November 19, 2022: Parashat Chayei Sarah – Women of Virtue
This week’s parashah is taken from Genesis 23:1—25:18. Listen in as David delves into this uniquely beautiful Torah portion dedicated to our matriarchs Sarah and Rebekah.
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This week’s parashah is a unique and beautiful Torah portion, for one simple reason. It is the only Torah portion named for a woman, and no ordinary woman at that – it is none other than the matriarch of the Jewish people, Sarah. As such, you could say that this is the parashah for all the ladies out there. Furthermore, we will see that behind every great man stands a great woman.
We open up the parashah to the words in Genesis 23:1:
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃ וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת־אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃
“Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.”
All throughout the previous two Torah portions, we are only given snippets of Sarah’s life. In no way does this mean that she was unimportant in any way whatsoever. Rather, the primary focus of the previous parashot is on Abraham who ultimately takes the limelight for obvious reasons. Yet, Sarah was an ironclad pillar for Abraham, foundational in helping him accomplish his mission in this world. And it is through these snippets on the life of Sarah that we are able to piece together the foundational elements of Sarah’s life and character. Ultimately, we discover the elemental qualities that made her the great woman that she was.
We read on in Genesis 23 that Abraham came to eulogize and bewail Sarah, after which he sought to purchase a specific location to bury her – the Cave of Machpelah. In doing so, Abraham paid an outrageous sum of money in those days – 400 silver shekalim – for the property. What this undoubtedly speaks of is how much Abraham loved and honoured his beloved wife.
What first becomes very clear about Sarah’s qualities is that she was a “no-nonsense” woman, who cared only about bringing about the perfect will of Hashem in their lives. As she was barren, at the age of 75, she told Abraham to take her maidservant Hagar and have a child by her. As it says in Genesis 16:2: “Sarai [later to be re-named Sarah] said to Abram [Abraham], ‘See, now, Hashem has restrained me from bearing; come, now, to my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.” Sarah recognized her shortcoming – her state of barrenness – and was willing to use whatever means at her disposal to bring about the promise of Hashem. And when she spoke, Abraham obeyed. Abraham loved his wife and trusted in her wisdom, discernment and counsel.
At this juncture, little did Abraham or Sarah realize that Hashem intended to use both of them – barren and in their old age – to bring forth a righteous seed. Yet, that was Hashem’s plan all along. Thus, at the age of 90, Sarah gave birth miraculously to Isaac. It was several years later that Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of her maidservant Hagar, mocking Isaac. At this point, Sarah instructed Abraham to (Genesis 21:10): “Drive out this slavewoman and her son, for the son of that slavewoman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!” While the matter greatly distressed Abraham as Ishmael was his son, God said to Abraham (Genesis 21:12): “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice.” Thus, Abraham arose early in the morning and obeyed Sarah’s instruction. Abraham obeyed once again because he loved his wife and trusted in her wisdom, discernment and counsel. And moreover, we see that Sarah was driven by Hashem’s will more than anything. Sarah cared only about the righteous offspring that Hashem had promised to her and Abraham, and as any good and righteous mother, she protected her son at all costs.
Just in these two instances, we see that when Sarah spoke, Abraham obeyed, and that speaks volumes. Abraham trusted Sarah’s wisdom, discernment and counsel just as he put his faith in Hashem, and he obeyed Sarah accordingly just as he obeyed Hashem. Not only that, but Hashem even told Abraham to heed her voice, and that speaks even greater volumes.
After Sarah died and was buried by Abraham, we see the limelight on Abraham begin to shift towards Isaac. Yet, Abraham had another 38 years before he would die at the age of 175 – plenty of time to accomplish more in this world. What this is telling us is that Abraham’s life was incomplete without his beloved Sarah… that his mission in this world was now officially at an end as was necessary to account in the Torah now that Sarah had left the world. Moreover, even then, the shift from Abraham to Isaac was not immediate, but rather remained in flux for one important reason: Isaac was incomplete and his mission could not take off without a wife. Even more than that, the right wife.
It was at this point that Abraham entrusted his faithful servant Eliezer to seek out a wife for Isaac. Why didn’t Abraham do this himself? First, it says that he was old and well on in years, and second, he trusted Eliezer explicitly. We see this trust in action as Eliezer followed through on his master’s instructions completely throughout his mission. In Genesis 24:4, Abraham commanded Eliezer: “To my land and to my kindred shall you go and take a wife for my son, for Isaac.” Abraham went on in Genesis 24:7, saying: “[Hashem] will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.” Abraham was explicit in his instruction to Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac from his family in Aram Naharaim. Why is this? Because Abraham was eager to have Isaac marry a woman from his and Sarah’s own stock. Remember, Sarah was Abraham’s sister-in-law (Genesis 20:12) and as such, both of them were from the seed of Terah. This is important because Abraham wanted to find a wife for Isaac from the same seed that brought forth such righteous offspring as him and Sarah. Take note that at the end of last week’s parashah (in Genesis 22:20-24), we are told that Abraham was ultimately informed that Rebekah had been born to the son of his brother Nahor – a lead-up into this week’s parashah. Abraham knew where to look for a wife for Isaac, but he certainly didn’t give Eliezer specific instructions on who or how. Rather, he said: “Hashem will send His angel before you.” Abraham left it up to Hashem to lead Eliezer according to His perfect will and His choice in a wife for Isaac.
