Wednesday, 23 Oct 2013

Written by Rabbi David Soetendorp

This Sedrah commences with Sarah’s death and burial followed by Abraham’s charging his main servant, Eliezer with the task of going to the home of his birth and upbringing, Charan, to find a suitable wife for Isaac.

Eliezer promptly travels to Charan with heavily loaded camels bearing gifts and other valuables in order to acquire, as was the custom a wife for Isaac. He is very conscious of the importance of his mission and on arriving in Charan, settles down near the town’s water well after his long journey; he then prays to Abraham’s God to help him find that suitable wife and sets out the criteria by which she may be identified.

Apparently miraculously that suitable wife, in the person of Rebekah, a shepherdess for her brother Laban, who is part of Abraham’s extended family, comes to the well and, fulfilling all Eliezer’s hopes and prayers, looks after Eliezer and waters his camels.  This convinces the servant that God has listened to his prayer’ and turned his mission into a success.

Following the negotiations in Charan, Eliezer and Rebekah return to Isaac’s home in Cana’an for Isaac and Rebekah to wed. The Midrash teaches that Isaac’s mourning over the death of his mother was transformed into new life and joy because of Rebekah’s arrival in the household, bringing the grieving to an end.

Targum Jonathan, a third century Aramaic translation/interpretation of the Tenach, makes a connection between the preceding  sedrah , Va-Yerah, which contains the account of the Akeydah and  the announcement of Sarah’s death at the beginning of Chayei Sarah. Targum Jonathan comments that Sarah had been told that Abraham had sacrificed Isaac and as a result had died of shock.

There is no mention of this detail in the Torah text and the Targum’s response to this apparent omission in the Torah narrative offers the reader an opportunity  for insight in the trauma of what was happening in Abraham’s household at  that fateful time. A similar lack of detail in the Torah narrative may be found in Chayei Sarah.

Eliezer sets out for Charan on a long, arduous and possibly risky journey, yet that trip is not described in the Torah narrative.  The text simply states: “Eliezer set out on the journey “and next: “He arrived at Charan”…

Likewise after it is all agreed that Rebekah will accompany Eliezer to Cana’an to be wed to Isaac, Eliezer and Rebekah “both leave”.. and then “They arrive” at their destination. Here we have references to probably the most important journey in Eliezer and Rebekah’s  lives, but the Torah gives us no detail .  What those journeys were like is left entirely to our imagination.

Let us speculate what went through Eliezer’s mind during that lonely and hard expedition through the wilderness. 
On the way to Charan, Eliezer may well have struggled with the weight of the responsibility with which Abraham had charged him; the enormity of the challenge and other troubling matters.

In the same vein: on the way to Cana’an Rebekah ,on the way to becoming a married woman in a strange home and country, could have been going through mourning for the home in which she grew up, her family and the ending of her childhood . She might also have been going through fear of the unknown future that was beckoning towards her.

When Eliezer arrives in Charan he is ready for the task for which he has been sent.  He acts with certainty and confidence despite obvious concerns about his success. When Rebekah arrives in Cana’an she is ready for the transition to married life.  With composure and dignity she prepares herself to meet Isaac.

The lack of detail in the Torah narrative regarding Ezekiel’s journey to Charan and Rebekah’s journey to Cana’an draws our attention to what might have been a powerful and transformative spiritual process for both of them.

The voyage that human beings undertake from stage to stage in their lives may be uncertain, even frightening.  It may be ‘work in progress ’which is hard to put into words: but it is the working through that ‘process’ which enables us to make the transition from one stage in our lives to the next, it is successfully working through ‘that private and uncertain process’ which makes it possible for us to achieve the necessary transition.

That is an important lesson we learn from Chayei Sarah.

Having been born in a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1945 means that my siblings and I grew up hearing many of our parent’s stories of the catastrophe of European Jewry during that evil time in Jewish history and how they were affected by it. We listened and learned from them.  But their pain and horror got through to us, their children, most powerfully in the silences, which they shared with us in between the story telling. 

When they broke down into silence it was the words which remained unspoken and what remained unmentioned, which conveyed most powerfully what had happened to them then, and how it affected them. It is these silences in between the words of the spoken accounts of what we hear or read which in many cases makes us most aware of their real significance.

The narratives in the Torah give plenty of examples of this: many Biblical accounts offer rich opportunities in their apparent omissions for us to interpret and discern layers of meaning which can speak to the reality of our lives.

This is certainly true of Chayei Sarah.

Rabbi David Soetendorp
Ordained 1972


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.