Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

canstockphoto3712801This week’s parsha is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1 – 25:18.[i] It is not the happiest of passages, as it records the deaths of Sarah, Abraham, and Ishmael. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing the different ways these three deaths are recorded. First, “Sarah died… Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her” (Genesis 23.2). It wasn’t until after Isaac and Rebekah bonded that Isaac was “comforted after the loss of his mother” (Genesis 24.67). Her family mourned her passing. Second, of Abraham it is written, “So Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, old and satisfied. Then he was gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25.8). An excellent epitaph for one who had traveled so far and seen so much; “he was old and satisfied.” This is reminiscent of the words of the Psalmist,

I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous one forsaken, nor his children begging for bread. All day long he is gracious and lends. So his offspring will be a blessing. (Psalms 37.25-26)

Then there is Ishmael, of whom it was written, “Concerning Ishmael, He breathed his last, died and was gathered to his peoples. Over against all his brothers he fell,” (Genesis 25.17-18).

In another translation, it indicates that all of Ishmael’s relatives settled apart or away from each other. Compared to Sarah and Abraham, it appears that Ishmael died alone affirming the prophetic word that had been spoke over him, “He will be a wild donkey of a man. His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and away from all his brothers will he dwell,” (Genesis 16.12).

The one bright point in the parsha is Isaac’s obtaining a wife, Rebekah. According to the narrative, Abraham commanded his servant not to “take a wife for my son from among the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I am dwelling. On the contrary, to my land and to my relatives you must go and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24.3b-4). This action had our sages in a quandary. Hashem had taken Abraham and his close family out of Mesopotamia and sent him to Israel (then Canaan). Granted, the Canaanites were idol worshippers, but then so were the people back “home.” Nehama Leibowitz suggests that the primary reason for not allowing Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman was to protect Isaac and his lineage from assimilation.[ii] Quoting S. R. Hirsch, as he thinks aloud about Abraham’s view, “The influence of a Canaanite girl on my son will be infinitely more potent since I dwell amongst them. Not only the girl, but her family, her relatives and friends will all together exert a cumulatively deleterious influence on my son.”[iii] By bringing Isaac a wife from afar, separated from her family, friends and even social norms, she would be more likely bond to Isaac and the nascent faith of his father Abraham. The goal was to continue the journey that the LORD had placed upon Abraham (Genesis 12.1-3), possibly with the understanding that “a threefold cord cannot be quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4.12). What threefold cord, one might ask? The LORD who called, Abraham who responded, and now the married couple who would be next to propagate the vision.

The Haftarah, I Kings 1:1-31, speaks of the closing days of another biblical great, King David. But where Abraham was “old and satisfied”, David was old, advanced in years, and could not get warm (I Kings 1.1). This is a far cry from his confession in Psalms 37. Not only could David not stay warm, but he still didn’t have control of his own house. Even before he was out of the picture, “Adonijah son of Haggith exalted himself, saying: ‘I’ll be king’” (1 Kings 1.5). Even more than that, he isn’t on top of things with the folks who have loved and supported him (1 Kings 1.11-27). After all the intrigue is over and done, David makes good on his original promise concerning Solomon to appoint him as the next king of Israel (1 Kings 1.29-30).

So why are these to passages linked together in Chayei Sarah? Michael Fishbane suggests that “Abraham and David represent two distinct models of aging. …The “Abrahamic type” enters old age with all the religious and moral integrity of his life. …The “Davidic type” enters old age more catastrophically.”[iv] During their lives, both men experienced the heights of closeness to ADONAI because of their obedience and faithfulness. Likewise, both men experienced the depths of depression due to disobedience or lack of faith. In the end, Abraham seems to have recovered while David continued to struggle. At the end, it was said of David, “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David” (I Kings 2.10). Nothing about being “satisfied” as said about Abraham. In fact, the last recorded comments of David to Solomon dealt with David charging Solomon to reap justice or maybe revenge on those who had wronged him (David) at various times during his life. One has to wonder if David would have found peace and satisfaction in death had he heard the admonition Rav Shaul gave to the believers at Rome,

Never take your own revenge, loved ones, but give room for God’s wrath—for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” says Adonai. (Romans 12.19; cf. Deuteronomy 32.35)

How much better it is to allow ADONAI to be God, and to leave things in His control, allowing Him to work things out on our behalf (Romans 8.28; Jeremiah 29.11). This does not mean that we sit back and do nothing – in fact we do what we know to do by the guidance of the Ruach and the gifting the LORD has invested within us. What we do not do is step over into His territory and act in His stead. May it be said of each of us, that we have grown old and satisfied in the LORD – and even more so, that He is satisfied with us.

* As we prepare to enter the Sabbath this week, please remember the more than 70,000 persons in Israel that have been displaced due to raging fore fires this week, some which are still burning today. Likewise, please remember the hundreds of fire fighters and volunteers who have been battling the fires to save the acreage and to keep the population safe.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Nehama Leibowitz. New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis). The World Zionist Organization Department of Torah Education in the Diaspora, 2010. p 214ff

[iii] Ibid. p 219

[iv] Michael Fishbane. The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2002. p 23

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