Ironically, this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah ("Sarah lived"), is not about Sarah's life but about her legacy. Beginning with mention of her death and of Abraham's great mourning for her, the parashah primarily focuses on the Bible's first story of betrothal, namely that of Isaac to his cousin Rebekah. The relationship between their engagement and subsequent marriage, and Sarah's legacy becomes clear as the parashah unfolds.
Sometime after Sarah's death, Abraham has the "elder of his household" (Genesis 24:2), a servant (presumably, as the Hebrew word eved connotes, a "slave") entrusted with overseeing his home and possessions, go to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac among Abraham's paternal kinspeople. He doesn't enumerate physical attributes or personal qualities that Isaac's future bride should possess, but makes it clear that the selected woman must be willing to follow the servant back to the land of Canaan (Genesis 24:8) so that God's dual promises of progeny and land can be fulfilled. Abraham also indicates that God will send a divine messenger to help the servant identify the woman who is meant to be Isaac's bride. Consequently, when the servant arrives in Aram-naharaim, he prays to the God of Abraham for help and requests a sign: if the girl whom he asks for water is the one designated by God, she should answer by offering water not only to him, but also to his camels.
As soon as the servant sees the beautiful young Rebekah filling her pitcher from the well, he approaches and asks for water. She immediately lowers her pitcher so that he can drink from it, and runs to draw more water for the camels. It may have been her beauty and youth that first drew the servant to Rebekah, but it is her kindness and generosity, reflected in the words she speaks and in the eagerness with which she gets the water that convince him that she is indeed the one chosen for Isaac by God. This conviction is reinforced by Rebekah's great sense of hospitality, which he discovers after asking if there is somewhere in her father's house where he, the men accompanying him, and the camels might stay. She answers that there is plenty of straw and fodder for the camels and room for him and his men to spend the night. Rebekah then runs home to tell her family about the visitor whom God has sent to them (Genesis 24:28). As Nahum M. Sarna notes, her generosity and kindness to animals are apparently more important to the servant than kinship, for he gives Rebekah the expensive gifts he brought with him before discovering that her paternal grandfather, Nahor, is Abraham's brother (Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, NY: Schocken Books, 1972, p. 174).
After the servant tells Rebekah's family why he has come to Aram-naharaim, her grandmother, Milcah, and brother, Laban, ask whether she's willing to go with the man to Canaan to become Isaac's wife. She says yes and they offer her a blessing reminiscent of that given by God to Abraham. When Isaac and Rebekah first see one another, their mutual attraction is immediate. She quickly gets off the camel (the Hebrew implies that she literally, falls off) and veils her face, signaling both her modesty and readiness to become Isaac's bride (W. Gunther Plaut, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, URJ Press, 2005, p. 161, no. 64-65). Isaac brings her into his tent (identified as the "tent of his mother Sarah"), marries her, and loves her (Genesis 24:67). Here, the connection is made between the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, and the legacy of Sarah.
The love of Isaac for Rebekah is the second mention of love in the Bible. The first instance, which appears in the previous parashah, refers to the love of a parent for his/her child (Genesis 22:2, where God notes Abraham's love for Isaac), while here it is described as part of the bond between husband and wife. Once Isaac brings Rebekah into Sarah's tent, she formally becomes Sarah's successor as matriarch and through his love for her, Isaac finds comfort. Rebekah doesn't literally replace Sarah, but, as contemporary Torah scholar Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg notes, drawing on the insight of the medieval Rabbinic commentator, Rashi, that "as long as a man's mother is still alive, he is involved (entangled) with her," Isaac could fully turn to his own life and thoughts only after Sarah died, finding in his relationship with Rebekah a way of "remembering Sarah [and] of rearticulating the parts of his knowledge of her" (Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, The Jewish Publication Society, 1995, pp. 138-139). At least one midrashic source, predating Rashi by hundreds of years, makes this connection as well. Anachronistically imagining Sarah and Rebekah as following what the Rabbinic Sages believed were special mitzvot given by God to women, the midrash maintains that:
"As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough [ritually prepared challah] and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Sabbath until the evening of the following Sabbath [which she, as a Jewish woman lit]; when she died, these ceased, but when Rebekah came, they returned. And so when he saw her following in his mother's footsteps … Isaac brought her into the tent" (B'reishit Rabbah 60:16).
Isaac needed to be comforted not just for the fact of his mother's death, but also for the absence of the light that she brought to him, through her piety, kindness, love, life-affirming energy, and physical presence (Zornberg, p. 139). It is a light that Rebekah rekindles.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies . She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.
Families are — in a word — complicated. Dr. Ellen Umansky deftly lays this out for us surrounding the impact of Sarah's death, specifically Abraham's taking control of his son's future, and Rebekah's presence providing "comfort" to a grieving Isaac. In all, this story is suggestive of more than enough fodder for several years of serious psychotherapy. In other words, this family is just like any of ours.
Sarah's death is not the only one mentioned in Chayei Sarah. Abraham dies as well. Coming at the end of the parashah, Torah tells us that "Abraham breathed his last and died in good old age, full of age, and was gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8). But what has always intrigued me comes in the very next verse: "HIs sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah ..." (Genesis 25:9).
This is the only time these two half-brothers ever appear together in Torah. Regardless of how much the Rabbis attribute to their imagined contentious relationship (see commentaries on Genesis 21:9), the funeral is all we have. To be sure, they both had reason to be absent. This is the same Abraham who cast Ishmael out and abandoned him to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14). This is the same Abraham who tried to slaughter Isaac only to be stopped at the last moment by an angel of God (Genesis 22). Both sons could have found a convenient excuse to stay away, to let someone else bury their dad.
Nor, lest we forget, are they Abraham's only children. Abraham married again, Keturah, and she bore Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah (Genesis 25:2). Yet not one of them showed up at the burial. And even more, Torah is clear when it reminds us that "Abraham gave all that he owned to Isaac" (Genesis 25:5). Which is to say, Ishmael got nothing. And yet still he was present at his father's burial. Next to Isaac, the one who got everything.
I wonder: Did Isaac and Ishmael speak to each other? How did they feel about each other? Were they there out of anger or love or duty? All we know is that they showed up. And as with so many families, maybe that's all that ultimately matters.
Families can be so complicated.
Rabbi Steven Kushner is the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ.
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
Haftarah, I Kings 1:1–31
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 338−340; Revised Edition, pp. 169−171