Chayei Sarah 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18)

OVERVIEW

The portion Chayei Sarah- the “life of Sarah”- serves as a bridge between the story of Avraham and Sarah and the next generations. Sarah dies, and Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah in which to bury her. Avraham then sends his servant to find a wife for his son Yitzhak. The servant finds Rivkah, and then goes to meet her family, including her brother Lavan. Lavan will later figure prominently in the story of Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah. At the end of the portion, Avraham dies, and is buried by his two sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael.

IN FOCUS

“Avraham was old, advanced in age, and God had blessed Avraham in everything.” (Genesis 24:1)

PSHAT

After burying Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, Avraham turns his attention to finding a partner for Yitzhak, so that the family covenant may be continued. (One might say that worries about Jewish continuity are nothing new!) In between settling the last details of the burial and Avraham’s instructions to his servant, the Torah tells us that Avraham was blessed with “everything,” bakol.

DRASH

An obvious difficulty with our passage is that it seems out of place. Why is Avraham described as blessed with “everything” before he sends his servant out to find a partner for Yitzhak? Wouldn’t it make more sense after the servant comes back and Yitzhak has children? In fact, Rashi, among others, notices this problem and therefore links this passage to Avraham’s desire to find a wife for Yitzhak- this would make the blessing truly complete.

On the other hand, some classic midrashic sources offer very different interpretations of Avraham’s blessing in “everything.” Midrash Rabbah is a compilation of midrashim dating back to the era of the Talmud; it records diverse opinions about this verse:

    . .and God had blessed Avraham in everything. R. Yehudah said: It means that God gave him a female. R. Nehemiah replied: [You mean] she was the centre of the king’s household [i.e., Avraham’s] household, but there is no record of a blessing about her!

    Maybe and God had blessed Avraham in everything doesn’t mean God gave him a daughter? R. Levi gave three [interpretations.] “Everything”- he ruled over his desires. “Everything”- that Yishmael achieved reconciliation in his [Avraham’s] lifetime. “Everything”- that his storehouse never lacked for anything. R. Levi said in the name of R. Hama : It means that God did not test him again.

    (Genesis Rabbah 59:7, translation mine, based on notes in the Mirkin edition.)

R. Yehudah says that Avraham’s blessing was complete because he had a daughter. What I like about his midrash is that it softens the patriarchy of the Biblical narrative, which is so focussed on sons. R. Yehudah points out that the blessing of “everything” comes from both sons and daughters together. While I appreciate R. Yehudah’s effort to restore balance to the text, R. Nehemiah also has a good argument against this reading of it: we have no mention in the Torah of God making Avraham blessed with a daughter, and lots of mentions of the blessing of a son.

R. Levi offers three reasons why Avraham’s blessing was described as “everything.” One, Avraham achieved spiritual discipline and self-knowledge, controlling his passions and desires. Two, that Yishmael and Yitzhak were reconciled in their father’s lifetime. This interpretation is based the traditional rabbinic understanding of Yishmael as destructively jealous of Yitzhak, yet coming together with his brother to bury their father, in verse 25:9. The rabbis say that Yishmael’s reconciliation with Yitzhak happened before Avraham died; there is scant textual evidence for this, but it’s a lovely midrash. Finally, R. Levi says that Avraham was blessed with sufficient sustenance.

R. Levi then offers one last theory of Avraham’s extraordinary blessing: that his tests were concluded with the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak, in ch. 22. There is a strong midrashic tradition that Avraham had 10 tests, beginning with the call to leave his homeland, and ending with the Binding of Yitzhak- R. Levi points out that having calm and peaceful time, without a new crisis every day, is a complete blessing in and of itself!

Turning R. Levi’s words around, we might point out that calling something a “blessing” is to name it as a spiritual value or goal- we don’t feel “blessed” by things we don’t really value. R. Levi is then setting out a vision of the ideal life, a life that encompasses emotional, material, and spiritual goals. Avraham, he says, had deep self-knowledge and discipline; was able to experience harmony in his family; had enough material possessions so that he never suffered want; and came through life’s challenges with a sense of peace, a sense that the “tests” were not so dramatic anymore.

“Everything,” in R. Levi’s interpretation, means all aspects of life, both the inner world and outward reality. It seems to imply a harmony between one’s spirituality and one’s situation, which we might note Avraham is not described as having till he was “advanced in years.” Thus R. Levi teaches us not only about our sacred texts, but what might become our sacred values.

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