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Torah Sparks

November 19, 2011 – 22 Heshvan 5772

Annual: Genesis 23:1 – 25:188 (Etz Hayim p. 127; Hertz p. 80)
Triennial: Genesis 24:10 – 24:52 (Etz Hayim p. 132; Hertz p. 83)
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 – 31 (Etz Hayim p. 143; Hertz p. 90)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Sarah dies at the age of 127, and Abraham mourns her. He enters into protracted and formalized public negotiations with the children of Heth – the Hittites – to secure a burial place for her, and he buys 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, after he names the servant swear that he will not select a Canaanite woman.

The servant's prayer for guidance and a divine sign in identifying Isaac's future wife is immediately answered with the appearance of the beautiful and chaste Rebekah, who 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 10 camels. Rebekah is identified as the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham's brother. The servant presents gifts to Rebekah and then to her family, to whom he tells the story of what happened 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 parashah, Genesis 24:60).

Isaac takes his bride "into his mother's tent," and the bereaved son finds comfort in his marriage. Abraham marries Keturah; that marriage produces six more children. Upon Abraham's death, Isaac and Ishmael together bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah.

After Abraham's death, God renews His blessing of Isaac. Ishmael dies at the age of 137. The parashah concludes by listing his many descendants, demonstrating the fulfillment of God's earlier blessing him as the progenitor of a great nation and father of 12 chieftains.

Theme #1: "Let No Man Put Asunder"

Then Laban and Bethuel answered, ‘The matter was decreed by the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master's son, as the Lord has spoken. (Genesis 24:50)

Derash: Study

"A Roman matron asked Rabbi Yose bar Chalafta: ‘In how many days did God create His world?' "‘In six days,' he replied. "‘And what has He been doing ever since?' she asked. "‘God sits and arranges marital matches,' Rabbi Yose told her. ‘It is as difficult as parting the Red Sea.'" (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 68:3-4)

"When Resh Lakish began to expound, he spoke thus: ‘They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds. Rabbi Judah has said in the name of Rav: ‘Forty days before the creation of a child, a Divine Voice issues forth and proclaims: The daughter of So-andso is for So-and-so.'" (Talmud Sotah 2A)

"Beshert is what you get after using your time to be loving and caring, after creating a true marital unit out of two individuals. It is true that everything is in the Almighty's hands, but not necessarily in the way we initially think. If we do the real job necessary to make a marriage work, then the Almighty performs a miracle for us – we see that although we didn't recognize it at first, we have married our beshert after all." (Emuna Braverman)

"Providence is wiser than you, and you may be confident it has suited all things better to your eternal good than you could do had you been left to your own option." (John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence)

"In all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. In all the world, there is no love for you like mine." (Maya Angelou)

Questions for Discussion

Laban is, understandably, viewed as less than a positive character. Even his name, meaning "white" – that is, without distinguishing features or characteristics – implies a lack of principle. Was his endorsement of God's plan sincere and faithful? What ulterior motives might have impelled him to make this statement? Was he demonstrating trust in God, or was he duplicitously exploiting the religious fervor of Abraham's servant?

If we are agents of God's Providence – that is, if it is our job to carry out God's master plan – when is it proper to say, "We cannot speak to you bad or good," simply accepting events as a function of Divine will? How do we know when to act, when to intervene when events take a turn we judge to be unseemly, undesirable, or un-Godly? How are we to make such judgments, and when are we to bow to Providence?

Why is romantic love – and, more specifically, the successful marital bond – viewed as God's handiwork? Is this a statement about the sanctity of marriage? A reflection on the mystery of what attracts any two people together as marital partners? The infinite influences, coincidences, choices, and other inexplicable factors that conspire to bring two people together?

Consider the debate between Resh Lakish and Rav. What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of each sage's position? Are there not examples of unfortunate people of good character with profoundly unworthy spouses? Does this unpleasant reality undermine Rav or Resh Lakish? Resh Lakish was a penitent former gladiator, who returned to Jewish piety and was married to the beautiful sister of Rabbi Yochanan; how does his theology of marriage reflect his view of himself?! How might Emuna Braverman resolve (or, at least, respond to) this rabbinic dispute?

