Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
Parshat Chayei Sarah is dedicated to Abraham’s focus on his legacy, beginning with the ordeal involving his purchase of a burial plot for his wife, Sarah, in Ma’arat Hamachpela, and continuing with the dramatic search for a bride for his son, Isaac, to which no fewer than sixty-seven verses are dedicated.
An entire chapter (Gen. 23) is allocated to describing the purchase of the burial plot for Sarah, including the detailed negotiations with the proprietors – a process whose sole aim is to ensure that Sarah would be buried in the land of her descendants. The next chapter delves into the dilemmas Abraham faces when trying to select a wife for his son, and the fateful decision to bring him a wife from Haran (where Abraham was born). The chapter continues with all the travails endured by Abraham’s faithful servant.
Many things happened to Abraham during his lifetime. Why does the Torah focus on these specific travails, and in such great detail? To understand this, let us revisit a verse from last week’s portion. After the exceedingly difficult trial involving the binding of Isaac on the altar and his subsequent release, the Torah relates:
“And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham was told the following: behold, Milka, too, begot sons to Nahor, your brother…Yidlaf and Betuel, and Betuel begot Rebecca…” [Gen. 22:20-23]
A cursory reading of these verses may lead to the false impression that Abraham had nothing to do with his time other than listen to the latest gossip about his family – who was born, who died, and what the children’s names were. Is this all the Torah can tell us after the binding of Isaac?
Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to document the conversations between Abraham and Isaac, or describe what happened to Sarah during her final days? What do Milka’s children have to do with the story of the binding of Isaac?
In the Midrash, our rabbis teach, “And it came to pass after these things”: ‘After contemplation of the events that happened there. Who contemplated? Abraham’”.
In other words, the binding of Isaac leads Abraham to think about his legacy. The Midrash continues: “Abraham said, ‘If Isaac had died at Har Hamoriah, he would have died without children.” In other words, Abraham realizes that in nearly losing Isaac, he would have no progeny to continue his legacy. Abraham’s all-consuming desire to build a legacy was such that he was willing to consider marrying off Isaac to one of the daughters of Aner, Eshkol and Mamreh, local Canaanite families whom he otherwise would never have considered proper for his son.
Therefore, the Midrash continues: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him – ‘You need not do this, for Isaac’s soul mate has already been born. Behold, Milka has given birth, as well.’”
That is to say, when you, Abraham, were facing the most difficult trial of all, when your son was bound on the altar, the woman who would produce Isaac’s family had already been born.
Following the binding of Isaac, the issue that concerned Abraham most of all was his family’s continuity. This wasn’t just the natural and human instinct of desiring continuity – after all, Abraham already had a son – Ishmael. Rather, Abraham understood that the only way to implement his ideals in the world was through his family. It is within the realm of the family that one witnesses the love a man has for his wife, or the love that parents have for their children, and vice versa, and this is where the Shechina, the Divine Presence, exists in the world.
Abraham would express his tremendous feelings toward Sarah, as described in the Torah: “And Abraham came to eulogize and cry for Sarah” [ibid. 23:2]. This appears to be the first time in Scripture that we come across one person mourning for another, and the first time a person weeps to express feelings for a loved one. None of this happened when Kayin killed Abel, when Lemech killed his son, during the flood, or during the destruction of Sedom.
A person expresses his noblest and most primal feelings in the context of marriage. This is why the Torah relates the story of Sarah’s burial in great detail. The Torah wishes to teach us about the connection created between a couple, and later, it will describe the story of how Isaac’s wife was selected, in order to emphasize the importance of establishing a family unit. Abraham was willing to go to great lengths to ensure that Isaac’s family would be grounded on the proper values. Abraham’s concerns regarding what would happen with the path he had created never ended. All of humanity, generation after generation, should share these concerns.
Today, too, as many of us try to meet our calling in various professional areas that are also important for furthering human society as a whole, we must remember how central the family unit is to human existence. In Genesis, the issues given most prominence are marriage and family. This is what we should do, as well: to devote significant attention to our relationships with our spouse and our family.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]