Chayyei Sarah: A Satisfactory Old Age

November 10, 2017 at 10:30 am | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Vayeira | Leave a comment

What is a good old age?  What is a good time to die?

Sarah dies at age 127 at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”).

Sarah’s Burial,
by Gustave Dore

And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to lament for Sarah and to wail for her. (Genesis/Bereishit 23:2)

At the end of last week’s portion, Vayeira, Abraham and Sarah lived in Beersheba.  Now Sarah dies in Hebron, 26 miles (42 km) northeast of Beersheba, near the grove where they camped during their first sojourn in Canaan.  Abraham travels there to perform ritual mourning and purchase a burial site.  The couple appear to have separated, and Abraham’s ritual mourning is emphasized, as if he needs to make a show of grief.

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham dies at age 175.

And Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and savei-a, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

savei-a (שָׂבֵעַ) = satisfied, sated, with plenty, contented.

Sarah’s death, despite her advanced age, is treated as tragic.  Abraham’s is good.  What makes their final years different?

Sarah’s Old Age

Sarah and Abimelech,
by Marc Chagall

Sarah was already old when she finally had a baby—at age 90, according to last week’s Torah portion. (See my post Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.)  Right after God announced the miraculous pregnancy, Abraham took his 89-year-old wife to Gerar.  She was still so attractive that Abraham passed her off as his sister, and the king of Gerar “took” her.1  (In Biblical Hebrew, when a man “takes” a woman, it means he has sexual intercourse with her in order to make her his wife or concubine.)  In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Chisda explained that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin was rejuvenated, and her beauty returned.

Before the king of Gerar touched Sarah, God told him in a dream that she was married, and unless her husband Abraham interceded, the king would die.  King Avimelekh returned Sarah to Abraham, showered him with gifts, and invited him to live anywhere in the territory.  Abraham and his household settled in Beersheba, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

But at Isaac’s weaning feast three years later, Sarah was full of anxieties.  (See my post Vayeira & Toldot: Laughter, Part 2.)  She worried that people would mock her, and she was afraid that Isaac’s older half-brother, Ishmael, would inherit the firstborn’s double portion of Abraham’s wealth, even though Ishmael was the son of a slave.  So Sarah tried to secure her own son’s future by telling her husband to exile Ishmael and his mother.2  God backed up her request and Abraham obeyed.

Nevertheless, when Isaac was a young man God told Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering.3

According to one strand of classic commentary, Sarah dies of shock when she learns that Abraham almost slaughtered her beloved Isaac.4  This explanation implies that she had moved back to Hebron earlier, leaving Isaac with his father, and that news of the Akedah reached her there.  But why would she separate from her husband and stop watching over her son when nothing else was happening?  It would make more psychological sense if Abraham sent her back to Hebron because he resented her for making him exile Ishmael and Hagar—or if Sarah left her husband only after he tried to slaughter Isaac.

Whenever Sarah moved away, she also lost contact with her son.  Isaac walked away alone from the altar where Abraham almost sacrificed him, and later in this week’s potion we learn that he settled farther south, in the Negev.

At the beginning of Chayyei Sarah, Sarah dies at 127, and Isaac is 37.  He is not present at his mother’s funeral.

What is a good old age, a good death?  When I asked some of my friends, we concluded that the best ending would be:

  • Having fulfilled your mission in life, whatever that turned out to be.
  • Doing something meaningful with your last years.
  • Having a loving connection with someone during your last years.
  • Leaving no unfinished business (such as making amends, arranging inheritance).
  • Dying in a calm state of mind.

Sarah raised a son in her old age, fulfilling the mission God gave her.  But the Torah does not say that she did anything after she moved back to Hebron.  She was alienated from her husband, and out of contact with her son.  She died among mere acquaintances, in a state of either shock or bitterness.

Abraham’s Old Age

Abraham suffered during what turned out to be his early old age in the Torah portion Vayeira.  At 103, he had to drive out his concubine Hagar and his beloved son Ishmael.  And the thing was very bad in his eyes. (Genesis 21:11)

Akedah in an Icelandic
14th cent manuscript

When his remaining son, Isaac, was a young man, he carried out God’s orders to sacrifice him.  Although God stayed his hand at the last minute, he never saw Isaac again, and his wife never forgave him.  In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies when Abraham is 137, and he still feels guilty about her.5

Yet after that Abraham lives another 38 years in Beersheba.  His first order of business is to send his steward to Aram to arrange a suitable marriage for Isaac.  (He sees no need to consult his son about this; the important point is that Isaac’s descendants are supposed to inherit the land and God’s blessing.  Isaac has to marry a woman from his father’s clan and religious background, so that he can produce those descendants.)

After the steward is dispatched, Abraham takes a new concubine for himself.

And Abraham continued, and he took a woman, and her name was Keturah.  (Genesis/Bereshit 25:1)

Keturah (קְטוּרָה) = incense, smoke from incense.

The name Keturah is suggestive.  Biblical Hebrew, like English, associates heat and fire with passionate emotion.  Fragrant smoke is something to savor and enjoy; the smoke from a burnt offering or an incense pan is the part of an offering that gives God the most pleasure.  Abraham and Keturah have six sons—another indication that at long last, Abraham has a passionate relationship with a woman.

