Rabbi David Walk
Every year we rabbi types revisit the Genesis stories, and it's amazing how new perspectives emerge every time. I'm not sure what phenomena control this fact, whether it's my evolving life journey or new situations in the world around me. But I do find it fascinating that new vistas arise annually. This year I've been discussing the unique character of Avraham and how that made him the right candidate to found the chosen nation. This week is famous for our farewell to Sarah, Avraham's partner and soul mate. For some reason, few observers seem to notice that Avraham also passes away in this week's Torah reading. I wonder why that it is, and want to discuss that issue this week.
In covering the extraordinary attributes of Avraham, which made him God's chosen representative to this world, I've mentioned his powers of observation and his strength of character to forcefully challenge perceived social norms. I think that there's another important factor. He seems to be the first individual to truly partner with his wife, and that achievement allowed him to grow spiritually to heights hitherto unattained. Our Sages told us two is better than one. Adam and Eve seemed in competition with each other, especially in the blame game, we don't even know Mrs. Noach's name, and we don't know if Malkizedek was even married. The Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) teaches that there are two kinds of marriages, biological and covenantal. I'll assume that you can figure out the biological kind on your own. If you're having trouble, send me an email. Covenantal marriage, on the other hand, is a merger of spiritual goals developed together to achieve a sanctified family which contributes to a greater good. Just as Avraham invented the covenantal community together with God, he similarly created the covenantal marriage together with Sarah. Perhaps this is another reason for his choice as father of our people.
I think that this approach also explains the funny goings on in both the parsha and our Sages' explanation of them. Since the Jews are going to be a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6), it makes sense that the leader or High Priest of the nation must be married, just like the Cohen Gadol in both Temples. If the leader of the covenantal community must also have a covenantal marriage then we understand most of this week's Torah reading. The preoccupation with Sarah's death is therefore two fold. Avraham misses his beloved, and knows that she must be replaced for the Jewish enterprise to go forward. This goes a long way to clarifying the detailed story of finding Rivkah. It also might shed light on two other controversies.
After the death and burial of Sarah, the verse informs us that Avraham was old (Duh!, 137 years), but that he was also blessed with everything. There are many commentaries on what this 'everything' is. Please, forgive me, but I keep thinking of bagels when I read that verse. However, I would like to suggest that this really means that not only did Avraham have a successor (Yitzchak), but that Sarah also had a replacement as chief matriarch as well. She just had to be found. Perhaps, this also enlightens us about the Midrash concerning the timing of the birth of the Rivkah. According to the famous Midrash, Rivkah is born just as Sarah dies. The basis for that idea is the juxtaposition of the verses. Rivkah's birth is recorded just before the description of Sarah's demise. This idea is used by some to suggest that Rivkah is the reincarnation of Sarah. While others famously (or infamously) use this connection to propose that if Rivkah was born at that time, then she must have been three years old when she married the then forty year old Yitzchak. This is clearly a non-literal interpretation, because Rivkah is described repeatedly as a na'ara, which means an adolescent.
All of these machinations are directed towards one goal, to declare the tremendous importance of replacing Sarah. Avraham and Sarah were a team and the Jewish nation must be lead by such teams. The enterprise can't continue without a Mrs. Yitzchak. Yitzchak can't become the true heir of the covenantal community without the perfect mate, and that was Rivkah. Avraham, I believe, clearly understood this, and that's why he worked so hard on the problem. However, Yitzchak seemed oblivious to this necessity, and that explains why he didn't get involved in the match making process. He may have thought that he could go it alone. But even he gets it when Rivkah is brought home, as the verse records: And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for the loss of his mother (Genesis 23:67). At that point, after 87 verses, we can move on from the death of Sarah, because Yitzchak and we have found comfort in Sarah's replacement.
This idea not only goes a long way to elucidate the unusual level of detail presented in our parsha, but also, I believe, informs us of some extremely significant ideas. First of all if a Jewish marriage should have both biological and covenantal elements, that requires the partners to have both physical and spiritual chemistry. I think that these happenings profoundly enlightened Yitzchak to a marriage reality he had previously ignored. Secondly, we should deeply desire to emulate the marriage of Sarah and Avraham. This last instruction should inform our behavior after the wedding celebration as well. Marriage must be seen as an evolving and developing process. If it is not what you want, try to fix it before you decide to end it. After all, Avraham apparently didn't know that he was physically moved by Sarah's beauty until their trip to
As we bid farewell to Sarah, let's be inspired to look for what she represented in ourselves and our relationships.
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