Different circumstances demand different paradigms of thought and action, and the Jewish people have advanced through history by fulfilling the action demanded by the moment. Even God's promised blessings only are achieved through human agency. Our patriarchs and matriarchs showed a sophisticated variety of approaches to ensuring the transmission of the Jewish story. Taking any one episode from their narratives out of context robs us of the benefit of their worldly wisdom, creativity, and commitment.
Two episodes in Chayei Sarah illustrate this lesson. The first is Abraham's acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial site for Sarah. Upon Sarah's death, Abraham mourned and then set about to make arrangements for her to have a final resting place. He approached the Hittites, residents of the land, with humble nobility: "I am a foreigner living for a time among you; sell me a gravesite among you, that I may bury my dead here" (Genesis 23:4). Having already proved himself a powerful military leader, Abraham surely could have taken the land by force. After all, God already had promised that it would belong to him and his children. Instead, Abraham chose a path of respect and peace, insisting that he pay a fair market price. Ephron the Hittite negotiated with Abraham according to a pattern known from ancient Near Eastern sources.1 It was in Abraham's interest to purchase the land contractually in good faith; land given to him on a whim could just as easily be taken away, but a legal exchange endures.
Generations later, when Joshua led the Israelites into Eretz Yisrael after the Exodus, the circumstances called for military conquest of the inhabitants rather than a peaceful sale. This shift parallels twentieth-century Zionist history, when settlement of the land through purchase from Ottoman landlords gave way to the military necessity of defending the land against hostile Arab armies. There is a split today within Israeli and American Jewish politics over whether negotiation or military force is the way to ensure a secure Israel. We are arguing, in a way, over whether the times call for an Abraham or a Joshua.
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Later in the same parashah, the matriarch Rebekah showed an uncharacteristic lack of agency that she doesn't repeat. After Abraham's servant went back east and retrieved her at the well as a wife for Isaac, she journeyed with him back to Canaan by camel. Isaac approached from the other direction, "And Rebekah looked up: seeing Isaac, she got off [vatipol mei-al] the camel" (Genesis 24:64). The word tipol means, "fell,"—literally, "she fell off the camel." The Plaut commentary compares this phrase to the English idiom "to fall all over oneself" and concludes: "We can say that one way or another, she [Rebekah] fell for him [Isaac]."2
The classical commentators, troubled perhaps by the unglamorous image of our foremother Rebekah falling off a camel, reinterpret this action as a sign of respect or modesty. Rashi, Sforno, and ibn Ezra suggest that Rebekah leaned or bowed low while remaining on the camel to show honor to Isaac. Rashbam says she bowed in modesty because she had been riding in the style of a man, and Radak argues that she bowed as women should when they encounter a man to whom they are not (yet) married.
In contrast to those commentaries, a student in my Torah study group offered an interpretation based on the simplest understanding that Rebekah fell off the camel when she saw Isaac. What we know about Isaac up to this point is that he was something of a hapless loser. He played no part in ousting the firstborn Ishmael, he unwittingly accompanied his father to his near sacrifice, and he waited passively while his father's servant retrieved a wife for him. The sight of this lackadaisical character floored Rebekah—literally. Distraught about being matched with him, she lost her wits and fell off her ride.
It's the last time Rebekah let her circumstances get the better of her. From this point on, Rebekah intervenes proactively in the unfolding narrative. Later in Genesis, we'll read how she encourages Jacob to buy Esau's birthright and steal his blessing. She helps her favorite son prepare the meal and don the costume that would deceive Isaac on his deathbed. She urges Jacob to leave when she hears of Esau's plot to kill him and convinces Isaac to send Jacob to her brother Laban's home to find a wife. Rebekah's choices and actions set the story in motion, leading to the fulfillment of God's promise to Jacob to bless him with land and abundant offspring.
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These two moments in Chayei Sarah involving Abraham and Rebekah point to decisive characters who take active roles in developing the divine narrative of our people. In each case, God's promise of land and multitudes does not absolve the chosen individuals from responsibility for the fulfillment of that promise. On the contrary, those tapped by God for a special destiny must take control of their fate.
It's our task to act as agents of God's will, not as mindless automatons but through thoughtful, intentional deliberation. Choosing the best course of action rests upon the individual actors, according to the conditions we face. Sometimes, God describes the end but does not prescribe the means. In that sense, God's promise is not a passive guarantee but a call to take responsibility for enacting the vision that God has planted in our minds.
W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p. 155
Ibid., Plaut, p. 161, n. 64
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.