He has already fulfilled his mission in life by moving to Canaan, accumulating wealth to pass on to his heirs, making a covenant with God through circumcision, and producing the correct son to fulfill God’s prophecy that his numerous descendants will own Canaan and be a blessing to other peoples.  He has even furthered God’s plan by getting Isaac married to his cousin Rebecca.

Abraham also does something meaningful in his last years: raising six more children.  We can assume he has a loving connection with them; he certainly has one with Keturah.  And he leaves no unfinished business.  When his sons through Keturah have grown up, Abraham resolves his inheritance ahead of time.

Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac.  And to the sons of the concubines he had, Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still alive he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the land of Kedem. (Genesis 5-6)

Abraham dies not only in a calm state of mind, but savei-a: satisfied, contented.

Our Own Old Age

When we are in the thick of life, we do not know whether we will die like Sarah or like Abraham.  But we can improve our chances of dying “at a good old age, old and satisfied” (Genesis 25:8).

During our most active years, may we keep asking ourselves what our true mission in life is, and how we can realign ourselves to carry it out.

May we still do things that are meaningful to us and give us satisfaction when that God-given work is completed (perhaps when we retire from a career, perhaps when a cause or a beloved individual no longer needs our efforts, perhaps when our bodies or circumstances change).

May we keep learning how to love, keep working on the relationships that are worth continuing, and keep making new friends as long as we live.

May we take care of our own business as we go along, so that whenever we leave this world we leave nothing important undone.

And may we cultivate awareness and gratitude, making a calm and contented state of mind a habit that we never lose, even at the end.

Then no matter when death comes, at that moment we can be satisfied with our lives.

  1. Genesis 20:1-3.
  2. Genesis 21:9-13.
  3. Genesis 22:1-12.
  4. Rashi (11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yose in Genesis Rabbah 58:5.)
  5. Moshe Anisfled, “Rashi’s Midrashic Comments Are Supported by a Broad Range of Biblical Texts”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, p. 144.

Haftarat Chayyei Sarah—1 Kings: Final Duty

November 25, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Joshua, Kings 1 | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 1:1-31.

And Abraham was old, ba bayamim, and God had blessed Abraham in everything. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1)

King David from a 17th century Flemish painting

King David from a 17th century Flemish painting

And the king, David, was old, ba bayamim, and they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. (1 Kings 1:1)

ba (בָּא) = he came; coming, coming in, arriving, entering.

bayamim (בַּיָּמִים) = in the days; at the time.

Ba bayamim is often translated as “advanced in years”; Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses “days” where English would use “years”. Ba bayamim could also be translated as “coming on in years” or literally, “arriving at the time”.

The term occurs only six times in the Hebrew Bible: once in this week’s Torah portion, once in the haftarah (above), and four times in the book of Joshua (including the variants bata bayamim (בָּאתָ בַּיָּמִים) = you have arrived at the time, and bati bayamim (בָּאתִי בַּיָּמִים) = I have arrived at the time).

Joshua's Tribal Allotments, 1759 map

Joshua’s Tribal Allotments, 1759 map

Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And God said to him: You have grown old, bata bayamim, and a lot of the land left over/remains to take possession of. (Joshua 13:1-2)

God tells Joshua he must apportion among the twelve tribes all of the land that will someday be Israel. After Joshua has accomplished this, the book repeats:

…and Joshua was old, ba bayamim. And Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and its chiefs and its judges and its officials, and he said to them: I am old, bati bayamim. (Joshua 23:1-2)

He then makes a farewell speech urging them to serve God faithfully in order to keep the land.

Both points in the book of Joshua where ba bayamim and a variation of the phrase appear, there is a task the old leader must do before he dies. I believe this is also true when the phrase appears in reference to Abraham and David.

Abraham is old, ba bayamim, when he is in his 130’s, wealthy, and at peace with his neighbors. He is also still vigorous enough to remarry, have six more sons, and live to 175. But when he becomes ba bayamim he arranges a wife for his estranged son Isaac, whom he and God have chosen as his successor, so that his tribe’s lineage and religion can continue.

(Later, he leaves gifts to his younger six sons, and sends them away from Isaac so there will be no dispute about the inheritance.)

When King David is ba bayamim, he is 70 years old and frail. But he, too, has a final task to accomplish: he must establish which of his surviving sons will be king now that he is no longer able to rule.

There are factions behind three different candidates: Adoniyahu, David’s oldest surviving son; Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba; and possibly David himself, if he can return to health.

Following the announcement that David is old and ba bayamim, the haftarah says:

David and Abishag, by Jacob Epstein

David and Abishag, by Jacob Epstein

And they covered him with [bed]clothes, but he did not feel warm. So his avadim said to him: They will seek for my lord the king a virgin girl to stand in waiting on the king. And she will be a nurse for him, and she will lie in your bosom and make warmth for my lord the king. (1 Kings 1:1-2)

avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, employees, courtiers.

Some commentators claim that the king’s courtiers only want a girl to provide warmth, but in that case, why do the avadim specify that the king’s new bed-warmer must be a virgin?

Other commentary claims they want someone to stimulate David’s flagging sexual energy. If a virgin gets pregnant on the job in the closely watched king’s bedchamber, it will prove that David is still virile enough to rule. So the king’s avadim select a young woman who is both a virgin and beautiful, who can both warm him and stimulate him.

And they sought a beautiful girl through all the territory of Israel, and they found Avishag of Shunem, and they brought her to the king. And the girl was very beautiful, and she became an attendant on the king, and she waited on him. But the king did not know her intimately. (1 Kings 1:3-4)

The king’s courtiers are probably disappointed. If David’s kingship were extended, they could continue with their own positions in the palace. A new king might fire them, or worse.