When Eliezer arrived in Aram Naharaim, we read that he prayed to Hashem, saying (in Genesis 24:12-14): “Hashem, God of my master Abraham, may You so arrange it for me this day, and do kindness with my master Abraham. See, I stand here by the spring of water and the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water. Let it be that the maiden to whom you shall say, ‘Please tip your jug so I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels,’ her will You have chosen for Your servant, for Isaac; and may I know through her that You have done kindness with my master.”
What a beautiful and humble prayer from the servant of Abraham! It goes on in the next verse to say that “he had not yet finished speaking that suddenly Rebekah… was coming out with her jug upon her shoulder.” I mean, talk about Divine timing!
Rebekah proceeded to do precisely everything that Eliezer prayed and more – she not only offered him “drink”, but rather “drink to his satisfaction”; she also neither “tipped her jug” to give him drink, but rather she “lowered her jug to her hand and gave him drink”. She then not only “watered his camels”, but rather “hurried and she emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water” for all his camels. As a result, Eliezer was “astonished at her”, for she went above and beyond what he prayed. It was an absolute confirmation from Hashem that she was the one. All that Eliezer now needed to confirm was her lineage. When she then confirmed that she was from the brother of Abraham’s house, it says in Genesis 24:26-27: “So the man bowed low and prostrated himself to Hashem. He said, ‘Blessed is Hashem, God of my master Abraham, Who has not withheld His kindness and truth from my master; as for me, Hashem has guided me on the way to the house of my master’s brothers.’”
So beautiful! Everything lined up perfectly with what he prayed, for Hashem’s angel had gone before him, and the mission was ultimately a part of Hashem’s perfect plan.
Turning to Rebekah, embedded within her actions were the beautiful qualities of charity, generosity, humility and innocence. Innocence not in the sense of naivety, but rather grounded in purity. These were certainly qualities that Sarah had, and which Eliezer most certainly observed throughout his service to Abraham’s household.
The beauty of this story is so profound that we literally read it twice, as Eliezer recounts the events virtually word for word a second time to the family of Rebekah (Genesis 24:42-48). Why does the Scripture go out of its way to give us a superfluous rendering of the same story literally word for word? For two reasons: 1) Because the Torah is placing great significance on the search for the right and perfect woman for Isaac that would follow in the footsteps of his mother Sarah; and 2) that the plans of Abraham and the actions of Eliezer were in line with Hashem’s perfect Divine plan and as a result, it all came to pass with Divine precision. Taken together, the beauty of this story is revealed in how flawlessly the events played out in accordance with Abraham’s request of his servant and Eliezer’s subsequent prayer to Hashem for guidance.
When Eliezer told the family of Rebekah the purpose of his mission – to bring Rebekah as a wife to Isaac – they admitted that there was no denying that Hashem had guided the circumstances, and they left the decision up to Rebekah. Rebekah said (Genesis 24:58): “I will go.” She went willingly, on the word of a stranger! Again, there is no way that naivety played a role here, otherwise her family would have disagreed with the proposal. There undoubtedly was the hand of Hashem behind it all, also prompting Rebekah in the right direction in line with His will for her life.
Finally, Rebekah arrived at Beer-lahai-roi where Isaac dwelled, and we read (in Genesis 24:67): “And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebekah, she became his wife, and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother.” This is a very revealing verse. Sarah’s tent remained “standing” even after she died. While we are not to take this literally, in the simple sense, it means that Rebekah took the place of Sarah. The remnant of Sarah’s lofty presence in the family remained vacant, awaiting the arrival of the rightful successor to her. Moreover, at this juncture, it had less to do with Abraham directly as it did for his lineage. Furthermore, the verse says that Isaac "loved her and that he was consoled after his mother” – meaning, Isaac saw in Rebekah the same qualities and righteous attributes that were to be found in his mother. As a result, Rebekah truly was the rightful woman to carry on the torch of Sarah.
