Parashat Chayei Sarah


Saturday 3 November 2018 25 Cheshvan 5779

Parashat Chayei Sarah by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Genesis 23:1-25:18; 1 Kings 1:1-31; Matthew 1:1-17

The language of the Torah is, in Erich Auerbach’s famous phrase, “fraught with background.” Behind the events that are openly told are shadowy stories left for us to decipher. Hidden beneath the surface of Parshat Chayei Sarah, for example, is another story, alluded to only in a series of hints. There are three clues in the text. The first occurs when Abraham’s servant is returning with the woman who is to become Isaac’s wife. As Rebecca sees Isaac in the distance, we are told that he is “coming from the way of B’eer La’hai Roi (Gen. 24:62) to meditate in the field. The placement is surprising. Thus far we have situated the patriarchal family at Be’ersheva, to which Abraham returns after the binding of Isaac, and Hebron, where Sarah dies and is buried. What is this third location, B’eer La’hai Roi and what is its significance? Read more The second is the extraordinary final stage of Abraham’s life. In chapter after chapter we read of the love and faithfulness Abraham and Sarah had for one another. Together they embarked on a long journey to an unknown destination. Together, they stood against the idolatry of their time. Twice, Sarah saved Abraham’s life by pretending to be his sister. They hoped and prayed for a child and endured the long years of childlessness until Isaac was born. Then Sarah’s life draws to a close. She dies. Abraham mourns and weeps for her and buys a cave in which she is buried, and he is to be buried beside her. We then expect to read that Abraham lived out the rest of his years alone before being placed beside “Sarah his wife” in the Cave of Machhpelah (Gen. 25:9). Unexpectedly, however, once Isaac is married, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has six children by her. We are told nothing else about this woman, and the significance of the episode is unclear. The Torah does not include mere incidental details. We have no idea, for example, what Abraham looked like. We do not even know the name of the servant he sent to find a wife for Isaac. Tradition tells us that it was Eliezer, but the Torah itself does not. What then is the significance of Abraham’s second marriage and how is it related to the rest of the narrative? The third clue to the hidden story is revealed in the Torah’s description of Abraham’s death: And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Het. There was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife. (Gen. 25:8–10) Ishmael’s presence at the funeral is surprising. After all, he had been sent away into the desert years before, when Isaac was young. Until