And Adoniyahu, son of Chaggit [David’s fourth wife], was aggrandizing himself, saying: I will reign! And he made himself a chariot and horsemen with fifty men going before him. (1 Kings 1:5)

And he spoke with Yoav son of Tzeruyah, and with Evyatar the Priest, and they supported Adoniyahu. But Tzadok the Priest, and Benayahu son of Yehoyada, and Natan the Prophet, and Shimi the Friend, and the fighting men who were David’s, were not with Adoniyahu. (1 Kings 1:7-8)

Tzadok, Natan, and their faction prefer Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. King David himself has no idea what is going on.

King David with Avishag and Bathsheba, c. 1435

King David with Avishag and Bathsheba, c. 1435

So Natan asks Bathsheba to go to David and remind him that he once promised her Solomon would become the next king.

And Bathsheba came to the king in the inner chamber. And the king was very old, and Avishag of Shunem was waiting on the king. And Bathsheba knelt, and she bowed down to the king. And the king said: “Mah lach?”

Mah lach (מַה־לָּךְ) = What is the matter? (Literally, “What is for you?”)

These are the first words David speaks after the Bible tells us he is ba bayamim.  He is too miserable to find out what is going on in his kingdom, and too sick to be interested in sex (though he once had eight wives and ten concubines). But he rouses himself when Bathsheba comes for an audience.

She  reminds David about his promise, and tells him that Adoniyahu has made himself king behind David’s back.  Then Natan comes in, bows, and asks David why he made Adoniyahu king without telling his loyal servant Natan.

Alert at last, King David swears Solomon will be the next king, and gives instructions to make it happen. The story continues after this week’s haftarah with a scene in which the people celebrating Adoniyahu’s kingship hear another crowd blowing shofars and shouting “Long live King Solomon” at the Tent of Meeting. Solomon gets to the throne first.

David's Dying Charge to Solomon, by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1700

David’s Dying Charge to Solomon, by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1700

When King David is old and ba bayamim , he is too feeble to complete his final task on his own. His avadim get him a new concubine, while his son Adoniyahu schemes to seize the throne. King David’s succession has almost slipped out of his control when Natan and Bathsheba induce him to give orders about the next king—something he should have done before he was reduced to lying in bed shivering.

When we grow old, some of us find that we have tidied up as we went along, and nothing remains to be done. But some of us are ba bayamim, arriving at the time when we must finish a task before we die. May we all be aware of our own time and achieve what we need to.

And when the time comes, may each of us die not like David, but like Abraham.

And Abraham died at a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

(I dedicate this post to my mother-in-law, Mildred Carpenter, who died last week at age 96, surrounded by her family, leaving nothing undone.)

Chayyei Sarah: Loss of Trust

November 4, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment
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Abraham, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is the decisive ruler of his household of about a thousand people. He never consults or asks favors of anyone except his wife Sarah and God.

When Abraham is 137 years old, God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then rescinds the order at the last second. (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  Then his wife Sarah dies, and Abraham decides it is time for their son Isaac to marry.  He summons his head servant, Eliezer, and gives him instructions for procuring the appropriate wife—without consulting his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And I will have you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the land, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose midst I am dwelling. Because you must go to my land and to my moledet, and [there] you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac. (Genesis/Bereishit 24:3-4)

moledet  (מוֹלֶדֶת) = kin, relatives, family of origin.map Abraham's journey

Where is Abraham’s land?  It might be the city of Ur Kasdim, where he was born and married Sarah; or the town of Charan in Aram, where he lived for decades before God called him. Or it might be the land of Canaan, where he has lived for the past 50 years or so, mostly in Hebron and Beersheba.

The word moledet clarifies that Abraham means Charan, because that is where his brother Nachor’s family still lives.

This raises a question for Eliezer. God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, and since Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, has been exiled, that means Isaac’s descendants.  Yet the custom in that part of the world was for the husband to leave his parents and live near his wife’s family.

Even the Garden of Eden story alludes to this custom:

Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and he will cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  (Genesis 2:24)

Later in the book of Genesis, Isaac’s son Jacob marries two of his cousins in Charan, and remains there for 20 years.  This is the cultural norm.

Yet Eliezer suspects that Abraham does not want Isaac to move from Canaan to Charan.

And the servant said to him:  What if the woman will not consent to follow me to this land?  Should I really bring back your son to the land that you left? (Genesis 24:5)

Abraham’s reply is clear.

And Abraham said to him:  Guard yourself, lest you bring my son back there!  God, god of the heavens, Who took me from the house of my father and from the land of my moledet, and Who spoke to me and Who swore to me, saying “To your seed I will give this land”—May [God] Itself send Its angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman does not consent to follow you, then you will be cleared from this oath of mine.  Only you must not bring my son back there! (Genesis 24:6-8)

Why is it so important for Isaac to marry a non-Canaanite, yet stay in the land of Canaan?  The commentary offers several suggestions, including:

1) God promised to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.  In order to be prepared for God’s gift, these descendants must be distinct from the Canaanites (rather than intermarried), and they must be living in Canaan, so they are attached to the land and willing to change from resident aliens to owners.

