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Parashat Hayyei Sarah

November 12, 2008

By Molly Karp

Hayyei Sarah, while not the only parashah named for a person, is the only one named for a woman. It is not surprising that it is named for Sarah; what is surprising, however, is that this parashah seems not to be about Sarah Imeinu – Sarah Our Mother – at all! What really is going on here?

The first chapter of the parashah is about Abraham’s purchasing a burial cave for Sarah from Ephron the Hittite. Sarah is not an active character in this chapter; we know nothing about her death save that it is recorded directly following Abraham’s returning home alone from the near-sacrifice of Isaac, but that is the topic of another d’var Torah. The second chapter of the parashah, Chapter 24 is the longest chapter in B’reshit, and one of the central ones as well. Its placement tells us that it is a most important chapter. By comparison, the center of Exodus contains the Sinai narrative, and the center of Leviticus contains the Holiness Code, the heart of the Torah. So what is so important about this chapter?

We read in the parashah that Abraham has his senior servant swear to obey Abraham’s instructions to go to Abraham’s birthplace to find a wife for Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac. The servant arrives at Nahor, the name of both the city and of Abraham’s brother, and makes his way to the well, where he awaits the arrival of the women who come at evening time to draw water. While waiting he prays to Abraham’s God, asking God to let him know that he has found the right woman when he asks for water and she offers to water him and also volunteers to water his camels without being asked.

The moment arrives, the women arrive, and of course the woman who fulfills the sign arrives. Her full lineage is given by the text not once but three times “Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor.” She is none other than Abraham’s own great-niece. Just as Abraham runs to greet and bring water and food to strangers, so too does Rebekah run to draw water for the stranger’s animals. Not only is Rebekah of the right family, generous and kind to man and camel alike, and very beautiful, she is a virgin. In short, the perfect woman in every way, and chosen by God.

The servant gives Rebekah gifts of gold, and asks if her father has room for him to stay the night. She offers lodging and more, and runs home to tell her mother’s household the news. Rebekah’s altruistic brother Laban takes one look at the gold that now adorns his sister, and invites the servant, “Blessed of the Lord,” into his home for a meal. The servant tells the story of the mission on which he was sent, and how Rebekah has been chosen by God: “. . . the God of my Master Abraham, who led me on the true path to take the daughter of my master’s brother for his son.”

The men send for Rebekah and ask if she will go with this man to marry Isaac. In her reply we learn the most important connection she has to Abraham – when they ask her “ha-telkhi?” – “will you go?” we hear the echo of God’s first words to Abraham, “lekh-lekha” – “Go”. Her response, “Elekh” – “I will go” articulates in one word what Abraham said with his actions. This is followed by the blessing that Rebekah receives upon her departure: “Our sister! You will be thousands of myriads; your seed will inherit the gates of its enemies.” Contrast this to the blessing that Abraham receives in Chapter 22 following the Akedah: “. . . I will multiply your descendants to be as the stars of the sky and the sand that is on the sea shore, and your seed will inherit the gates of its enemies.”

Rebekah is to be the heir, with Isaac, of the covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah. She is chosen by God to be the mother after Sarah. Indeed, Isaac brings her into his mother’s tent, loves her, and is comforted by her following the death of his mother. Rebekah is to be Sarah’s heir, much as Isaac is to be the heir of his father. Hayyei Sarah is about Sarah in that it is Rebekah who will continue the work that Sarah began with Abraham. Together, Isaac and Rebekah will continue the transmission of the covenant. Indeed, we will learn next week, in Parashat Toldot, that Rebekah is to be the agent of that transmission.

May their willingness to go forth into uncharted territory, with only each other and their faith in God to lead them, inspire us, women and men both, to have faith in our paths as well.


Molly Karp is a rabbinical student at AJR.