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Chayyei Sarah

April 1, 2006

What Was Missing in This Family

Parshat HaShavua, 22nd Heshvan 5765
By Dorit Edut

someone in our family or circle of friends dies, we are often left
feeling that there is a huge gap in our lives that can never be filled.
It is a time of reflecting about the qualities of this person and what
they meant to us’and then, in turn, what qualities we may lack or not
have developed sufficiently in ourselves.

This week’s parshah, ironically titled ‘The Life of Sarah’Chayyei Sarah,’
begins with the death of our first matriarch and what happens in the
aftermath. We see Avraham in deep mourning and having to negotiate for
a burial place for Sarah with his Hittite neighbors; Yitzhak is not
present until the end of the chapter when we see him in the fields,
meditating and praying Minha, according to the Talmud (Brachot 26a&b), perhaps saying some form of Kaddish and definitely missing his mother’s presence as we learn from Gen.24:67”v’yinacheym Yitzhak acharei imo…,
and thus Yitzhak found comfort after his mother’s death.’ Avraham,
feeling his own mortality, realizes it is time to find a wife for
Yitzhak and enlists the help of his servant Eliezer, putting him under
oath to seek such a woman among Avraham’s own relatives back in Haran
and bring her back to Canaan. The Midrash in Breishit Rabba 59:11 has Avraham further emphasizing that Eliezer is not to choose a wife from even the best of the women of Canaan; in Midrash HaGadol

24:3 Avraham explains that even though his Mesopotamian relatives may
be idol worshippers, he feels that they have the capacity for teshuva,
repentance, and a potential for holiness. These are the only
instructions which Eliezer is given on his mission and it does not
really show that Avraham had quite identified what was lacking in the
home since Sarah’s death or what Yitzhak really needed. It seems that
Avraham was thinking mostly about the importance of the continuity of
the family in Eretz Yisrael according to the Covenant.

Avraham shows a great a deal of trust in Eliezer’s judgment, and the Midrash in Breishit Rabba
60 explains that Avraham had trained him in Torah so that Eliezer was
able to control his evil impulses like Avraham. However, in his
response to Avraham that perhaps no woman would be willing to return
with him to Canaan, we see a hint of another agenda, of some deceit.
Eliezer was thinking about having Isaac marry his own daughter, but
Avraham quickly rules this out (see Breishit Rabba 59:12).
Rabbi Israel Salanter of the Mussar movement sees the difference
between Eliezer and Avraham as one in which Avraham has really
perfected all of his middot, his qualities of character, while
Eliezer has strengthened his good qualities so that the evil
inclination does not overrule these, but in some instances may yet
appear, as in this situation.

Now Eliezer must think of Isaac’s needs
and Avraham’s charge. What qualities are most important for him to seek
in a wife for Isaac and how can he verify this? It is at this point
that Eliezer turns to HaShem, in the first recorded prayer in the
Torah. It is out of a beginning sense of yirat Shamayim‘an awe of HaShem’based on a belief in HaShem’s ability to satisfy our needs through HaShem’s goodness (what is called ahavat ha-tov
in the Mussar perspective)’that Eliezer asks that his mission prosper
and that HaShem be mindful of his master Avraham. The qualities he
seeks in a potential wife are those of kindness, nobility of character,
and compassion for animals. Without disparaging the many wonderful
qualities of Sarah, these specific traits were not ones that she was
known for or that were particularly noteworthy in her actions or
thoughts. So it seems that Eliezer is not looking for someone who is
just like Yitzhak’s mother, but rather someone who has different middot that are equally important’or maybe even more important for Yitzhak who has suffered much trauma in his young life.

When Rivka then appears shortly after
Eliezer’s prayer and immediately fulfills most of the requirements that
he had mentioned in his prayer’giving him a drink and then watering all
his ten camels’he is left in a state of astonishment, Rashi says. He
begins to believe that HaShem is answering his prayer already, though
he has yet to learn that Rivka is a relative of Avraham. There is a
dawning awareness on Eliezer’s part that though he has planned things
using his intellect, it is only by Divine will that the outcome is
decided. Rivka, on her part, can be seen as one who acts like Avraham
with the three strangers, with unselfish love, with no thought of
reward or benefit, which is equivalent to ahavat ha-rommemut‘love
of HaShem’s Supremacy’in Mussar. Perhaps Rivka was not really aware yet
of this, acting instinctively, out of her subconscious. Rashi explains
that Eliezer became so confident that, because of Avraham’s merit,
HaShem had made his mission a success, and he immediately gives Rivka
some gold jewelry as a gift, before he even knows of her family

Rivka’s willingness to go with
Eliezer’despite her family’s efforts to detain her’again reflects her
quality of faith and trust in HaShem, for she certainly knows very
little about Avraham and Yitzhak, other than that they are pious and
somewhat wealthy. The parallels with Sarah here are evident’both were
willing to leave their homeland, their communities, and their families
to travel to an unknown world where they would live a different life,
with a greater awareness of HaShem. Rivka, however, goes on this
journey without anyone else except Eliezer, having agreed to marry a
man she has never met but only heard about. This seems to be a higher
level of trust than that which Sarah was asked to demonstrate. Also,
from the midrashim about Laban and Bethuel, Rivka’s brother and father,
we see that she lived among people who had many bad character traits,
so that it is even more to her credit that she did not seem to be
influenced by these.

Finally when Rivka encounters Yitzhak,
there is a recognition between them when they see each other, Rashi
says, perhaps a recognition of the ‘reward’ that HaShem has given each
of them for whatever good they have done. Moreover, this is the first
time the Torah text speaks of love between a husband and wife (v.67,
according to Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary),
a powerful emotion that seems to have been missing for both of them.
Rivka who was able to bring comfort to Yitzhak did so, not because she
was a replacement for Sarah, but because she had developed the
qualities that were missing in the family. For his part, Yitzhak also
had the qualities that Rivka had lacked in her family. Together then
they were able to complete each other and from this their love

In our own lives, we realize that it is
difficult to lose someone whom we have loved because of the qualities
that that person had, which we admired and which may have completed
those we were lacking ourselves. We can, however, honor their memory by
not dwelling on the loss forever, but going forward to try to
strengthen those very qualities in ourselves and to act on them for the
good of this world. We must also come to realize that, like Rivka, we
may have to travel to new worlds and, like Yitzhak, we can open
ourselves up to appreciating different valuable qualities in others
around us. May we as Jewish leaders fully develop and daily use our own
qualities of kindness, compassion, and respect wherever we go and with
all those we encounter, and may HaShem hear the adapted words of
Eliezer’s prayer: ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, grant me good fortune this
day, and deal graciously with the children of Abraham.’