2) Even a short visit to Charan would seduce Isaac away from his father’s religion.  The early 20th-century rabbi Elie Munk cites Abraham’s “constant concern for sheltering his son from all influences able to jeopardize the purity of his religious ideas”.

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Canaanite goddess, possibly from a set of terafim, 14-13th century BCE

Later in this week’s Torah portion, Abraham’s extended family in Charan refer to God by the same four-letter name as the God of Israel.  But in another portion, Vayeitzei, we learn that the household also keeps terafim, statues of household gods.

3) A Canaanite wife would corrupt Isaac, since Canaanites are morally degenerate.  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarized this opinion by noting that although both the Canaanites and the Aramaeans of Charan worshipped the wrong gods, the Canaanites were also “morally degenerate”.

Although moral issues are not mentioned in Genesis, the book of Leviticus/Vayikra warns the Israelites about the morals of the Canaanites when God says:

…like the deeds of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you—you shall not do! (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:3)

Then God gives the Israelites a list of forbidden sexual partners, and concludes:

Do not become defiled through any of these [sexual practices], because through all of these they became defiled, the peoples that I will be driving away from before you. (Leviticus 18:24)

All three of the above explanations assume that Isaac cannot be trusted–either to pick out his own wife, or to commit himself to the land God promised.  Isaac is seen as weak and easily influenced, ready to abandon what he learned from his father.

Since Abraham does not trust Isaac, no wonder he sends Eliezer to arrange his son’s marriage and bring back the bride!

And why should Abraham trust Isaac, when he knows that Isaac has rejected him?

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, the 37-year-old Isaac trusts his father so much that he follows him to the top of Mount Moriyah and lets the old man bind him on the altar as a sacrifice.  I can only conclude Isaac believes that Abraham heard God correctly, and that God really ordered the sacrifice.  Isaac is completely devoted to the god of Abraham and will do whatever this god requires.

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

14th century Icelandic manuscript, with angel and ram

Abraham lifts the blade, then hears God’s voice telling him to stop.  He stops and substitutes a ram for his son on the altar.  God talks to him some more, and then Abraham walks back down the mountain–alone. The Torah does not say where Isaac goes.

Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies, but only Abraham shows up to bury her.  The Torah never reports father and son in the same place at the same time again.  Their mutual trust is broken. The next time we see Isaac, he is living at Beir-Lachai-Roi, some distance south of Abraham’s home at Beersheba.  Abraham’s servant brings Isaac’s bride directly to Beir-Lachai-Roi, probably because he knows Isaac would never return to his father’s home to meet her.

The Torah does not say why Isaac turns against the father he trusted.  My guess is that the interrupted sacrifice proves to Isaac that

1) Abraham does not always know what God wants, after all, and

2) his father is willing to kill him anyway.

So Isaac separates from his father.  For all Abraham knows, Isaac rejects God as well.  But Abraham still wants descendants—descendants who will be suitable to receive the gift of Canaan from God. So Abraham goes ahead and arranges his son’s marriage.

If this were a modern story, Abraham’s plot would backfire. Isaac would reject the bride Eliezer brings back from Charan, and find his own wife and his own religion.

But in the book of Genesis, Isaac falls in love with his cousin Rebecca from Charan.  He stays in Canaan, and he continues to worship the god of Abraham his whole life.  Isaac is wise enough not to let his mistrust of his father infect his relationships with other people or with God.

May we all be able, like Isaac, to distinguish between a person we cannot trust and the individuals and ideas connected with that person.

Chayyei Sarah: Rebecca’s Camel

November 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | 2 Comments
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Camels are the key to Isaac’s marriage in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”), so called because it opens with the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah.

Isaac does not pick out his own wife.  When he turns 40—a good time for a man to marry, by Torah standards—his father, Abraham, orders his steward to find Isaac a wife.  Isaac is not present, and as far as we know, the father and son are not on speaking terms.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Isaac let his father bind him on an altar as a sacrifice for God. An angelic voice stopped Abraham when his knife touched his son’s throat. After sacrificing a ram instead, Abraham left the hilltop alone.  Isaac is missing from the story for a while; he does not even appear at his mother’s funeral.  Only in this week’s portion do we learn  that he is living in a remote and isolated spot south of Beer-sheva, near Beer-lachai-Roi, “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”. (See my earlier post, Chayyei Sarah: A Holy Place.)

Nevertheless, Abraham sends off  his steward to make a match for his missing son, stipulating only that the woman must come from his own extended family in Charan (the Aramaean town Abraham left 65 years before), and that she must be willing to move to Canaan.

The steward selects ten of Abraham’s riding camels, some treasures for his own pack, and some servants to lead the camels.  (In the world of the Hebrew Bible, the only people who ride camels or donkeys are women, children, and disabled men.)  The camels and men walk all the way to Charan.

And he made the gemalim kneel outside the city, toward the well of water, at evening time, the time when the women drawing water go out. (Genesis 24:11)

gemalim (גְמַלִּים) = dromedary (one-hump) camels. (The singular is gamal (גָּמָל). The verb from the same root, gamal (גָּמַל) = wean a child or ripen a fruit; repay someone in kind for good or evil actions.)

Egyptian petroglyph ca. 2200 B.C.E.

Egyptian petroglyph ca. 2200 B.C.E.

In the late 20th century, many scholars thought camels were not domesticated in the Middle East until after 1200 B.C.E.  Since the Abraham stories are set in circa 2000 B.C.E., they considered the camels an anachronism. This opinion is now contested.  For example, a rock carving in Upper Egypt dated to circa 2200 B.C.E. shows someone leading a camel on a rope.

