This portion of Chayei Sarah focuses on the death of Sarah and Abraham’s quest to find a wife for their son, Isaac. Although Abraham disapproves of the local women, he does not want Isaac to leave the Land of Israel to find his wife. Abraham thus sends a servant in his place to find the right woman to marry his son. The portion ends with an account of Abraham’s final days and a genealogy of his other son: Ishmael.
Sarah’s Death and Burial
At the age of 127, Abraham’s beloved wife, Sarah, passes away. He sets out to find an appropriate burial site in his adopted home-town of Hebron for his departed. In an elaborate bargaining ceremony, Abraham negotiates the price for a double-cave, the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the Hittite, settling at last on a price of four hundred silver shekels.
The name Hebron in Hebrew, the Israel Bible points out, comes from the same root as the word chaver, or friend. The Sages taught that Chevron is a contraction for chaver and na’eh, meaning agreeable. Thus, the city’s name demonstrates that Abraham, who settled there, was the first ‘agreeable friend’ of God, or as it says in Isaiah 41:8, “The seed of Abraham, My friend.”
Although Abraham had already lived in the Land of Israel for over sixty years, this is the first mention of him or his family members purchasing land. The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, who notes that the juxtaposition of loss to the purchase highlights a fundamental truth about the Holy Land: it is acquired through suffering. Only after feeling the pain of losing a loved one did Abraham acquire his first portion of the land. However, the Sages taught in Ethics of the Fathers (5:26), “According to the suffering is the reward.”
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Abraham had to haggle over the land?
Abraham Seeks a Wife for Isaac
After burying his own wife, Abraham turns his attention to finding a wife for their son, Isaac. Knowing as he does that Isaac is meant to be his spiritual heir, not just any woman will do. Nor may Isaac leave the Holy Land for any reason. Therefore, Abraham charges his trusty servant to select a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s own kin back in Aram-naharaim. If the woman the servant finds refuses to come, Abraham assures him he has at least done his duty. The servant swears to uphold Abraham’s requests and he sets off, with ten camels and an array of gifts in tow.
When the servant arrives at the well on the outskirts of town, he turns to God for direction. He sets a sign for himself: the woman who not only offers him water, but his camels, too, is the right one for Isaac. Before he even completes his prayer, the servant spies young Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel and granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. He asks her for water, and she replies by giving it to him, then watering all his camels. Watching her work, the servant becomes convinced that this woman is destined to marry his master’s son, and he brings forth the jewelry which he carried for that purpose. He confirms her identity, and asks if her family will take him in overnight. She confirms her identity and invites him to stay with her family. The servant responds by thanking God for bringing him to the right place.
The Israel Bible discusses the significance of the caravan which the servant brought with him. The Hebrew word for camel, gamal, also means ‘to be independent’. It is used throughout the Bible to describe weaning children or ripening fruit (see Genesis 21:8, Numbers 17:23). According to Rabbi Natan Slifkin, the camel earned this name because it is “able to survive in the absence of water for many months.” How fitting that this symbol of independence carried back Rebecca, who made an independent choice to join Isaac in the Holy Land of Israel!
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the servant asked God for a sign? Do you think it was a good one? Why or why not?
The Servant’s Account
When Rebecca arrives home ahead of her guest, she tells her brother Laban what has transpired. Lavan welcomes the servant into their home, offering both man and beast provisions. The servant, however, refuses to eat until he has said his piece.
Noting his master’s great wealth and success, he relates to the family that he has been sent by Abraham to seek a wife for his son, Isaac, from among Abraham’s kin. He tells about his prayer, and the miraculously instant appearance of Rebecca. He says he asked her identity, and offered her the jewelry, ending with his prayer thanking God for His intercession.
Points to Ponder
The Bible is known for not mincing words, yet here it includes a near-complete repetition of the events leading up to the meeting between the servant and Rebecca’s family! Why do you think that is?
The servant then asks the family if he may take Rebecca back to Israel to marry Isaac. Brother and father alike respond that they cannot stand in the way of God’s will, and she may go with him. When the servant asks to leave the next morning, however, her mother and brother ask that Rebecca be allowed to delay. When the servant insists, the family asks Rebecca what she prefers, and she chooses to leave immediately with the servant. She is accompanied by her childhood nurse and blessed at her departure by her family.
As they arrive in Hebron, the entourage encounters Isaac, who is returning from Beer-lahai-roi. When Rebecca sets eyes upon him, she is overwhelmed and falls from her camel, asking who he is. The servant tells her this is Isaac, and she veils herself. Once more the servant tells his tale, this time to Isaac. Isaac takes Rebecca as a wife, and is comforted after the loss of his mother.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Rebecca’s mother and brother (Laban) try to delay her departure?
Tying Up Loose Ends
The portion ends with an account of the end of Abraham’s days and a genealogy of Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael.
Although Abraham lives on to see his grandchildren if you do the math, he makes no further appearances in the narrative, and so the Torah wraps up his story here. We are told he remarries, fathering many more children and grandchildren. These descendants, however, do not share Isaac’s status, so he gives them gifts and sends them on their way. He lives to the age of 175, and is buried beside Sarah by both Isaac and Ishmael together in the Cave of Machpelah.
As the Israel Bible notes, this portion, which both opens and closes with the Cave of Machpelah, has spawned a popular custom in Israel of traveling to Hebron on the week in which it is read to hear it recited at the very site of the Cave. Around the world, this Sabbath is known as Shabbat Chevron, and special blessings and prayers are recited in synagogues everywhere for the holy city. Ultimately, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried there, too, and according to tradition, so were Adam and Eve.
Points to Ponder
What do you think we can learn from the fact that both Isaac and Ishmael came to bury their father together?