Theme #2: "Matrimony, Patrimony, Parsimony"

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. (Genesis 25:1-2)

Derash: Study

"Perhaps a certain tension was felt between the repeated promise that Abraham would father a vast nation and the fact that he had begotten only two sons. This tension would have been mitigated by inserting this document at the end of his story with the catalogue of his sons with Keturah. In this list, Abraham figures as the progenitor of the seminomadic peoples of the trans-Jordan region and the Arabian Peninsula." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"Keturah was Hagar, and she was called Keturah because her deeds were as pleasant as incense (ketoret)." (Rashi, reprising Midrash Tanchuma)

"It is interesting (and perplexing) to note that our forefather Abraham, the revolutionary religious visionary, sires eight biological children, but only one, Isaac, remains faithful to Abraham's monotheistic belief. The fallout and hemorrhaging from monotheism was rather extraordinary. Although none of Abraham's other children ever reached the spiritual heights of Isaac, all of them successfully inherited at least part of the legacy of Abrahamitic values. Somehow, the Abrahamitic values seeped through the layers of paganism and idolatry that surrounded them, and the values that they inherited from their ancestor, Abraham, lit up the world in unexpected ways and in unheralded venues. We are all beneficiaries of this unexpected legacy to this very day." (Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald)

"A tree produces fruit, but it also produces branches, flowers and leaves that aid the fruit's development. Similarly, Abraham produced Isaac, his crowning achievement, but Ishmael and the children of Keturah also assist in furthering God's goal of making the earth His kingdom." (Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael)

Questions for Discussion

What motivated Rashi (and the midrash) to identify Keturah as Hagar? (Note: Other commentators emphatically disagree with this perspective!) Does such a reconciliation offer Abraham a measure of redemption from his earlier mistreatment of Hagar? Is this a final judgment on Sarah's disdain for Hagar and Ishmael? Does this interpretation attempt to preclude a puerile reaction to Abraham marrying a young woman as he approaches the age of 140 and continuing to father children? What else might we learn from Abraham's marriage so late in life?

Both the Malbim and Rabbi Buchwald see in this passage a tribute to non-Jewish peoples who have embraced monotheism and to some extent Abraham's historic legacy. What groups in particular today assist in spreading the view of God first adopted by Abraham? How should this affect our relationships with such faith communities (from both social and theological perspectives)? Our view of their sacred literature? How are we, to invoke Rabbi Buchwald's felicitous phrase, "beneficiaries of this unexpected legacy"? That is, how do Jews benefit from the religious activities and worldviews of other religious groups?

Imagine that we were contemplating Malbim's metaphor of Abraham as tree not on Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah, but on Tu B'Shevat. How would a holiday devoted at least in part to those who have branched off from Jewish religious history – those, as it were, of a very different religious "species" – serve both us and them?

Rabbi Buchwald also notes the "hemorrhaging from monotheism" – the departure of a majority of Abraham's own children from the covenantal line and Jewish faith. Does this reflect a fault in Abraham? An aspect of the divine plan? An inevitable dynamic of the parent-child relationship? The subjectivity of personal religious experience and faith? How is this biblical datum of importance to Jews today? What spiritual message or programmatic implications does the religious experience of Abraham's sons hold for us and for our children?

Halachah L'Maaseh

When Rebekah first sees Isaac, she covers her face with a veil (Genesis 24:65). This is generally identified as the source of the custom of "badeken," where the bridegroom veils his bride's just before the wedding ceremony (See Shulchan Aruch Even Ha-Ezer 3:12 and 55:1, Rema, ad loc; Aruch Ha-Shulchan Even Ha-Ezer 55:10, 64:17; Talmud, Ketubot 17B). Parashat Chayei Sarah also provides the liturgical text customarily recited at this ceremony: "Our sister, may you grow into thousands of myriads..." (Genesis 24:60, though this verse was recited well before Rebekah and Isaac met). Badeken has also been associated with the marriages of Jacob to Leah and her sister (Jacob's beloved and intended bride) Rachel (See Genesis 29:18-30). By personally veiling the bride, the groom is thus said, as a wary reaction to Laban's deceptive substitution of his elder daughter, to be assuring that the correct woman is about to enter the chuppah. This interpretation may draw on a pun, identifying "badeken" as derived from the Hebrew bodek – "to check, to examine" – rather than from the Yiddish term meaning "to dress, to cover." The practice also has been explained as signifying, variously, the modesty of the bride, her lack of interest in other men, the proper emphasis on family and piety over physical beauty in selection of a spouse, and the obligation of a husband, as explicitly stated in the ketubah and based on Exodus 21:10, to provide his wife with clothing.

Historical Note

Parashat Chayei Sarah, read on November 19, 2011, opens with Abraham's acquisition of a burial place for Sarah, following a protracted negotiation: "Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me that I may bury my dead." On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, dedicating the military cemetery at the site: "We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

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