Parsha Chayei Sara, to me, isn’t as interesting in the Torah as it is when thinking about it from a contemporary context. The Parsha starts off with the death of Sarah, the matriarch of the Jewish people, and Abraham purchases a choice piece of land in Hebron to lay his wife to rest. He too, after re-marrying and continuing to be fruitful and multiply, is said to have been buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs (which sounds like the title of an Indiana Jones movie)––alongside his first wife, Sarah.
Hebron lies within the Palestinian West Bank (or Judaea and Samaria, the region’s biblical names used within Israel). You can imagine, folks on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have strong feelings about this cave. The Cave is the second holiest site in Judaism (just behind the Western or Wailing Wall).
Muslims too are pretty keen on the cave, believing that Muhammed once visited Hebron to pay a visit to the tomb. It remains a popular Islamic pilgrimage site to this day thanks to the prophet saying, “He who cannot visit me, let him visit the Tomb of Abraham.” Muhammed upped the ante, adding “He who visits the Tomb of Abraham, Allah abolishes his sins.”
Abolished sins for visiting a tomb? Not a bad deal. And so Muhammed was promoted to Executive Director of Tourism.
As you can also imagine, dual claims to the site have led to bloody conflict––most notably the Israeli-American massacre of Muslim worshippers in 1994. It’s the kind of violence that religious skeptics point to as proof of the folly of organized religion. Religious or not, I think we can all agree that murdering people because of a cave––no matter the religious and/or cultural importance placed on it––is a special kind of stupid.
What’s tragically ironic about this conflict in Hebron is that it has every reason to be a peaceful interfaith site. After all, Genesis records that the half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael reunited to bury their father, Abraham.
A Resident Alien
Stepping back into the Torah, it’s emphasized again in this Parsha that Abraham is an outsider. The podcast Jew Oughta Know takes on this topic, noting how easy it would’ve been for ancient Jewish writers to just make Abraham a native of Canaan, establishing an eternal Jewish connection to Israel. Instead, Abraham is noted to be an outsider––”a resident alien among you,” as he describes himself.
Then again, most scholars attribute the actual writing of the Torah to the Babylonian exile in the sixth century, BCE. The writers would’ve known that they were a people removed from their homeland and perhaps wanted to reflect that feature in their patriarch. The name Abraham is also roughly translated in Hebrew to “father of many,” which is the destiny we’ve read about in the Torah.
What the Babylonian writers wouldn’t have known is that they were destined to continue spending most of their existence in exile as a diaspora. Even today about half of Jews live in the diaspora and Jews have in recent history been on the frontlines combatting injustices perpetrated against immigrants or fellow resident aliens. This subject of being an outsider and how to treat those from foreign lands is something the Torah returns to later on.
Isaac Gets Married
After burying his wife, Abraham sets off to find his son, Isaac, a wife. He sends a ‘senior servant’ (nice way to say ‘slave’) back to his native land to find a wife for Issac. Abraham is exceedingly adamant that Isaac not marry a Canaanite to which the Canaanites of the time said, “Well, fuck you too, buddy!”
Outside of the city of Nahor, Abraham’s servant draws up a little test to find Isaac’s future betrothed. “Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’––let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”
Basically, whoever is willing to share their water with this servant and then takes it upon herself to offer water to his camels is a woman good enough for Abraham’s Isaac. The servant is looking for a woman who’s a real mensch.
Fortunately for the servant, he didn’t have to wait long by the spring to find the one. Rebekah, “a virgin” as the Torah seems to be keen on describing young women, is quick to offer up some water from her jar for both the servant and his camels.
This isn’t in the Torah, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Rebekah recognized this servant because she’s Abraham’s great-niece. This familial intermingling is par for the course with the Torah. Remember, Sarah was also Abraham’s sister. But considering last week we read of incestual offspring from Lot, second-cousins getting hitched is progress by leaps and bounds.
There’s the caveat, however, that Rebekah never states she’s down with the servant’s plan to marry his master’s son because she shared some water. Instead, the servant explains his task to Laban and Bethuel––Rebekah’s brother and father respective––and they’re convinced. “Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
Except, hang on a minute. Rebekah is actually given some agency over her own future––about ten days of it. Abraham’s servant is anxious to get back but Rebekah’s mother and brother ask that she get to hang around another ten days or so. But the servant is insistent that they leave immediately to which the mother and brother put the question to Rebekah.
“Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.”
In my amateur Jew reading of the Torah, this strikes me as a rare example of a woman getting to decide her own future in Genesis. Sarah laughed at the idea of getting pregnant in her old age––BAM!––pregnant. Granted Rebekah’s decision is overshadowed by the fact that she wasn’t asked if she wanted to go along with this servant’s scheme, which is clearly the larger decision of the two; just whether she wanted to do it now or wait for a little over a week. But I guess we need to take the progress when we find it.
Rebekah comes out and agrees to leave straight away with Abraham’s servant. They meet up with Isaac a few lines later, who listens to the servant describe what Rebekah had done with the water. This must’ve blown him away because he then brings her into his mother’s tent and takes Rebekah as his wife.
“Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
I mean, at least that sounds nice.
“Son By Concubine”
This week’s Parsha winds down with Abraham taking another wife, Keturah, who shoots out a handful more descendants. Still, Abraham makes his intentions known that everything he owns is to be passed on to Isaac. But while living, he still gave gifts to his “sons by concubines.”
What a title: “Son by Concubine.”
Then, at one hundred and seventy-five years of age, Abraham finally kicks the bucket, “dying at a good ripe age, old and contented.” And as we already covered, he’s buried next to his first wife (and sister!), Sarah, in what’s now known as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. God then blesses Isaac who moves on to settle near Beer-lahai-roi.
The Parsha comes to an end with a recount of Ishmael’s line, listing out all the son’s as the Torah is prone to do. Ishmael dies at one hundred and thirty-seven years old with offspring spanning throughout modern-day Arabia.
Sounds like someone is getting that great nation they were promised.
Onward to Parsha Toldot.