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Torah Sparks

Parashat Hayyei Sarah
November 10, 2012 – 25 Heshvan 5773

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

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ

Sarah dies at the age of 127, and 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, and 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, first administering an oath that the servant not select a Canaanite woman. Although traditional sources identify this servant as Eliezer, who is explicitly mentioned elsewhere, the marital emissary is not 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 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 ten 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.

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 of Ishmael as progenitor of a great nation and father of twelve chieftains.

Theme #1: "Like a Boss"

"The man bowed low in homage to the Lord and said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by the Lord, to the house of my master's kinsman.'" (Genesis 24:26-27)

Study: Derash

"True thankfulness is an expression of feeling beholden because of what one receives. In order for one to truly appreciate and have the capacity to internalize the good that he receives, he must be humble himself. Bowing and prostration are acts of humility and submission." (Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky)

"There is an essential difference between the words servant and man. Servant denotes someone who is not free, who is indentured to another, who carries out orders and does not initiate; whereas ‘man' denotes someone of importance, a free person who thinks for himself and takes the initiative…. Clearly, it would only be said of a ‘man' that he ‘bowed low in homage to the Lord'; only a free and independent person is cognizant of the Lord in this way, not a servant, who has a different lord." (Itamar Warhaftig)

"He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God's providence to lead him aright." (Blaise Pascal)

"Jews pray as though everything depended on God, and work as though everything depended on man." (Emil Fackenheim)

"I bow at His Feet constantly, and pray to Him, the Guru, the True Guru, who has shown me the Way." (Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism)

Questions for Discussion

Is this prayer of thanksgiving by Abraham's servant an apt model for contemporary Jewish worship? How does it recognize the partnership between God and human beings suggested by Emil Fackenheim?

Pascal's statement aptly describes the experience of Abraham's servant, who surely carried out his duty, and demonstrated fealty to his pursuit of truth. Are there exceptions to Pascal's conclusion, that in so doing we "may safely trust to God's providence" to lead us aright?

Imagine a conversation between Rabbi Kalatsky and Guru Nanak (!!). How might they differ in their understanding of bowing?

When does Jewish tradition and prayer call for bowing? How does this action transform (or impede) your experience of prayer? How do you interpret this practice?

How can we determine whether the course we are following, the direction we are taking, reflects the will and direction of God? When have you sensed that God is directing your path? How do you respond when you sense a marked difference between what you believe to be God's promptings and your own instincts and inclinations?

Why is Abraham's servant referred to in this verse simply as "the man"? Do you find Professor Warhaftig's commentary convincing? What other possibilities present themselves? Do we become more human through prayer and submission to God? Was the servant vividly sensing his mortality? Compare to the verse, "And the man Moses was very modest…" (Numbers 12:3)

Is the servant entirely correct and appropriate in assuming that God's kindness is directed not at him, but at Abraham ("my master")?

Theme #2: "Of the Blessed Departed and Blessings Imparted

"After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac…" (Genesis 25:11)

Study: Derash

"Literally, ‘It was after the death of.' The Hebrew expression occurs again in Josh. 1:1, Judg. 1:1, and 2 Samuel 1:1 in connection with the death of Moses, of Joshua, and of Saul, respectively. In each instance, it indicates that a historic turning point has been reached. An era has come to an end, but the continuity of leadership has been ensured." (Chumash Etz Hayim)

"'God blessed Isaac.' The promises made to Abraham were now transferred to him." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"This is the first detail reported about Yitzhak after his father's death – lest there be any doubt about the continuation of God's care." (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

"Abraham does not bless Isaac before his death. He leaves him in God's hands. God does not disappoint." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"Isaac is a cipher, the Harpo Marx of Genesis. During a long and dramatic chapter about Abraham's effort to find a wife for Isaac, for example, the groom himself doesn't say a word. He has a bit part in his own marriage… The Lord appears to Isaac only once… and when He does appear to this minor-league patriarch, it's clear that Isaac doesn't really matter to Him." (David Plotz, Good Book)

Questions for Discussion

Why didn't Abraham give Isaac a blessing before his death? Were they estranged in the wake of the Akedah? Did Abraham question whether Isaac was a worthy or willing successor? Was Abraham simply confident that Isaac would be fine, and would enjoy divine care? Do any of these explanations excuse Abraham's failure to bestow his blessing on Isaac?

In what way was God's blessing of Isaac manifested? How do the comments of Rabbi Hertz, Professor Fox, and Etz Hayim differ?

Is it fair or accurate (or blasphemous?) to say that God didn't care about Isaac? How did God show concern for Isaac? How does God's relationship to Isaac demonstrate divine sensitivity to Isaac's individual personality and character?

What other historic leaders have languished (at least in popular perception) in the shadow of immediate predecessors of far greater stature? Is this a key to understanding Isaac?

Perhaps Isaac only fully perceived God's blessings following Abraham's death. What blessings might he have come to appreciate late in life? What blessings have you understood more clearly as you grew, matured, and aged?

Historic Note

Parsahat Haye Sarah, read on November 10, 2012, describes the deaths of Sarah, Abraham and Ishmael… and the mourning which attended each passing. This Shabbat coincides with the doleful anniversary of Kristallnacht, the nation-wide German pogrom against Jewish citizens, businesses, and synagogues, that occurred over November 9 and 10, 1938… considered the beginning of the Holocaust or, alternatively, the last pogrom of Medieval Europe.

Halachah L'Maaseh

In Parashat Haye Sarah, Abraham goes to extraordinary lengths to purchase a burial plot for Sarah. It is customary to purchase one's own burial plot during one's lifetime (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 5:5), and it is considered a dishonor to be buried in a plot one does not actually own (Talmud Baba Batra 112A). Some rabbinic authorities advise (after Abraham's example) that part of the purchase price for a burial plot should be tendered in coin (M. Tucazinsky, Gesher Ha-Chaim). It is thought especially desirable to be buried among family members (see Tosafot, Moed Katan 13A and Chatam Sofer to Shuchan Aruch Yoreh De'ah 331). Some Jews arrange for burial in the Land of Israel or, alternatively, to have earth from the land of Israel placed in their grave. In addition to expressing devotion to the Holy Land and Jewish State, this is based on the folk beliefs that burial in Israel effects atonement for one's sins, and that those buried in the Holy land will be first to be resurrected upon arrival of the Messiah (Talmud Ketubot 111A; Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim 5:11).

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