I have always found the Abraham and Keturah story fascinating. At the end of this week's parashah, Chayei Sarah, we discover that Abraham has a life after Sarah dies: He marries Keturah. Together, Abraham and Keturah have six sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. (Genesis 25.2) These children are given gifts and sent away so that they would not challenge Isaac for the inevitable inheritance and, more important, for God's b'rit.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus also found this story interesting, and his comments regarding Keturah turn both the Bible and Greco-Roman history on their head! In his book The Jewish Antiquities, Josephus has Abraham send his sons abroad to found colonies, mainly in North Africa. (Book I.238-240) In fact, Josephus goes so far as to claim that the daughter of Midian's son Apher (Aphranes) married Hercules!
Apologetic literature, such as the writings of Josephus, sought to portray Jews in the most favorable light possible. And what could be grander than linking Abraham through his granddaughter's marriage to Hercules? As a result, the Roman reader of the first century regarded Abraham as the ancestor of a noble lineage, one worthy of mating with the noble line of Greek superheroes and gods.
Today the message of this apologetic is still relevant. We also tend to link our Jewish "superheroes" past and present with the best elements of society. The success of a Jew in the public square elevates our communal sense of self-worth. When a Jewish pitcher throws a no-hitter, don't we, as Jews, feel wonderful? Conversely, when a prominent Jew goes to jail, do we not feel collective shame?
This message is not in the story itself but in our interpretation of it. All of us "spin" the Torah to suit our purposes. And guess what? That's fine! Jews have been doing that for thousands of years. When we discover a novel meaning to a verse of Torah, it means that we have learned something new. That is what we are supposed to do! So, like Josephus, let us continue to look at the Torah, study it, and draw meaning from it. While our lineage may not be as distinguished as that of the children of Abraham, by learning and interpreting Torah, we can create a noble lineage of our own.
Questions for Discussion
- What does Abraham's second marriage teach us about the Jewish approach to death and bereavement?
- Is it appropriate for us to live our lives vicariously as Jews, or should we see ourselves as the potential equals of great biblical figures? If so, how can we do that?
- How do you think Isaac felt about his father's decision to remarry?
Rabbi Jordan M. Parr is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Children of Israel in Augusta, GA.
United States presidents are usually concerned about their historic legacy. Most of us, however, do not put nearly the same thought into what we will leave behind. But our tradition teaches us that this is not how it is supposed to be. Parashat Chayei Sarah describes two different types of inheritances that one generation can leave for the next. The first type is material/financial, as manifested in Abraham's servant's explanation to Rebekah's family about her future husband's (Isaac's) security: "He [Abraham] has given him [Isaac] all that he owns." (Genesis 24:36) The biblical commentator Rashi interprets this verse to mean that the servant literally shows Rebekah's family a "document of the gift," thereby providing visible proof that Isaac is a wealthy man. The second type of inheritance is spiritual, as reflected in Abraham's approach to death: "Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac." (Genesis 25:5) Regarding this passage, Rashi quotes R. Nehemiah, who interprets that Abraham is here bestowing his spiritual blessing on Isaac. (Rashi on Genesis 25:5) These descriptions of how Abraham imparts his legacy to Isaac teach us that we should be concerned about our own role in providing for future generations.
Parashat Chayei Sarah prompts us to ask ourselves: What are we willing to give to the next generation? In an increasingly materialistic society, our thoughts about the future often turn to financial matters. Just as our parents, grandparents, and ancestors provided for us, we strive to provide similar, if not greater, financial security for our children and the succeeding generations. However, our parashah reminds us that material acquisition should not be our only goal. Abraham transmitted both a material and spiritual legacy to Isaac, and we, as the inheritors of Abraham's gifts, bear the responsibility of providing both of these inheritances for the next generation.
Many of us act on our responsibility by donating and/or raising funds for Jewish causes and institutions. Others pass down Abraham's spiritual blessing through Jewish education, outreach, and forging strong connections toAm and Eretz Yisrael. Some of us try to establish both kinds of legacies for our children. Whatever path we choose, our roles have been clearly paved by Abraham. He willed all that he owned to Isaac and gifts to his other sons "while he was still living." (Genesis 25:6) As modern progenitors of the Jewish legacy, we are taught to "give all that we have" of our material and spiritual gifts generously and selflessly and to do so today.
Questions for Discussion
- Compare the "giving" patterns (both financial and emotional) of the present generation to those of our parents or grandparents.
- Can you see yourself "giving all that you own" to another individual or to an organization? Why or why not?
- What do you expect to leave behind for future generations?
At the time of this writing in 1999, Rabbi Wendy Drucker Pein had served two years as the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, NY.
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132