This week: a rare peaceful interlude in the stories of biblical family life. [For tension and intrigue, see the accompanying haftarah, 1 Kings 1:1-31, in which David is dying and his throne, promised to Solomon, is usurped by another son, handsome, spoiled Adonijah.]
The portion is called Chayei Sarah (חַיֵּי שָׂרָה), which means “life of Sarah,” but it concerns her death at the age of 127. Tradition has it that she died of shock because of Isaac’s near-sacrifice. Abraham decides not only to bury her but to actually purchase land to be his family burial plot in perpetuity. As I noted last year, since Abraham was a resident alien, it was not a trivial matter for him to own land. We are generally taught that the negotiation between Abraham and the Hittite Ephron is simply flowery Near Eastern bargaining, but it is actually a carefully crafted legal transaction. It is conducted in public at the city gate, the community meeting place; and the text contains specific legal terminology that is found in ancient Near Eastern court records of property transfers. [Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1966), Chapter X] And so, Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah and buries Sarah there.
After a few years, Abraham realizes that Isaac is 40 and unmarried (oy!) and decides to find him a suitable wife. We may find it odd that Isaac doesn’t find his own wife; then again, maybe Terah matched Abram with Sarai. Abraham wants Isaac’s bride to be a nice, monotheistic girl from back home who is willing to move to Canaan. He sends his servant, assumed to be Eliezer, to Aram-naharaim to carry out this mission.
Eliezer prays to God that he will find a very special girl, one who will be so kind that, when Eliezer asks for water, she will not only draw some for him, but water his ten camels as well. At the well outside the city (there’s always a well in Biblical matchmaking), Rebecca comes over, Eliezer asks for a sip from her jar, she lets him drink fully, and she waters his camels. Ta da! Furthermore, she is beautiful, a virgin, and Abraham’s great-niece. We are introduced to her brother Laban, who is particularly impressed by the rich presents Eliezer has brought. Rebecca is not only willing, but eager, to move to Canaan as soon as possible. (Hmmm…) She and Isaac marry, and all is well with them. For now.
From 2014: I usually find the tone of this story to be like those tales where a boy or girl must carry out some difficult task to prove s/he is the right bride/groom. Something like choosing the right casket, or giving a kiss to the right person at the right time in the right place, or choosing the right sister. But I was taken by the d’var Torah written by Britain’s Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks about this portion, “The Kindness of Strangers.” He focuses on the kindness shown by Rebecca. He tells this story written by Yale law professor Stephen Carter, about his moving into a white neighborhood as a child (Stephen Carter, Civility, New York: Basic Books, 1999, 61-75):
“Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, ‘I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here…’
“As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, ‘Welcome!’ Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realise…that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were colour-blind…
“He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. ‘In the Jewish tradition,’ he notes, such civility is called ‘hessed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.’ Civility, he adds, ‘itself may be seen as part of hessed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.’ To this day, he adds, ‘I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.’” (By the way, I often had a cream cheese and jelly sandwich when I was little and having lunch with my father. I didn’t know of anyone else who ate them. IGP)
(Back to 2019) Now we conclude the stories of Abraham and Ishmael. Abraham takes another consort, Keturah (maybe Hagar come back). They have six sons. Abraham provides for them while he is alive but wills everything else to Isaac. Abraham, content, dies at the age of 175, and Isaac and Ishmael together bury him with Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. Ishmael’s story ends with a list of his 12 sons, who become chieftains of 12 tribes. Ishmael dies at 137 years of age.
Next week: a return to family dysfunction.
The Torah in Haiku – CHAYEI SARAH
“The Life of Sarah”
Is the name of this portion
Which starts with her death
Could that be because
Our lives are reflected in
Those we leave behind?
Why are you marrying her?
A minister was called to a local nursing home to perform a wedding. An anxious old man met him at the door. The pastor sat down to counsel the old man and asked several questions.
“Do you love her?”
The old man replied, “I guess.”
“Is she a good Christian woman?”
“I don’t know for sure,” the old man answered.
“Does she have lots of money?” asked the pastor.
“I doubt it.”
“Then why are you marrying her?” the preacher asked.
“She can drive at night,” the old man said
My husband-to-be and I were at the county clerk’s office for our marriage license. After recording the vital information–names, dates
of birth, etc–the clerk handed me our license and deadpanned, “No refunds, no exchanges, no warranties.”
Little Johnny was reading from a Hans Christian Anderson book. “Teacher?” he asked, “Does m-i-r-a-g-e spell marriage?”
“No my child,” sighed the teacher. “But it should.”
A lawyer wanted to buy an apartment for his family, but kept being denied by landlords because he had 8 kids.
People keep telling him to lie about how many kids he has, but being a lawyer, he feels too guilty to lie. One day, however, he decides that enough is enough. He tells his wife to take the 7 younger kids with her and go to the cemetery. He then takes the oldest kid and brings him to visit a new apartment. They go over the details of the purchase, and right before the man signed the papers, the landlord asked him a last question:
– Do you have any other kids?
– I have seven others, but they’re at the cemetery with their mother.
Quotes about Kindness
You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. Franklin D. Roosevelt
We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, more laughter. I definitely want to contribute to that. Ellen DeGeneres
Choosing kindness is just as easy as smiling. Jacob Tremblay
The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love. William Wordsworth