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Parashat Hayyei Sarah

November 23, 2016

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

After Abraham buries his wife Sarah, he attends to the future of his offspring, in particular to the marriage of his son Isaac. In rather strong terms, he instructs his servant to go to his birthplace, to Haran, to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham has his servant take an oath that he will not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan “amongst whom I dwell” (Gen. 24:3).

Several commentators take note of the latter expression and question the need for that comment. Surely Abraham’s servant (traditionally assumed to be Eliezer, but never named as such in this narrative) knew that Abraham lived in Canaan. Why the need to emphasize it?

Among the solutions that I read, I found the most insightful to be that of the Keli Yekar, a popular commentary of R. Ephraim Luntschitz (17th century)In explaining the above phrase, he asked why Abraham was so insistent that Isaac not marry a Canaanite. After all, the inhabitants of Haran (including Abraham’s own extended family) were idolaters just as the Canaanites were. Their association with the God of Abraham was no better than that of the Canaanites. So why was there such vehement objection to the latter?

While the standard response to this question (see, e.g. Or Ha-Hayyim to v. 3) is that Isaac was from a blessed stock and the Canaanites were accursed, and Abraham was opposed to such a union, the Keli Yekar suggests a more fundamental explanation. To be sure, the Haranites were idolaters as much as the Canaanites, but their way of life was not steeped in immorality the way the latter was, Abraham lived among the Canaanites and observed their behavior. The way they conducted their lives, their middot (character traits) were anathema to our first Patriarch. He knew this firsthand because he dwelt amongst them and observed the way they interacted with each other and how steeped they were in deplorable behavior.

Thus, it is no wonder that the inhabitants of Canaan (along with the Egyptians) are singled out by the Torah as those whose behavior and way of life are to be spurned by the Jewish people because of their immorality (see Lev. 18:3).

When we turn, however, to the dwellers of Haran, we find no evidence of negative character traits, of abominable behavior. To be sure, they were idolaters (see, e.g., Gen. 31:53, where Laban makes reference to the god of Nahor in contradistinction to the God of Abraham), but there is a world of difference between those who espouse errant views and those whose behavior is deplorable. As R. Lentschitz points out, erroneous ideology can be corrected. False views about G-d can be altered. However, middot are much more ingrained and cannot easily be expunged.

If Isaac were to marry a Canaanite, his progeny would live in a household where immoral behavior would likely be commonplace and would be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps we too can learn from this how important it is to find for ourselves or our children a spouse who conducts himself/herself with the highest of values. It is far easier to change and modify our views, but a lot harder to reshape and remake our behavior.

Have a Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.