In the Torah, Abraham first acquires camels in Egypt, as a gift from the pharaoh. Presumably the ten riding camels his steward takes are their descendants.

One reason the steward brings camels, as well as jewelry and fine clothing, is that camels are more impressive and expensive mounts than donkeys.  A display of wealth would help to persuade the prospective bride’s family to let her emigrate to Canaan. But the steward has another reason. After the ten camels are kneeling by the well outside Charan, the steward prays to the god of Abraham:

Let it be the young woman to whom I say: Tilt, please, your jug so I may drink; and she says: Drink, and I will even give a drink to your gemalim—you have marked her out for your servant for Isaac… (Genesis 24:14)

By asking for this particular divine sign, Abraham’s servant is asking for more than his master did. The steward wants Isaac’s wife to be generous and hospitable, even to servants and animals, and even when it involves labor on her part.

Excavated well at Gibeon

Excavated well at Gibeon

And it happened before he finished speaking: hey! Rebecca, who was born to Betueil son of Milkah wife of Nachor brother of Abraham, went out, and her jug was on her shoulder. …and she went down to the spring and she filled her jug and she went up. (Genesis 24:15-16)

Wells in Mesopotamia and Canaan at that time were dug not only deep enough to reach a natural spring or underground river, but also wide enough to accommodate stairs. Water-drawers climbed down to the bottom to fill their jugs.

When Rebecca, Abraham’s great-niece, climbs back up, Eliezer calls to her: Let me sip, please, a little water from your jug. (Genesis 24:17)

And she said: Drink, my lord; and she hurried over she lowered her jug onto her hand and she gave him a drink. She let him drink his fill, and she said: Also I will draw for your gemalim until they have drunk their fill.  And she hurried over and she poured out her jug to give them a drink, and she ran again to the well to draw for all his gemalim. (Genesis 24:18-20)

A camel drinks at least 25 gallons of water after a long journey. To water ten camels, Rebecca runs up and down the steps of the well with her jug more than 100 times!  This is the first feat of heroic strength recorded in the Torah.

The wedding negotiations are successful, and Rebecca declares she will go to Canaan. She and her female attendants mount the camels and follow Eliezer.

They travel not to Abraham, but directly to Isaac in the desert. He is walking alone across a field in the early evening, returning from the holy well.

And he raised his eyes and he saw, and hey! Gemalim were coming! (Genesis 24:63)

The travelers are not close enough for Isaac to identify anyone, but if he can see that the animals are camels, he can also see that they carry riders, not packs. I can imagine Isaac’s dismay, realizing he will have to step out of his solitude and greet these visitors.

And Rebecca raised her eyes, and she saw Isaac, vatipol the gamal. And she said to the servant: Who is that man walking in the field to meet us? (Genesis 24:64-65)

vatipol (וַתִּפֹּל) = and she fell off.

What does Rebecca see in Isaac’s face and walk that makes her fall off the camel?

Maybe she sees darkness in his soul, from having been bound on the altar by his own father.  Or maybe she sees light in his soul, from volunteering to be the sacrifice and hearing God’s voice.  Maybe she sees his innocence and preoccupation with the unworldly—something she had never seen in Charan.

Whatever she sees, this moment reveals two more of Rebecca’s qualities: her sensitive perception of people’s characters, and her awareness of the divine. All of Rebecca’s characteristics—assertiveness, generosity, strength, adventurousness, perceptiveness, and orientation toward the divine—will shape the story in next week’s portion, Toledot.

The Torah story uses camels, gemalim, both to make the match and to reveal Rebecca’s character. I suspect the text is hinting that this wedding is about the verb gamal = wean, ripen, or repay.

And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rivkah as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac had a change of heart after his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Here the Torah indicates that Rebecca weans Isaac from his attachment to his mother. Maybe he is stuck in life because of the trauma of his binding and near-sacrifice, and Rebecca completes his ripening into a mature adult. In next week’s Torah portion, Isaac emerges from his solitude and assumes the leadership of his tribe after Abraham’s death.

Rebecca might also be Isaac’s reward or repayment for his faith in Abraham and God when he let himself be bound. She is an exceptional woman (as well as young, beautiful, and a virgin), and Isaac loves her. This is the first time the Torah says a man loves his wife.

May everyone who is stuck and unable to ripen meet a “camel” to help them ride into a fuller life.  And may everyone who draws water for others, and carries them from an old home to a new one, be repaid with a good life.

 

Chayyei Sarah (& Lekh-Lekha): A Holy Place

October 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah, Lekh Lekha, Vayeira, Vayeitzei | 2 Comments
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What makes a place holy?

The word for “holy”, kadosh, means separated from mundane use, dedicated to God, or simply inspiring religious awe.  Kadosh appears only once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, in verb form, when God blesses the seventh day of creation and makes it holy.  The word does not show up again until the book of Exodus/Shemot, when Moses stops to look at the burning bush, and God tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground (Exodus 3:5).  Later in Exodus, Mount Sinai becomes holy ground for a whole people.  Eventually the Bible names Jerusalem as a holy city.

Even though there are no places called kadosh, “holy”, in the book of Genesis, there many sites where God makes first contact with a human being.  At two of the locations where God speaks to a human, the human dedicates the spot, and later someone returns to the same place to connect with God.  These places, Be-eir Lachai Ro-i and Beit-El, must surely count as holy!

