Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
“Hashem is here …Hashem is there…”
Knowing what to say
“Trop” (Yiddish for Tea’mim) and the subtleties of the words
The Lonely Shalshelet
“…place your hand under my thigh”
“Yitzchak was comforted over the loss of his mother”
Unchanging cycle of life as “one generation departs, and another generation takes its place…”
Manners in dealing with Mortality, Mourning, Money, Machpeilah, Marriage
Opens and concludes with a funeral
Sarah’s dies at 127 years; Avraham mourns Sarah then agrees to pay Efron the Hittite an exorbitant price of 400 silver shekels to purchase the Cave of Machpeilah in Chevron where she is to be buried
Only Parsha named after a woman
Only woman whose name and age are disclosed at the time of her death
Avraham instructs his “Chief-of-Staff” (head servant, presumed to be Eliezer) to travel to Avraham’s previous home in Haran to find a wife for his son Yitzchak
Eliezer meets Rivkah at a well in the city of Nachor to which he was sent (some 450 miles from Chevron) where he experiences her kindness and concludes that she is suitable to be Yitzchak’s wife.
Yitzchak meets and marries Rivkah and is comforted over the loss of his mother
Avraham remarries and gives all his powers of blessing to Yitzchak before he dies at 175 “at a good age, old and satisfied”
Listing of Ishmael’s descendants
Major themes of love for the Holy Land and avoidance of intermarriage
“Hashem is here …Hashem is there…”
Although His Name is not mentioned, God remains in the background influencing events, much as He does throughout the Book of Bereshis. This life lesson for us is that the Hand of God exists even in the mundane. Efron, sought out by Avraham to buy a burial plot for his wife Sarah just happens to be in the crowd. Eliezer, sent by Avraham to find a suitable wife for Yitzchak just happens to encounter Rivkah, who just happens to be Avraham’s great niece.
The takeaway message to us is that in life one needs to develop a strategy and execute a plan to reach one’s goals. One should just sit back and expect that “God will provide”. At the same time, it is important to recognize that even if we have taken all the necessary steps to assure success, the expected outcome is not a given, and not within our power to guarantee. God and His influence, though unseen, surround us.
Knowing What to Say
In searching for a suitable burial spot for his recently-deceased wife Sarah in Chevron, Avraham seeks out and deals with Efron the son of Zohar the owner of the Cave of Machpeilah.
Some argue that Avraham was too self-effacing in his negotiations. Rabbi Benno Jacob, on the other hand, thinks that Avraham acted with dignity and refinement rather than with submissiveness. Avraham acknowledges his legal position as “a stranger and sojourner among you” having none of the property rights available to the citizens. Terms like “buying” and “selling” are not used because gentlemen do not transact business but instead discuss giving each other presents. The local pagans respectfully call him “a prince of God”, in recognition of his unique but strange and separate beliefs and behavior --yet feel warmly and respectfully towards him to consider him “in our midst”. Avraham bows down in acknowledgement of and thanks for their offer to allow Sarah to be buried in even the choicest of graves. Avraham wants a specific cave and asks the people to contact Efron its owner so that Efron will “give” him the M'aras Hamachpelah (cave) for “a full price” (no discount) as a “possession in your midst”. Avraham was a wanderer and occasional visitor, but now the residents begin to understand that what Avraham wants is to buy and to permanently own the land.
Efron, who happens to be sitting in the crowd, announces--using the word “give” three times in one sentence -- that he has given Avraham not only the cave at the end of the field but also the field. Though he did not want or ask for the field, Avraham magnanimously insists on paying for the desired cave and the unwanted field. Rather than negotiating the price, Efron says in an offhanded manner: “My lord listen to me; a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me?” Avraham readily agrees to the exorbitant price for a useless field (the real value was closer to 17 shekels of silver), and pays him on the spot in current coin, with the gathered crowd as witnesses to the transaction. The purchase was made to both honor and bury Sarah. The transaction also established the first legal claim of the Hebrews to a piece of Eretz Yisrael.
Later, Avraham instructs his trusted servant to travel to his own country and birthplace to find a wife for his son Yitzchak. He did not want Yitzchak to marry a local woman influenced by the abominable idolatrous behavior of the residents of Canaan because the effect on his son would be so powerful that he would easily assimilate into and adopt the behavior of the surrounding nation of Canaan.
