Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23 : 1 – 25 : 18)

This week’s parashah is Chayei Sarah.  The sidrah begins with Abraham mourning for Sarah and seeking a burial place for her.  The second part of the sidrah has Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, journeying back to Abraham’s native land in order to find a wife for Isaac, his son.  The sidrah concludes with the death of Abraham, and Isaac and Ishmael meet again at his funeral.

Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah from the children of Heth (possibly Hittites) and it will be a place of burial not only for Sarah, but for Abraham himself and several generations of his family.  What we are reading is the founding narrative of Hebron as a holy city for Jews and Muslims because both traditions revere Abraham as their spiritual forbear.  Muslims call the city al-khalil al Rahman, in honour of Abraham, ‘the beloved of God’ and the burial chamber is surmounted by a synagogue and an adjacent mosque.

Sadly, Hebron is not a place of peace;  today it is one of the sharpest flashpoints on the West Bank.  Hebron is a Palestinian city but it also houses a small Jewish settlement and is a highly contested place of pilgrimage for both Muslims and Jews.

The sidrah’s founding narrative is very different.  Abraham believes that his descendants will inherit the land but his belief in no way affects his conduct with the children of Heth.  Abraham tells them that he is a “stranger and sojourner” with them and he engages in a lengthy and courteous negotiation prior to purchasing the site he has requested.  Abraham, in turn, is treated with great respect by the Hittites, who tell him that he is a “prince of God” among them.

The story is reminiscent of Genesis 12, when Abraham parted from his nephew, Lot, over a shepherds’ quarrel.  The Rabbinic tradition says the quarrel began because Abraham’s shepherds treated the people of the land with courtesy and propriety while Lot’s shepherds grazed their flocks with impunity on land that did not belong to them.

For the Torah, how one responds to others, especially if they are ‘strangers’, is at the heart of the religious life.  When Abraham’s servant Eliezer encounters Rebecca, he knows that she might be the person he is seeking because he recognises in her the qualities he has come to know in Abraham.  Eliezer asked only for a sip of water but, like Abraham, Rebecca “hurried” to let him drink as much as he wanted and she then “ran” to the well to provide also for his camels.

The theme of relating to others is taken up by Rabbi Sacks z”l in his comments on Isaac and Ishmael at the end of the parashah.  In the wake of 9/11, Rabbi Sacks was particularly concerned to help different religious traditions live in peace.  He was well aware that in rabbinic discourse Ishmael, as father of the Arab peoples, has come to symbolise the Islamic world:  religious readers tend to interpret contemporary events in the light of the Torah and would conclude that the conflict between Jews and Muslims is both eternal and immutable.

Rabbi Sacks focuses on an apparently minor reference in the sidra that many readers would overlook.  In Genesis 24:62, as Isaac and Rebecca are about to meet, we are told that Isaac “had come back from Be’er-lahai-roi and was settled in the Negev.”  In 25:11 we are told that after Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac and Isaac “settled at Be’er-lahai-roi.”  The text offers no further explanation, but Rabbi Sacks reminds his readers that Be’er-lahai-roi was indeed significant:  it was at the heart of the story of Hagar, as recorded in Genesis 16:14.

After being harshly treated by Sarah, Hagar fled to the wilderness, where an angel of God spoke to her by “a spring of water”.  Hagar believed that she had seen God and lived, and referred to God as El-roi, so the spring was named Be’er-lahai-roi, the well where Hagar had seen and lived.  (Be’er is a spring or well, lahai refers to living and roi to seeing.)

Isaac’s choice of Be’er-lahai-roi as a place to live now becomes truly remarkable and Rabbi Sacks quotes two rabbinic sources by way of explanation:  Rashi on 24:62 says that Isaac’s first visit to Be’er-lahai-roi was to restore Hagar to Abraham, following the death of Sarah.  Secondly, a midrash in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (an 8th-9th century compilation, probably containing earlier rabbinic material) reports a tradition that Abraham had visited Ishmael twice after he had been sent away.

On his second visit, Ishmael was away, but his wife gave Abraham food and drink.  The midrash then says, “Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things.”  When Ishmael returned, his wife told him what had taken place and “Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.”  Father and son were reconciled and the presence of Isaac and Ishmael at Abraham’s funeral indicates that they too were reunited.

Rabbi Sacks concluded that this story has immense consequences for our own time:  “Yes, there was conflict and separation, but that was the beginning, not the end.  Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect.  Abraham loved both his sons and was laid to rest by both.  There is hope for the future in this story of the past.”

May our remembrance of Rabbi Sacks be a blessing for us all.

Jonathan Gorsky