Isaac and his bride Rebecca meet in a field next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (“Well for the Living One Who Sees Me”) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”).  But it is Hagar, an Egyptian, who first encounters God there.

When Abraham and his wife Sarah leave Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha (“Go for Yourself”), Hagar goes with them as Sarah’s servant.  Sarah gives Hagar to her husband for the purpose of producing a child Sarah can adopt.  But once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away across the Negev Desert, back toward Egypt.  A messenger of God  finds her at a spring, a watering-place by the road.  God speaks to Hagar through the messenger and convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah.

And she called the name of God, the one speaking to her: You are the God of Ro-i; for she said: Even as far as here, I saw after ro-i! Therefore the be-eir is called Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 16:13-14)

ro-i = seeing me, one who sees me.

be-eir = well, watering-place.

lachai = for the living one.

For Hagar, accustomed to being a pawn in Sarah’s schemes, the most amazing thing is that God actually notices her—and she survives.  Hagar does return, and gives birth to Ishmael.  Sarah adopts Ishmael, but later bears her own son, Isaac, and sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile.

Isaac is 40 years old before the Torah once again mentions Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.  At this point, Isaac is estranged from his father.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw”), Abraham bound Isaac as a sacrificial offering, and raised the knife to his son’s throat before a voice from God called him off.  After that, Isaac did not go home with his father.  In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac’s mother, without Isaac’s presence.  Then he arranges for Isaac to marry an Aramean without even informing his son.  Apparently they are not on speaking terms.

Abraham lives in Beersheba (Be-eir Sheva), and Isaac lives farther south, in the Negev Desert.

And Isaac, he came from coming to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, and he himself lived in the land of the Negev.  And Isaac went out lasuach in the field, in the face of the sunset; and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey!  Camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62-63)

lasuach = to ?? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, and though it is in the form of an infinitive verb, scholars do not agree on its meaning.  Lasuach has been translated as to stroll, to pray, to supplicate, and to meditate.  It might be a variant spelling of the verb siyach = meditate, go over a matter, contemplate something.)

I like the literal translation he came from coming to; it emphasizes that a holy well is a place you come to.  Isaac is avoiding his father, but he comes to the well where God noticed and spoke to Hagar.  Since he has no intention of traveling to Egypt on the road that runs past the well, he must come there because he knows about Hagar’s experience.

Like Hagar, Isaac is used to being overlooked as a person, accustomed to being a pawn in his father’s schemes.  Maybe he hopes that God will notice him at Hagar’s well, or maybe he hopes he will be able to see himself.

Coming from the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, Isaac heads out into the field at sunset to lasuach.  Maybe Isaac senses the holy presence of God at the well, and he walks back through the field slowly to absorb the experience.

Lost in thought, he raises his eyes and is surprised to see camels approaching.  He is not far from the road between Beersheba and Egypt, but these camels have left the road and are heading across the field toward him.  The first rider to dismount is Rebecca, the bride that Abraham’s servant is bringing to Isaac.  They meet in the field, he loves her, and he begins his new life.

Near the end of the Torah portion, Isaac and his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael, bury Abraham in the family cave to the north.  Then Isaac returns to Hagar’s well.

And it was after the death of Abraham when God blessed Isaac, his son; and he settled next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 25:11)

The only other place in the book of Genesis that remains holy years later, under the same name, is Beit-El (sometimes called Bethel in English).  In the upcoming Torah portion Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob stops for the night on his way to Charan and dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth. God speaks to him for the first time.  When Jacob wakes, he says:

Truly God yesh in this place and I, I did not know! And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is nowhere but Beit El, and this is the gate of the heavens! (Genesis 28:16-17)

yesh = it exists, it is present, there is.

Beit El = the house of God.

For Jacob, the most amazing thing is not that God notices him, but that God exists at all in this world.

Jacob dedicates the spot by setting up a stone pillar and pouring oil over it, and naming it Beit-El.  More than 20 years later, God tells him to return to Beit-El.  Jacob first buries all the idols belonging to his household.  Then he leads them to the spot and builds an altar. God blesses him again, and Jacob pours a libation as well as oil on the stone pillar before moving on.  By returning to the place where God first spoke to him, Jacob rededicates himself to God.

*

Few of us today hear God speaking to us in Biblical Hebrew.  But once in a while, we notice God, or God notices us, and we are amazed.  Suddenly our usual mundane perspective changes, and the world is suffused with new meaning.

Sometimes this happens because a place strikes us as holy, awe-inspiring, connected with God.  It might be a liminal place in nature—the edge of the ocean, deep in a forest, a remote spot with a brilliant night sky.  I have also felt that mysterious awe inside medieval cathedrals, though as a Jew I do not go looking for God there.

Sometimes we go back later, and find God again.  Sometimes we go back and discover that the place seems ordinary now; the holiness was in our own heart.  Either way, it is a blessing to be able to stand on holy ground.

Chayyei Sarah: Consenting Bride

November 7, 2012 at 11:56 am | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | Leave a comment

Two people never “marry” in the Torah; biblical Hebrew has no separate word for “marry”.  Instead, a man “takes a wife”, or someone else takes a wife for him.  In a culture dominated by men, a woman never “takes” a husband.

