Posted by: Subway Conductor | November 13, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Chayei Sarah

The name of this week’s Torah portion is ironic. Chayei Sarah means “the life of Sarah”. However, the portion begins with the death of the matriarch. Abraham mourns for Sarah and then immediately turns to procuring a burial place for his wife. The acquisition of a burial place for Sarah takes on great significance.

Abraham’s relationship with G-d began with the command for him to leave his home and go to a land that G-d would show him. Abraham came into the Promised Land, but never really settles down there. He continues to move around. Here he is nearing the end of his life and he still has no claim to any parcel in the Land of Israel. In today’s portion, Abraham calls himself a “resident alien.” He has no permanent status in the land. The acquisition of this burial site will be Abraham’s only real claim to ownership of a piece of the land which was promised to his descendants as part of the covenant with G-d. This explains some of the details of the account of the purchase.

When Abraham tells his neighbors, who were Hittites, that he needed a place to bury his wife, they freely offered him whatever he needed. But instead of taking them up on their offer, Abraham asked them to intervene with Ephron to sell him his field with the cave of Machpelah in it. Ephron, who is sitting there, tells Abraham he is welcome to the field. Abraham insists on buying it. The two of them haggle back and forth, but in a most ironic way. The seller, Ephron, insists that the buyer, Abraham, take the land for free and Abraham insists on paying for it. Eventually, however, Ephron throws out an exorbitant price which Abraham immediately agrees to without any negotiation. Abraham pays for the purchase on the spot and the Torah goes out of its way to inform us that he paid in a currency that was “acceptable to all merchants.” These details and the unusual haggling are explained by Abraham’s desire to make sure that his purchase is beyond question. No one should be able to say that Abraham took advantage of the generosity of the Hittites. After all, this is his only claim to a parcel of land in the Land of Israel.

Now Abraham looks to the future, thinking about acquiring a wife for his son Isaac. It is extremely important for Abraham to make sure that Isaac has the right partner since he and his wife will be the next link in the chain of the covenantal tradition and it will be their responsibility to pass it on to the next generation. Abraham tells his servant to go back to Haran, Abraham’s old home, where his family is still living, to find a wife for Isaac. He may not take Isaac back there, but the girl must agree to come to Canaan.

To understand the narrative of Abraham’s servant’s mission to find a wife for Isaac, it is important to make some observations about the character of Isaac who is quite different from Abraham. Of the three patriarchs, Isaac is the most remote, the most difficult to relate to. He seems to be an extremely intense personality who inspired awe and even fear in those who saw him. We see this in the Torah’s description of how Rebecca fell off her camel the first time she saw Isaac. Although the Torah offers no explanation, it has always seemed probable to me that Rebecca was awe-struck by Isaac’s appearance who was engaged in davening minchah, according to the midrash, when Rebecca first set eyes upon him. This contrasts with the image of Abraham who is called the av ha-hesed “the patriarch of kindness.”

It is Rebecca, not Isaac, who resembles Abraham in her character. There are two points to mention in this connection. Abraham began his relationship with G-d by being compelled to leave his family and his homeland and go to a strange land. This is considered the first test of Abraham.  Isaac never faced this challenge. He is the only one of the patriarchs who never really left Israel. Abraham and Jacob both spent most of their lives outside of Israel, but Isaac was born and died in Israel. Like Abraham, Rebecca faces this challenge. In order to join the covenantal family, Rebecca must choose to leave her home and family and go to a new country. She makes this choice freely and the Torah states explicitly that she agreed to this Her family asks her, “Do you want to go with this man?” and she says, “Yes, I will go.”

           Abraham’s servant comes up with a test to know that he has found the right girl for Isaac. The test is that he will ask her “please pour me a little water,” and if she says, “ I will pour for you and your camels,” then that is the girl that was intended for his master Isaac. What is this test about? Certainly, it is a test of her generosity. Rebecca further tells him, when he asks if they have room for him to stay, that, “they have plenty of room and food for him and his animals.” The characteristic that Rebecca displays which makes her the suitable match for Isaac is her generosity and hospitality. These are the traits of Abraham who we saw in last week’s portion going out of his way to welcome strangers. Abraham is the model of hospitality in the Torah and Rebecca follows in his path. So, it is Rebecca and not Isaac who resembles Abraham in his character traits.

One more irony. We have made a point of Isaac’s seriousness and awe-inspiring personality. Yet the name Isaac – in Hebrew Yitzhak – means “he will laugh.” This patriarch is the last character that I would have thought would have the name “he will laugh.” He is definitely not the happy-go -lucky type of warm individual who give you a hug and welcomes you into his company. Perhaps irony is used to highlight his character traits. He is called “he will laugh” to point out his utter seriousness.

Good Shabbos!

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