Friday, November 13, 2009

Torah in Brief: Chayei Sarah

This week's Torah portion is "Chayei Sarah" -- "The Life of Sarah" -- which opens with the passing of the first Matriarch. "The life of Sarah was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years; the years of Sarah's life." Rashi comments that the odd language teaches us that at age one hundred, Sarah was as innocent and as beautiful as a young girl. Her death immediately follows the Binding of Isaac. Rashi explains that this is because she heard "the news that her son was readied for slaughter and was nearly slaughtered." There are two ways of understanding what Rashi meant. According to one opinion, this means that Sarah was so distraught over the news that her son was about to be slaughtered, and then so overjoyed that he was rescued, that her soul "flew from her body". According to another interpretation, she had faith that her husband wouldn't do such a thing unless commanded by G-d, but then erroneously inferred that her husband had failed to carry out his divine mission and so she passed away.

After his wife's death, Abraham sought to purchase a certain cave for her, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron (a.k.a. -- Kiriath-Arba). This holy site was the burial place of Adam and Eve, and would later serve as the resting place of all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs but for Rachel. Abraham said to the Hittite chieftains in his area, "I am an alien and a resident among you; grant me an estate for the burial with you, that I may bury my dead from before me." (Gen. 23:4) The seemingly contradictory terms "alien" and "resident" demonstrates the duality of a Jew: while a Jew should be a loyal citizen who prays for the welfare of his nation of residence, his primary allegiance is always to G-d; "G-d and country" in that order.

Though Ephron the Hittite offered the land for free, Abraham insisted on paying full price. Abraham didn't want there to be any dispute as to the true ownership of the land. Likewise, King David purchased the threshing floor of Aravna at full price, even though Aravna offered to give the land for free and the king could have taken it by right (I Chronicles 21:24, II Samuel 24:24). On that site, King David built the altar around which his son, King Solomon, built the First Holy Temple. (It's sad to note that these two indisputably Jewish holy sites have since been conquered by others who deny their true history and ownership.)

After Abraham buried Sarah, he tasked his trusted servant, Eliezer, with finding a suitable wife for his son, Isaac. Abraham had Eliezer take an oath that he would not allow Isaac to marry a Canaanite girl, but charged him to find Isaac a wife from among his relatives in Haran. According to Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch, this wasn't merely because the Canaanites were idolatrous, for so were Abraham's relatives; rather, the inhabitants of Canaan were morally degenerate. Eliezer swore to his master, and set out for the city of Nahor.

Upon arriving, Eliezer asked G-d to send him a sign. He decided to stand by a well and wait for a girl to approached to draw water, then he would ask her for a sip. If she would agree and even offer to water his camels, this would prove that she possessed the necessary compassion and moral character to marry Isaac. Eliezer had not even finished praying when Rebecca approached, carrying a water jug. Sure enough, when asked for a sip, she even offered to water his camels. Overjoyed, Eliezer gave her a ring weighing a beka, two bracelets, and ten gold shekels (coins), symbolizing the future annual donations to the Temple (which weighed a beka), the two Tablets, and the Ten Commandments.

Eliezer then inquired as to the girl's family, and she brought him to her home. Excited about Rebecca's new jewelry, her brother Laban ran to greet the strange visitor and offered him a place to stay. The Bible then records Eliezer's recounting of this entire episode, spurring the Amora (Sage of the Talmudic era), Rabbi Acha, to comment, "The conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs is more pleasing before the Omnipresent than the Torah of their descendants, for the episode of Eliezer is doubled in the Torah, while many essential elements of the Torah were given only by allusion."

Upon hearing Eliezer's words, Rebecca's family is convinced that it is divine providence that she marry Isaac. Eliezer prepares to take her back to Isaac, but her family requests that she stay for a year or at least ten months. Eliezer insists that he return immediately, so they ask Rebecca her opinion, and she states, "I will go." Rashi cites a Midrash stating that this teaches that we may not marry off a woman without her consent. With that, her family blessed her and she went with Eliezer.

They arrived home just as Isaac was finishing his afternoon prayers in the field. Rebecca noticed Isaac and inquired of Eliezer about him, then took her veil and covered herself out of modesty. Eliezer recounted to Isaac all that had happened, then Isaac brought Rebecca into the tent of his mother, Sarah. During Sarah's lifetime, three miracles took place in her tent: a candle burned from Sabbath to Sabbath, her dough was blessed, and a cloud provided shade over the tent. These miracles had ceased when Sarah died, but they returned upon the arrival of Rebecca, proof that she shared her predecessor's righteousness. Isaac "married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother." (Gen. 24:67)

The final section discusses Abraham's other children, whom his wife Keturah bore to him. According to tradition, this was Hagar's second name, which was given because her deeds were beautiful like the incense (ketores). Abraham "gave all that was his" to Isaac, but he sent his other sons to the East with gifts. Noting the apparent contradiction (if Abraham gave everything to Isaac, what "gifts" were left for his other children?), the sages explain that Abraham gave his other sons spiritual gifts, hidden wisdom which grew into the Eastern religions. The covenant, however, passed through Isaac.

At 175 years old, Abraham died "at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people." (Gen. 25:8) His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him with Sarah in the cave of Machpelah. Ishmael repented in his later years, and he passed away at 137 years old.

written by Yehoshua Jason Bedrick, chosid of the Rebbe.

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