The book of Genesis/Bereishit uses the verb “take” 138 times, and fully 40 of those times refer to taking a wife (or taking a woman without a formal marriage contract).  Some individual men take wives, or women, for themselves: Lamekh, Abraham, Nachor, Pharaoh, Avimelekh, Esau, and Judah.  But Sarah “takes” her slave-woman Hagar and gives her to Abraham as a second wife. Hagar takes a wife for her son Ishmael from the land of Egypt.  Lavan takes his daughter Leah to be a wife for Jacob.  Both of Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, take their slave-women and give them to Jacob as wives.  Judah takes a wife for his son Eir.  And in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (Life of Sarah), Abraham’s steward takes a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.

Abraham does not even tell Isaac he is arranging a marriage for him. (They may not be on speaking terms, since Abraham put a knife to his son’s throat in last week’s Torah portion.) Instead, Abraham has his steward arrange the marriage, and he makes the man swear, in a formal ceremony, that he will not take a Canaanite wife for Isaac. (See my earlier blog posting, “Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath”.) The steward must go to Abraham’s relatives back in Aram to find the wife.

The subordinate said to him: Perhaps the isha will not consent to go after me to this land; then, surely, won’t I bring your son back to the land which you left? (Genesis/Bereishit 24:5)

isha = wife; woman

This is the only marriage arrangement in the Torah in which the woman’s consent is mentioned. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that her consent is not necessary for the marriage, only for moving to the land where her bridegroom lives. If the bride refuses to move, then Isaac could only fulfill his duties as a husband by moving to the bride’s city.

But Abraham tells his steward that he must not bring Isaac to the land of Aram under any circumstances. If the wife he finds in Aram refuses to follow him to Canaan, then the marriage is off, and the steward is absolved of his oath. As many commentators have pointed out, Abraham seems to fear that if Isaac ever leaves Canaan, he will never return. He knows Isaac is a  peacemaker who lacks initiative. But God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. So he insists that Isaac must stay in Canaan.

Why does he also insist that Isaac must not marry a Canaanite, and send his steward off to take a wife for Isaac from his relatives in Aram? I am planning a future blog post on why Abraham’s family does so much intermarriage. Traditional commentary also points out that Isaac’s ideal wife must resemble Abraham; Abraham stipulates that she must come from the same family, and she, too, must be willing to to to a strange land, while Abraham’s steward stipulates that she must be as generously hospitable as Abraham.

When the steward reaches the city of Nachor in Aram, the first teenage girl he encounters is Rebecca, who proves to be extraordinarily generous, watering all ten of his camels and offering his whole caravan food and lodging for the night. She is also a close relative: the granddaughter of Nachor (Abraham’s brother) and Milkah (Abraham’s niece by another brother). The only requirement left is that she will agree to go to Canaan.

But first Rebecca’s parents must agree to the marriage. The steward has loaded the ten camels with gifts, and before he even asks her about her lineage, he gives Rebecca a gold nose ring and two gold bracelets. The Torah does not describe her reaction to this gift, but she would recognize it as first installment of the bride-price for a marriage arrangement.

The teenage girl ran, and she told her mother’s household about these events. (Genesis 24:28)

Why does the male-oriented Torah refer to her mother’s household, when both her father Betu-el and her brother Lavan are living there? Perhaps when Rebecca’s parents married, her father Betu-el went to live with his wife’s family–just as later in the book of Genesis, Jacob lives with his father-in-law and uncle, Lavan. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has suggested that it was the custom in Rebecca’s family of origin for the groom to join the bride’s household, rather than the groom’s household.

The stories about Abraham’s family are probably set sometime between 1800 and 1500 BCE, when Aram was a region of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia, and would have followed the Babylonian customs during the reign of Hammurabi.  The Code of Hammurabi includes both a law relating to when a young married couple is living with the groom’s parents, and a law relating to when they are living with the bride’s parents. So it is plausible that an Aramean family might have a tradition that the groom always moves in with bride’s family.

Presumably both Abraham and his steward know about this family tradition, and therefore know that the bride’s willingness to leave her mother’s house and travel to Canaan will be critical.

Rebecca’s father, mother, and brother agree to the proposed marriage on the same day the steward arrives in their house–perhaps because of the large bride-price, or perhaps because the steward’s story proves that the marriage is the will of the god that they, as well as Abraham, worship. But accepting the bride-price is only the first step in an arranged marriage.

Ancient Mesopotamian texts match the sequence in this week’s Torah portion:

1) The prospective husband, or his representative, gives the prospective bride’s parents the bride-price (her purchase price) as a “gift”. The parents (but not the bride) decide whether to accept the bride-price.

2) The two families draw up a marriage contract, which lists the bride-price and any stipulations. Now the bride and groom are betrothed, but the bride remains in her parents’ house.

3) The bride’s family gives the bride all or most of the bride-price, and adds some of their own wealth as a dowry for their daughter. This combined wealth will be controlled by the husband until he dies or divorces his wife; then the property (land, slaves, furniture, jewelry, gold, or silver) reverts to the wife.

4) The bride and groom themselves join hands (sometimes meeting for the first time) and the groom utters a wedding formula in front of a qualified witness.

5) The marriage is consummated in private.

Abraham’s steward gives Rebecca’s family a handsome bride-price, and they accept it. Presumably they write a marriage contract. The next morning, the steward asks permission to return to his master.

