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Torah Sparks

Parashat Haye Sarah
October 26, 2013 – 22 Heshvan 5774

Annual (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18): Etz Hayim p. 127; Hertz p. 80
Triennial (Genesis 23:1 – 24:9): Etz Hayim p. 127; Hertz p. 80
Haftarah (I Kings 1:1-31): Etz Hayim p. 143; Hertz p. 90

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Sarah dies, and Abraham mourns for her, then purchases the Cave of Machpelah to bury her. Abraham asks his servant to find Isaac a wife in the land of Haran. After a long journey and much prayer, the servant finds a kind woman who feeds him and his camel. The servant receives permission to take the woman, Rebecca, to Be’er Sheva to marry Isaac. Rebecca’s presence is a great comfort to Isaac. Later, we read that Abraham married again and had more children. Abraham dies and is buried by Isaac and Ishmael in Machpelah.

Discussion Topic #1: Permanence

Sarah died in Kiriath-arba - now Hebron - in the land of Canaan;… And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre - now Hebron - in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23:2,19)

Sarah's death is recorded in the first verse of our portion (yet far more space is dedicated to the back-and-forth negotiations for her burial spot. Many believe that this conversation is important not only because of the necessity to preserve Sarah's memory, but also the need to establish a permanent presence in the Promised Land.

The Hittites addressed Abraham as “my lord” throughout the negotiations for a burial place for Sarah, but Abraham never referred to them in similar terms. He refrained from doing so because he had been the first to address God by this appellation. (“Before Abraham there had been no one to address the Holy One, blessed be He, as ‘Lord,’ until Abraham came and called Him Lord” (Berakhot 7). Having given the title of “Lord” to God, Abraham could no longer use it in addressing a mere man, not even out of courtesy. (Rabbi Joseph Josel Hurwitz)

The irony, of course, is that Abraham was closer to Sarah in death than he had ever been in life. A maturing Abraham, following the fearful trial on Mount Moriah and his bereavement after Sarah died, desperately needed a physical sign (even if it was a grave site (that would guarantee his future. Although he remembered the promises that God had made to him and to his descendants, for the first time he actually took possession of a portion, a small portion, of the promised land. He paid the full price for the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, thus ensuring that it would be his in perpetuity. (Norman J. Cohen, Voices from Genesis)

This section is written to teach of the advantages of the Land of Israel over all other lands for the living and the dead (and also to keep the promise of God to Abraham that he would personally have an inheritance therein. (Ibn Ezra on Genesis 23:19)

Questions for Discussion:

To Rabbi Hurwitz, Abraham's behavior during negotiations reflects his total commitment to God. He still can communicate with those who do not share his religious practice, but there is no doubt that he reveres God in a unique way. How do we best honor God when we work with those outside the Jewish community? Can this be a difficult balance at times? In what ways can we reserve something special for God, something that we don't share with other people?

Cohen reflects on how the negotiations for Machpelah display Abraham’s close connection to Sarah and his need for a permanent space to memorialize his family. All of us hope to leave a legacy to our descendants, both physical and emotional. What legacies have you received from your family? Do you wish to leave something similar to the generations after you? Something unique of your own? Are there times when it is possible to feel closer to a person or place when far away?

Ibn Ezra's claim that this section proves the land of Israel's superiority contrasts with Abraham's initial encounter with the land, for when Abraham first settles there, he has to flee almost immediately due to a famine. By now, the land has “matured” in the same way that Abraham's relationship with God has matured. Are there other examples in this portion that indicate how much Abraham has settled into the role of patriarch that God has promised him? Can people really grow into a role that someone else has created? Are such personal transformations immediate or gradual?

Theme #2: Our Future in God’s Hands

And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master. (Genesis 24:12-14)

Rav himself has said: An omen which is not after the form pronounced by Eliezer, Abraham's servant, or by Jonathan the son of Saul, is not considered a divination! (BT Hullin 95b)

Eliezer … uttered a prayer to God that He should “cause it to chance” that Eliezer should find the right woman (an interesting way of phrasing the idea of divine providence. The root of the verb hakreh implies randomness, but in grammatical terms the verb appears in its causative form, the conjugation called “hifil” in Hebrew. In other words, God operates in the world through events that seem to come about by chance. His interventions in our lives are concealed by the appearance of randomness. (David Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God)

The story of how Abraham’s slave went to find a wife for Isaac and brought home Rebecca still delights me today. It is imbued with faith in God and His Providence. I have learned that the great storytellers were all highly religious people, believers that God takes care of every human being, each and every animal, and that everything we do, think, and desire is connected with the Creator of all things. (Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his article on the book of Genesis in Congregation, edited by David Rosenberg)

Questions for Discussion:

Rav's comment in Talmud Hullin claims that Eliezer's successful lobbying for divine help identifying Isaac's future wife is the right way to go about seeking God's help. Is this because Eliezer asks with humility and sincerity? Or does this have more to do with God's favor for Abraham? Under what circumstances is spontaneous prayer appropriate today? Which is a better prayer - to ask for specific things from God, or to ask for virtues, such as strength or wisdom, so that we have the tools to succeed?

Klinghoffer's reading of Eliezer's experience claims that the God of the Torah disguises that God has a precise plan in place for the universe. Instead, it appears to be coincidence after coincidence. Which is a more comfortable concept - that God dictates our every move or that God “dials back” God's power from time to time and lets nature take its course? How do we respond to a God with a firm hand in 2013? How do we respond to a God with looser reins on the world?

Singer’s enjoyment of the story of Eliezer’s journeys reflects the sense that this is one of the more joyous passages of Genesis, as it has a happy ending in which no one is hurt. Do we as a society place enough emphasis on happy stories? What is the impact that television news almost always begins with sad material? Does it mean that our world is tragic to its core? Or do we de-emphasize the good in the world because people are more drawn to tragedy? What would happen if our news sources revolved more around good news than bad news? Would we better off for it?

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