Parshat Hayei Sarah

Summary: Hayei Sarah is the 5th parasha in the Book of Genesis spanning chapters 23:1-25:18. There are two central stories occurring in this parasha; the first was the death of Sarah at age 127 and Avraham’s immediate need to acquire her burial place. The second entailed finding a wife for Isaac. To that end, Avraham dispatched his servant back to Haran in search of a woman fit to carry on the legacy of Hesed (kindness).

The servant (identified as Eliezer) serendipitously met Rebekah at a well, where she offered him drink and watered his camels. He gave her 3 pieces of jewellery and after she ran home to tell her mother, he was invited to meet and dine with her family. Before eating he insisted to explain his mission, retelling the entire series of events, persuading them to let Rebekah marry Isaac. The servant soon returned to Canaan where bride and groom were united.

Avraham then married Keturah and fathered more children, sending them away during his lifetime, to avoid any challenge to Isaac’s right as sole heir. Avraham died age 175 and was buried by his 2 sons. The parasha closes with a list of the 12 princes that descended from Ishmael and with Ishmael’s death age 137.

Comment: To the observant reader, Hayei Sarah begins and ends with the death of historic figures. Though the title means the Life of Sarah, in fact the demise of the key members in Avraham’s family (Abraham, Sarah & Ishmael) filters our attention to the central story – finding a wife for Isaac.

Many commentators, including Rashi, marvel at the number of verses used to tell (and re-tell) the miraculous story of how Eliezer found Rebekah and brought her to marry Isaac. Often under-emphasised is how much Rebekah’s character resembled Avraham’s and that the future of the Jewish people relied on her strength of character as much as if not more than on that of Isaac.

Avraham was renowned for offering hospitality to wayfarers. Rebekah was not unfamiliar with offering water to a stranger and his caravan of camels. Avraham was called by G-d to leave his homeland for an unknown destination. Rebekah left her family in Haran for Canaan. Rashi suggests her father and brother were more impressed by the description of Avraham’s fantastic wealth than by the mission of carrying on Avraham’s legacy. Rebekah was centred on the value of Hesed.

Marriage is an abstract concept wherein a man and a woman combine efforts and energies to become a new entity called ‘we’. Rather than thinking selfishly of one’s own well-being, marriage necessitates extending one’s view of ‘self’. When Isaac met Rebekah, the verse says he ‘brought her into his mother’s tent, he took her for a wife and came to love her, and that he was comforted of the loss of his mother’ (Genesis 24:67). This description suggests how deeply Isaac, even as an adult, was tied emotionally to Sarah.

As we will see next week, the story of Isaac & Rebekah and their children seems driven more by the character and maturity of Rebekah than by her husband.