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Chayye Sarah

Shabbat, 11/06/2004
Ruth Kertzer Seidman

At the center of this sedrah is Chapter 24, the longest chapter in Genesis. In 67 verses it tells the dramatic story of the betrothal of Isaac and Rebecca. I would like to look more closely at what this story tells us about these two people, and what we can learn from them about human relationships.

Abraham asks his servant to find a wife for Isaac, not from among the local Canaanites, but from the distant land of Abraham’s birth. The servant travels to Haran with ten camels, along the way offering a prayer for the success of the mission. The servant meets Rebecca by the well outside the city. According to his plan, he asks her for a drink of water. By her actions, he will know if she is the right person to be the matriarch for this generation. When the servant asks her for water and she gives it to him, she then offers to draw water for his ten camels. Added to this, she is beautiful, a virgin, and, it turns out, a member of Abraham’s family.

The servant explains his mission and negotiates for the bride with Rebecca’s brother Laban. Rebecca’s family wants her to remain at home ten days before leaving, but the servant does not want to wait. They put it to Rebecca: “Will you go with this man”. She replies: “I will.”

After a lengthy return journey, they approach the destination. “Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening, and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.” “Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is this man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Let us look at the characters of Rebecca and Isaac. What does each bring to this generation of the Jewish people? Why have they been matched? (We are told that this was “a match made in heaven”—in Yiddish, “bashert”—by the servant’s prayer, verse 44: “Let her be the wife whom the Lord has decreed for my master’s son.”)

--Rebecca is very much of this world, and Isaac more otherworldly. Rebecca is energetic and physical. She “quickly lowered her jar” and “quickly emptied” it and “ran back to the well” to draw water for all the camels. The first time we see Isaac in the story, he is “out walking in the field”. Commentators say that he is either praying or meditating—evening being mentioned is indicative of the evening prayers.

--Rebecca moves from place to place and Isaac stays in one place. The servant has to swear not to let Isaac leave Canaan. Rebecca travels.

--Rebecca is decisive and is consulted about her wishes. She is asked if she wants to go at that time. We do not hear anything about Isaac being consulted. It would seem that Rebecca is presented to Isaac as a fait accompli.

--Isaac, like most of us, is someone who needs comfort and support. Rebecca has just left her home and traveled a distance to a place she did not know. But the story tells us that she comforts him for the loss of his mother. She has just left her entire family behind.

I am not trying to show Rebecca’s superiority to Isaac. Some commentators have compared the two with words like “active” and “passive”, but I am not doing this. Some have suggested that there is something mentally or psychologically lacking in Isaac—as a child the need to protect him from Ishmael, his passivity at the Akedah, the need to find and bring him a wife, and later his being manipulated by his wife and son. What I am looking for here are the positive qualities that both Rebecca and Isaac bring to the marriage, to that generation. Since I have already said quite a bit about Rebecca’s positive qualities, what about Isaac?

--I think that there is strength in repose, in contemplation and spirituality. Isaac perhaps has this quality.

--Isaac believes in his father. At the time of the Akedah, when Isaac is told: “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son”, the text continues: “And the two of them walked on together.

--He is also a person who accepts his role in life. He accepts the woman he is to marry—the woman God ordained for him.

--Isaac is monogamous, which can’t be said for his father Abraham or his son Jacob. His life is therefore not bound up with many of the “issues” that troubled the family generation before and after him.

--Both Isaac and to some extent Rebecca have been born for greatness. In Biblical parlance, a miraculous birth or early life story foretells an important person or a savior (think Moses, Samson, Samuel, Jesus). The signs around Rebecca’s birth are less obvious, but her birth is mentioned in the second to last verse of Chapter 22 and two verses later, in the second verse of Chapter 23, Sarah’s death is mentioned. Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, says that Sarah died only after Rebecca was born, since one righteous person does not die before another is born. Rebecca is to take on the role of the next matriarch, the righteous woman of that generation. The very last words of Chapter 24 clearly show Rebecca replacing Sarah, in Isaac’s mother’s tent and in his affections. Rashi says that Rebecca brought back Sarah’s special light and blessing to the tent.

What can we learn from this? I’ll tell you what this means to me personally. It is easy to categorize and to judge people. I admire those who are tolerant and accepting; it’s a quality I pray for every year during the Yamim Nora’im. Looking at Rebecca and Isaac reminds me the world needs different personalities, people with different strengths and even different weaknesses.

Many of us are familiar with the idea that an organization needs a combination of thinkers and doers, those with good analytical skills and those with good people skills, those who can act quickly and those who know when to tell you to stop and think something over before rushing headlong into disaster.

This has also been suggested for the spiritual realm. Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches about the various roles in a spiritual group. She identifies several of types of individuals, for example, the strength giver, the leader, the observer, the sustainer, the hidden veiled one. While the leader develops group capabilities, the sustainer is the holder of group energies. I have found this to be true in all sorts of group dynamics. In a successful gathering, whether a discussion group, some friends who like to spend time together, or a group of people meditating together, we draw strength from one another, and it works best if there are different types of people.

I don’t know everything that Isaac or even Rebecca brought to their generation, but I sense that there is something here, maybe hidden like Rebecca when she veiled herself, and I will continue to contemplate this story in hopes of receiving further insights into its mysteries.