Eliezer’s method of selecting a wife for Yitzchak involved a character test to determine her generosity and kindness. explains that the Rabbinic dictum, “If the bride has beautiful eyes you don’t have to look further” cannot be taken literally but is talking about a woman who has a generous disposition, a kind heart, and does charitable deeds—all of which are encompassed in the phrase, “has beautiful eyes.” Eliezer was looking for a woman who performs acts of chesed (kindness) like providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, assistance to the poor. Rivkah turned out to be such a woman.
Rav Acha states “the table talk of the servants of the Patriarchs’ households is more notable (beautiful) than the Torah of their descendants.” The Torah presents a lengthy and seemingly superfluous report of Eliezer’s experiences including his…
• Conversation with Avraham
• Prayer at the well
• Meeting Rivkah
• Being impressed with her actions
• Presenting her with bracelets.
Furthermore, he provides a lengthy recapitulation when he arrives at Rivkah’s home-- but with variations designed to convince his hosts. He…
• Emphasizes Avraham’s wealth
• Says he gave Rivkah the bracelets only after he learned that she was a relative, (when, in fact, he had given it to her before)
• Says he was commanded to find a wife from his father’s relatives (when, in fact, Avraham instructed him only to travel to his previous home).
It is a testament to his wonderful judgment, discretion and devotion to Avraham that inspired him to find the right words to say.
“Trop” (Yiddish for Tea’mim) and the Subtleties of the Words
Efron says “Lo adonee sh’maeni” translated as “no, my lord, listen to me…” The “lo adonee” is separated by a hyphen (making it one unit) and the phrase is chanted with a zakayf katan. On the surface Efron seems respectful and helpful. But, in my view, the structure of his words paints an entirely different picture. The hyphenated phrase lo-adonee is better translated as “my master…NOT”. What Efron really is saying is that he has no respect for Avraham who is “...my NOT- master” (not my master) and demands that Avraham listen to him.
The Lonely Shalshelet
The trup Shalshelet (“chain”, related to the root word three) appears only four times in the Torah, always on the first word of the verse. It communicates vacillation, a feeling of doubt, anxiety and internal struggle. Avraham sends his household Chief of Staff to find a bride for his son Yitzchak (then 40 years old). When he arrives near the city of Nachor in Mesopotamia, Eliezer prays for God’s assistance to succeed in his mission. The word “vayomar “(“and he said”) is accented with the Shalshelet. Eliezer was weighed down by the enormity of his task and by self-doubt. He sincerely desired to serve his master Avraham, but was also conflicted because he wanted Yitzchak to marry his own daughter.
“Sim na yadcha tacas yeraychi” (“place your hand under my thigh”)
…is the gesture of swearing that Avraham demands when assigning Eliezer, the all-important task of finding a wife for his son Yitzchak.
Ibn Ezra views this as a symbol of submission.
The words mean and convey that failure to do what is requested will result in sterility, since children issue from the area of the thigh or loins of their father. Alternatively, it may mean that the children will avenge the act of disloyalty. Thighs may have been viewed as the locus of power because of their proximity to the genitalia.
This oath may have involved touching the genitalia, and the oath’s power derived from swearing on a holy item of commandment (i.e., circumcised male member—which represents a sign of the covenant between Man and God). Today courts use a Bible for the administration of an oath because that Book is the most holy thing Man possesses. It is the holiest thing between Man and God.
The Latin word for testes is like testimony or testifies. In ancient Greece testicles of slaughtered animals were used in deciding homicide cases. It has been said that the most ancient way of administering an oath was by placing the hand between the thighs on the genitals. In ancient Roman courts, men took oaths while holding testicles (though some claim this is not true).
“Vayenachem Yitzchak acharei eemo” (“Yitzchak was comforted over the loss of his mother”)
Sandra Gottesman interprets this to mean that finally, after being traumatized by his mother’s death, Yitzchak could shake the guilt and grief he felt for having caused her death by agreeing to allow himself to be offered as a sacrifice. Vayenachem is related to the Hebrew root word that means calmness of spirit, equilibrium, peace of mind. He married a woman in his mother’s image and the internal conflicts subsided.
