Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
A newspaper reader knows from the headline what the topic of the article will be. Not so with the Torah. The title of each Torah portion is its first significant word; whether that word tells what will follow is somewhat up to chance. In Parashat Noach, the title does tells us who will be the central focus of the narrative. In this week’s portion, the title Chayei Sara seems to be irrelevant, misleading and yet, perhaps, fraught with meaning.
Chayei Sara means “the life of Sarah.” It is thus a strange introduction for a series of events that begins with her death. The opening verse of the portion reads, literally, “Sarah’s life was one hundred twenty-seven years” (Genesis 23:1). It then goes on to tell of her death and burial. The rest of the portion describes the recruitment of Rebecca (Rivkah) to be Isaac’s wife, her return to Canaan with Abraham’s servant and her marriage to Isaac. If Torah portions were given a title corresponding to their central character, this one would be Chayei Rivkah (“the life of Rebekah”), not Chayei Sara.
Toward the end of the portion, Sarah does reappear – -not in person, but as a memory. We are told that after Isaac meets Rebecca, he:
… brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent and took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24:67)
This is the first instance where the Torah notes that someone loved someone else. No such mention is made of the feelings between Adam and Eve, Noah and his (unnamed) wife, or Abraham and Sarah. Why then, would Isaac’s feelings be mentioned here?
Nahmanides explains that the Torah hints that Isaac was greatly sorrowed by his mother’s death and that comfort was distant from him until he was consoled by his love for Rebekah; what other reason is there that the Torah should tell of a man’s love for his wife? He loved her and was comforted by her because of her likeness to Sarah in righteousness and altruism.
Nahmanides appears to be saying that Isaac loved Rebecca not so much for herself as for her moral resemblance to his mother. It is as though he was comforted not by a flesh-and-blood person, but by an idea of a person; Isaac was in love with what Rebecca represented. One might object to Nahmanides’ explanation; is this not taking a simple expression of love and emptying from it any romance? And yet, the Torah itself encourages this conclusion by reintroducing Sarah in a later scene that features Isaac and Rebecca.
Problems for the Future
My student Sally Magid suggests that the type of love Isaac felt toward Rebecca was the root of their future family problems. He admired her, which was different from loving her in the way a wife wants to be loved. The result was an overall incomplete communication flow between the two and a lack of agreement on how to raise their twin sons. We learn in the next portion that Isaac loved Esau and Rebecca loved Jacob; instead of agreeing on which son to bless, Isaac makes a unilateral move toward Esau and Rebekah thwarts him by arranging for a disguised Jacob to get the blessing.
Perhaps Haye Sarah is, after all, a revealing title for this Torah portion. It might be that for Isaac, Sarah is not really dead. Her character is reincarnate in Rebecca. If this is so, we can sympathize with Rebecca, excuse her for arranging Isaac to be tricked in the matter of the blessing, and maybe even applaud her for it. It is hard to be the object of a certain kind of admiration, where the admired one is just that — an object. A better kind of admiration is that which develops from reciprocity and a healthy relationship. From this Torah portion one can draw the lesson that even God does not crave an admiration so strong that it blinds the admirer to the desires of the admired.
Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.
Pronounced: RIV-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, the biblical character Rebecca.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.