mother's tent." The bereaved son finds comfort in his marriage. Abraham marries Keturah; the marriage produces six additional children. Upon Abraham's death, Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah, which the patriarch had earlier purchased as a final resting place for Sarah.

After Abraham's death, God renews His blessing of Isaac. Ishmael dies at the age of 137. The Parsha concludes by enumerating his many descendants, demonstrating fulfillment of God's earlier blessing of Ishmael as progenitor of a great nation and father of twelve chieftains.

Theme #1: "God Doesn't Play Dice with the Universe"

"And he said, 'O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham.'" (Genesis 24:12)

Derash: Study

  • "Three petitioners were answered by God while the request was still in their mouths: Abraham's servant Eliezer, Moses, and Solomon: 'He had scarcely finished speaking when Rebekah came out.'" (Genesis Rabbah 60:4)
  • "The shalshelet [a rare trope which appears only four times in the Torah - JHP] is a quivering, hesitating kind of note that reflects some hesitation or ambivalence in the text. Abraham tells Eliezer to go back to Mesopotamia and find a wife for Isaac. It's an awesome responsibility. The future of the covenant rests with his choice of a bride for Isaac. He may fail. He may choose the wrong woman. Isaac is no Abraham. And Eliezer must find a strong enough and wise enough woman who can help carry on the legacy of Abraham. Eliezer prays to God for guidance and help in finding the right woman. And on the word for 'he prayed' [vayomar], there's a shalshelet. It is the tradition's way of expressing how apprehensive, how worried, how desperate Abraham's servant must have felt." (Rabbi Lee Buckman)
  • "'Grant me good fortune.' The Hebrew verb here (hakrei) literally means 'make it occur.' What happens to be the result of chance (mikreh) may, in reality, be a deliberate determination of God. Nothing is more characteristic of the biblical outlook than the conviction about the role of divine providence in everyday human affairs." (Chumash Etz Hayim)
  • "Chance - that's code for the divine." (Phyllis Trible)
  • "Implicit in the servant's prayers is the need to see a manifest indication of God's hesed [kindness, love, grace] to Abraham. His main criterion for the rightness of Rebecca's election is that he will sense in her the hesed that, since the Akedah, has been lacking from his master's experience. He prays to know that hesed is being done to his master, not merely that God should be so kind as to make it happen that the girl he speaks to is the right one. The hesed he asks for, in other words, is not a means, but an end in itself." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does Abraham's servant merit inclusion among such a rarefied company of Biblical heroes as Moses and Solomon? For what major achievement or defining characteristic is each remembered?
  2. The unusual musical tradition (shalshelet) associated with this verse invites the reader/listener to take special "note." What historic, theological, literary, or narratological elements in the servants prayer demand such special treatment? Compare to the other shalshelet verses in Genesis - 19:16, regarding Lot; 39:8, regarding Joseph.
  3. At what pivotal points in modern Jewish history might we perceive the divine in what appears to be chance or coincidence? At what other points in Biblical history? In our own lives and personal experience?
  4. If we attribute chance and "good fortune" to the "deliberate determination of God," must ill fortune, adversity, and tragedy also be understood as part of a calculated divine plan? How do we know what eventsand experiences are the results of Providence?

Theme #2: "Mourning has Broken"

"And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah." (Genesis 25:8-9)

Derash: Study

  • "From this we learn that Ishmael repented, allowing Isaac to go before him. This is the 'good old age' mentioned in reference to Abraham." (Rashi, citing Genesis Rabbah 62:3)
  • "The Qur'an tells us, 'Wherever you may be, God will bring you all together'… From the time of Isaac and Ishmael until today, we have fought over Abraham and his heritage. Perhaps we can find a way through dialogue and building relationships to bring reconciliation - even Isaac and Ishmael reconciled and came together to bury Abraham." (Sheila Musaji, "The Legacy of Abraham," in The American Muslim)
  • "I was named 'Avraham Yitzchak' - 'Abraham Isaac.' On Rosh Hashanah, 1975, when we read in the Torah about the near-deaths of Abraham's two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, it came to me to add 'Yishmael' - Ishmael - and thus to complete the troubled triangle. Ever since, when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac tear at each other, I feel myself being torn apart. So I take joy in the passage of Torah where these two come together to bury Abraham. For years, I have urged that we read it on Yom Kippur as a tikkun - a way of healing or making whole - a tshuvah, (repentance) for the deadly Rosh Hashanah stories." (Rabbi Arthur Waskow)
  • "You want to hear some of the most beautiful words in the Torah? ' Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him' Here is Ishmael - the son exiled from the household, sent out into the barren desert to die; and here is Isaac - the son he took to the mountain to offer as a sacrifice to God. The two, survivors of this man's religious passion, gathered together over Abraham's grave to bury him, in love and honor. Why did they come back? Because they forgave him. Avraham Avinu - the father of us all, the archetype, the model for all fathers." (Rabbi Edward Feinstein)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What motivated Isaac and Ishmael to come together for Abraham's burial? Reconciliation with each other? Their parallel, troubled childhoods? A sense of duty? Continuing competition? A final attempt to stake independent claims to Abraham's legacy? Why did (or could) they not come together during their father's life?
  2. Compare the "reunion" of Isaac and Ishmael to that of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33). What do the two incidents have in common? Unlike Jacob and Esau, the Torah does not record any verbal exchange between Isaac and Ishmael. What might the brothers have said to each other? Does the silence of the text on this matter imply a similar silence or emotional distance between the bereaved sons?
  3. Rashi/Genesis Rabbah evinces a hierarchical relationship and judgmental view of Ishmael even in describing the brothers' shared act of filial devotion. Does the text of Genesis justify the characterization of Ishmael as requiring repentance? How might Rashi's historical milieu - Crusader France - have colored his reading of this verse?
  4. What significance do we find in the fact that this single Parsha records the passing of Sarah, Abraham, and Ishmael?

Historical Note

Parshat Haye Sarah, recording the deaths of Sarah and Abraham, and describing their burial in detail, is read on November 6, 2004. On this date in 1995, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was laid to rest at Mount Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem, eulogized by descendants of Isaac and Ishmael.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016