Taken in conjunction with the perfect will of Hashem for Rebekah to become the wife of Isaac, there is another beautiful message here. We read back in Parashat Bereishit (in Genesis 1:27): “And God created Man in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Again, in Genesis 2:18, we read: “Hashem God said, ‘It is not good that man be alone; I will make him a helper against him.’” We learnt back in this Torah portion the use of the word “כְּנֶגְדּוֹ” (“kenegdo”), literally meaning “like his opposite”, that is used there. Based on man’s choices, the woman – his wife, his “other half” – literally, would either be his helper to aid him or be a helper to oppose him. Ultimately, Adam and Eve were two halves of one, created to operate in unity. Applying this insight to this week’s parashah, we see that Sarah was Abraham’s helper “kenegdo” “like his opposite”. She supported him and opposed him in just the right ways necessary to ensure that he was able to accomplish what he had to accomplish in his life, in accordance with Hashem’s perfect will for them. When Sarah died, Abraham ceased to operate on the same level as he did when she was alive, and the baton passed to Isaac. For Isaac, the right helper “kenegdo” “like his opposite” was necessary for him to accomplish his mission in this world. And finally, the goal for them was to plant the right and righteous foundation through which the Jewish nation would come forth, and ultimately, through whom the Messiah would come forth.
Just as Sarah was Abraham’s “helper” and “other half”, so was Rebekah the “helper” and “other half” of Isaac. In order to find the right wife for Isaac, Abraham had to look beyond his local community to what was now a foreign land, but formerly was his homeland. He knew where to look, yet it was just a matter of determining whether it was in line with Hashem’s will or not. That is why he didn’t give specific instructions to Eliezer on who it was or how to find her, but left it in his trusted servants’ hands and confidently said that “Hashem will send His angel before you”.
Whether in search of our “other half” or more generally in understanding Hashem’s will for our lives can certainly seem daunting and overwhelming. How often are we willing to wait and test and probe everything before us to confirm what Hashem’s perfect will is for us? The answer is – not often at all! – whether through impatience, distraction, or lack of focus, lack of determination or lack of faith.
Again, we can look to the life of Abraham and understand how it was his faith in and obedience to Hashem carried him forward in his mission in this world, so much so that he merited to father the Jewish nation and ultimately bring forth the Messiah who would ultimately plant the seeds of rectification for the world. It was Abraham’s stalwart faith and unbreakable obedience that helped him stand up to the difficulties of this world. And as we learn in this week’s parashah, it was also his helper / his other half – Sarah – that was a critical contributing support in all of his endeavours. We can safely say that without her, he would never have succeeded in his mission in this world. Moreover, Isaac would not have accomplished what he had to accomplish were it not for finding his helper and other half – particularly in bringing forth more righteous seed.
Regarding Rebekah, in particular, in next week’s parashah we see her protecting Jacob as her righteous offspring in a similar way to Sarah protecting Isaac. We see Rebekah surreptitiously instruct Jacob to dress like his brother Esau in order to get the blessing of the firstborn from Isaac. Just like Sarah with Isaac, Rebekah was focused on protecting the Abrahamic covenant that would be carried on through Jacob. This highlights the esteemed level of righteousness of these two women. Not only that, it also reveals their wisdom, discernment and counsel in righteous matters.
As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 31 about the virtuous woman (Proverbs 31:10-12): “An accomplished woman who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value. Her husband’s heart trusts in her, and he shall lack no fortune. She bestows goodness upon him, never evil, all the days of her life.” Again, in Verses 26-28, he writes: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She anticipates the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of laziness. Her children have risen and praised her; her husband, and he extolled her.”
With these beautifully penned words, King Solomon was undoubtedly referring to the matriarchs of the Jewish people, most notably Sarah and Rebekah. These words and the entirety of Proverbs 31 beautifully sum up the true intrinsic value of the virtuous woman, wife and mother. For Sarah and Rebekah, what a beautiful end goal of ultimately bringing about the seed of Messiah. For the rest of us, that certainly doesn’t in any way diminish our missions in this world. Quite the contrary! Hashem has a perfect plan for each and every one of us, and just as with Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah, He guides us to our “other half” for two critical purposes: 1) so that we can live our lives to the fullest extent of what He has in store for us in accordance with His perfect will for our lives; and 2) to ensure that righteousness continues to thrive in this world through our offspring.
We can generalize this discussion further, and apply it to our lives as well. Whether we ultimately accomplish what Hashem’s perfect will is for us in our lives is a matter of choice and discernment on our parts. Hashem is the One Who leads and guides us in all of our endeavours. Whether we walk in line with Him is all a matter of how open our eyes and ears are to His prompting in our lives. Sadly, many of us are completely oblivious to His promptings in our lives, and as a result, many of us end up accomplishing things in our lives that are sub-par to what His perfect will is for us.
May we open our eyes and ears to Hashem’s promptings. May we look to Him for guidance and direction in all of our endeavours. May we seek Him for wisdom, discernment and good counsel so that we may govern our lives and the lives of our households thoroughly in righteousness. Just as Hashem spoke to Abraham in Genesis 18:19: “For I have cherished him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice, in order that Hashem might bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him.” May we merit Hashem’s favour in much the same way.