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Torah Sparks

November 18, 2006

Annual: Genesis 23:1-25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 24:53 – 25:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 137; Hertz p. 86)
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 – 31 (Etz Hayim, p. 143; Hertz p. 90)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Our parashah opens with the news of Sarah’s death. Abraham negotiates with the local Hittites to buy a place to bury her. Although an exorbitant price is quoted, Abraham is uncontentious because he seeks to close the deal promptly.

The centerpiece of this week’s Torah portion is the search for a suitable wife for Isaac. We have read the straightforward promise that God’s covenant with Abraham would continue through Isaac to countless generations of descendants. But without a wife for Isaac, those descendants are a mere abstraction.

Abraham sends his trusted senior servant to Abraham’s homeland to find the right woman for Isaac. The story is told in detail three times, making for one of the longest chapters in the Torah. First, we read the servant’s marching orders. Next we read about his faithful execution of his mandate. Finally, we get the opportunity to listen in as the servant tells the family of the wife-to-be how fortunate it was that all the details of his mission had fit together so expeditiously.

Following this story, and before moving on to tell us about Isaac and Rebecca’s life together, the Torah supplies us with two paragraphs of endnotes to the life of Abraham. First we read that Abraham remarried after the death of Sarah. Other children were born from this union. Then, when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael together buried him. This story is followed by an enumeration of the genealogy of Ishmael’s descendants.

Issue #1: Detail and the Absence of Detail

Sometimes the Torah tells us more than the modern reader wants to know. For example, the genealogical lists that surface periodically (e.g., 25:2-4 and 13-16) do not seem to advance our understanding of religious values in any obvious way. Sometimes there are lessons to be learned from these tabulations, but we will not dwell on them today.

There are also passages in the Torah that are surprisingly sparing in the details they transmit. Although these silences are purposeful, they are frustrating to today’s readers. After all, we are accustomed to having access to minute detail whenever we want it, whether in a movie or an internet search. We may find it frustrating when the biblical narrative is so stingy in transmitting details. A case in point is the identity of Abraham’s trusted servant in Chapter 24.

Through three tellings of the story of the search for a worthy wife for Isaac, the Torah does not once share with us the name of the senior servant deputized by Abraham to find the right woman for Isaac. This glaring omission is so frustrating to readers of the Bible that for hundreds of years many biblical commentators have sought to fill in the missing name. Eliezer, the name most often supplied, was Abraham’s chief servant at the opening of Chapter 15. Whether this same servant was still alive when Abraham wished to find a wife for Isaac decades later is a matter of conjecture.

What is clear is that the biblical narrative intentionally omits the name of this loyal servant. Perhaps there is a lesson here. Which is more important in communicating values to the reader of the Bible, the identity of the servant or the manner in which he carried out his responsibilities? Is there ever a value to completing a task without calling attention to yourself?

Issue #2: Criteria for the Selection of a Matriarch

We have no record of Abraham telling his servant how to select a wife for Isaac. We may conjecture that a senior servant in Abraham’s household had absorbed some of the values that were central to that household. The servant seems to have decided intuitively on a behavioral profile that would indicate a personality suitable to be Isaac’s wife.

What personal qualities was the servant looking for, and how did he test for the presence of those qualities in the candidate that he found?

Issue #3: Burial Responsibilities

Our parashah opens with Abraham’s responsibility to bury Sarah and closes with Isaac’s and Ishmael’s responsibility to bury Abraham. Clearly there were no professional funeral directors involved. The mourners themselves took responsibility for planning the funeral and carrying out their plan.

Why is it that over the centuries the custom of delegating the physical aspects of a funeral to professionals or to volunteers has developed?

In what ways might this enhance the funeral and the mourning process, and it what ways might it detract?

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