Her brother said, and her mother: The (teenage) girl will stay with us, yamim or ten; afterward, she will go. (Genesis 24:55)

yamim = days (literally); some while, about a year (figuratively)

And he said to them: Don’t hold back on me, when God made my journey successful; send me, and I will go to my lord. And they said: We will call the girl, and we will ask her [for a decision from] her mouth. And they called to Rebecca and they said to her: Will you go with this man? And she said: I will go. (Genesis 24:56-58)

Rebecca has a choice. She could insist on staying with her family in Aram, betrothed but not yet married, until Isaac himself shows up. Instead, she decides to go with the steward she met only the day before, and live with her new husband in Canaan. She willingly commits herself not only to a man she has never met, but also to a land she has never seen.

I admire Rebecca’s courage–all the more so because  she must have grown up expecting that her parents would marry her to a man who would come and live with them. Her husband would be new, but the rest of her household would remain the same. And she would have no say in the arrangement.

With the arrival of Abraham’s steward, Rebecca suddenly gets a choice. And she makes her choice instantly and decisively, just as she decides to water all ten camels despite the great effort required.

I am fortunate enough to live in a society in which women can make many choices about their lives. But if someday I am given a totally unexpected choice, I pray that I may see the opportunity, and choose as boldly as Rebecca.

Chayyei Sarah: A Peculiar Oath

April 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Chayyei Sarah | 1 Comment

(I first posted this essay on October 24, 2010, then added footnotes and illustrations in 2019.)

Which body part does Abraham’s steward place his hand under when he swears an oath to his master?

Abraham Making his Servant Eliezer Swear, by Dirck Volkertsz Coornheert

Now Abraham was an elder, coming on in days, and God had blessed Abraham in everything.  And Abraham said to his servant, an elder of his household, the one who governed all that was his: Please place your hand under my yareikh, and I will make you swear by God, god of the heavens and god of the earth, that you do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites amidst whom I am dwelling.  For you must go to the land I came from and to my relatives, and you must take a wife for my son, for Isaac.  (Genesis/Bereishit 24:1-4)

yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals.

Only two times in the Torah does someone ask another person to place his hand under the yareikh and swear an oath: in this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah (“Life of Sarah”), and in Genesis 47:29, when Jacob makes his son Joseph swear not to bury him in Egypt.

In both cases, the person requesting the oath believes he will soon die.  He will not be there to make sure his wishes are carried out, so he deputizes a man he trusts and asks him to swear a serious oath.

Abraham is 137 years old when he requests this oath.  Neither he nor his steward Eliezer1 expect him to live long enough to give further instructions if Eliezer cannot find a wife for Isaac in Abraham’s old home, the city of Charan in Aram.  (Ironically, it turns out that Abraham lives another 38 years.)

He asks his steward, who will be in charge after he dies, to swear an oath while his hand is placed—where, exactly?

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that it was the patriarch’s thigh or buttock: the first place to touch the ground when one rests.  Therefore, he wrote, the man about to swear the oath shows the dying man that he can rest in peace, trusting to the power of the swearer’s hand.2

George Washington Swearing on a Bible

Yet in other parts of the Torah, the word yareikh is a euphemism for the genitals.   A rabbi in the Talmud declared that Abraham’s servant grasped his circumcised penis, since oaths administered by a court require one to hold a sacred item in the hand while swearing.3  Rashi4 confirmed this opinion, and his commentary is not known for flights of fancy.  Rabbi Elie Munk pointed out that the book of Genesis is set in a time before the giving of the Torah, so a circumcised penis was the only sacred object available.5

Other commentators have noted that the English words testify, testimony, and testicles all come from Latin words based on the root “testis”, and claim that this may reflect a Roman practice of taking an oath on the genitals.

If the male genitals are a symbol of creative power, they refer to God the Creator.  If they represent the covenant with God, they refer to holiness.  Either way, the oath-taker is asked to place his hand in a position underneath, below, subservient to, a symbol of the sacred.

Throughout the Torah, the hand is a metaphor for the power to act, to do things in the world.  So in this ancient ritual, the one swearing the oath places his own power to act underneath the sacred object of the other man.  In other words, he is promising he will do everything in his power to carry out the other man’s will as if it were the will of God.  A potent oath!

A vow made to a dying person is one-sided, obligating only the person swearing the oath.  If unforeseen circumstances arise after someone is dead, is the other party still obliged to carry out a mission that now looks like a bad idea?  Or should the survivor be free to change course to address the new circumstances?

In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s steward Eliezer has little trouble bringing back a bride for Isaac from Aram.  (In the other example of this oath, Joseph easily gets Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Hebron instead of Egypt.)  My impression is that Eliezer enjoys his matchmaking in this week’s Torah portion.

*

Not all deathbed requests are that easy, or that benign.  Yet human nature tends to put a high value on a deathbed promise; for example, people go to great lengths to carry out a deceased person’s wishes regarding burial.  There is also psychological pressure to reassure a dying person.  In that situation, is a promise really freely given?

Suppose you “knew” that a certain thing had to happen, and you doubted you would live long enough to make sure it did happen.  Is it right to ask someone else to swear to make it happen?  What if the person you are asking agrees to carry our your mission even though they do not share your belief in its necessity?  What if the circumstances change after your death?

Is it right for a living person to be bound by the desire of someone who is dead?

  1. See Genesis 15:2.
  2. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshit, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 514.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 38b.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bereishis, Mesorah Publications, 1994, p. 626.

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