Rabbi Marc Angel notes that during the three years since Sarah’s death, Yitzchak felt alone, felt lost and felt abandoned. No one understood his pain; he had no one to turn to for consolation. He felt unloved and perhaps was even more pained by not having anybody to love. “A loveless life is a tragic life, a life of perpetual mourning.” But when he sees Rivkah from afar when she appears on the scene, he comes to life and experiences love at first sight. With the prospect of loving and being loved once again, Yitzchak can move forward with his life instead of wallowing in his misery over an irreversible past.
How Old Was Rivkah When She Married Yitzchak?
There are various traditions relating to Rivkah’ s age. One midrash pegs her age at 14. The Talmud in Tractate Soferim concludes that she was three years old. [This is based on on statements in the Torah and assumptions that the Akeida, the death of Sarah and the birth of Rivkah all happened around the same time. In fact, there are no historic records to support this.]
But is it reasonable to assume that a 40-year-old man like Yitzchak would/could marry a three-year-old? Was a three-year-old strong enough to water camels?
Rabbi Angel’s explanation derives from his view that “when we study and teach midrashim/aggadot, we must be sophisticated enough to view these passages in their literary and rhetorical context. We must understand the nature of symbolic language and the use of hyperbole.” In the realm of poetry and literature, being too concrete results in missing the powerful, embedded idea. Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Angel, the use of this hyperbole was a way of underscoring Rivkah’s unusual and unique quality. That she was a giving, caring person who was innocent, perceptive and truthful. Young children can be remarkably wise, a sentiment captured in the phrase, “out of the mouths of babes”.
There is a need to remember our past and to be grateful in the present for all the good in our lives. The Russian novelist Dostoevsky is quoted as having said that “man only likes to count his troubles, but he does not count his joys”.
By contrast we Jews are mandated to always remember our past-- zachor--and to always express gratitude--to give hodaah-- for all with which we’ve been blessed. We verbalize our gratitude and make a conscious effort to think about appreciation when we utter the words.
Opportunities for expressing gratitude abound. Our first chance is when we start each day, as soon as we wake up with the recitation of “Moda Ani L’fanecha…I gratefully thank you Hashem for having returned my soul within me…”
There is a very insightful understanding of gratitude to be gleaned from the davening. One can fulfill one’s obligation to recite the blessings of Shemoneh Esrei by answering “amen” after the chazzan reads them during chazaras h’chatz. But this is true for almost all the blessings. For Modim, however, for gratefully thanking God, answering amen is not enough. Because, explains Rabbi Elijah Spira (1660-1712) cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, when it comes to gratitude each one of us must reflect upon, acknowledge and say the words ourselves. No one can do that for us. It must come directly from us.
Many scientific studies have documented that one’s emotional state can have a major impact on one’s physical health including immunity against disease. Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people. Gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. Grateful people tend to have better relationships and, because of the attendant increase in self- esteem, seem to be better able to cope with painful life experiences like bereavement to losing a job.
At this point in the Torah, it seems like everything had gone bad for Avraham:
He had just buried his wife of many years
He had to pay an exorbitant price for a burial place for her;
He remembers how he had to exile his son Ishmael together with Hagar;
He had only one bachelor son at home, Yitzchak, and no grandchildren.
Yet the Torah states “And Avraham was old, well stricken in age and the Lord had blessed Avraham bakol (in all things).” Rashi notes the numerical value for the word bakol is the same as for the Hebrew word for son. His son was his entire world and represented “all things” to him.
Rabbi Angel offers an innovative approach. Likely Avraham was despondent, feeling unloved and unfulfilled. He may have been wallowing in self-pity, an old man with one bachelor son and a bleak outlook. At this point the Torah reminds us (and Avraham) of the many previous conversations and blessings that included the word bakol. God had promised him a destiny, a land, a covenant, and a people that would be a blessing to the nations of the world:
• “…and through you, all (kol) the families of the earth will be blessed”
• “For all (kol) the land which you see, to you will I give it and to your seed forever”
• “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you; every (kol) male among you shall be circumcised”
Once reminded of all he must be grateful for, Avraham was re-energized, realizing he had much left to accomplish. He remarries and has more children. He takes the initiative in dispatching Eliezer to find a suitable wife for his son. He can live the remainder of his life to the fullest and eventually dies “at a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people”.