PARASHAT HAYE SARAH
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
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)
"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
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)
"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
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?
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.
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