Parasha Hayyei Sarah

The characters in our parsha, the Life of Sarah or Hayyei Sarah, are well known.  While the title speaks for itself, most of the action is identified with men—Abraham, Eliezer[i], and then Isaac.  My real interest is in Rebecca, the most iron-willed of our matriarchs (which is saying something).  She is the bridge between Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, and the death of Sarah. This is certainly no accident, as it foreshadows the next stage of covenantal history. But Rebecca is not just a tool.  She is an actress with a pronounced sense of self.  Modern commentator Tikvah Frymer Kensky sees Rebecca as comparable to Abraham in her hospitality and to Sarah in her willingness to subvert her husband’s inclinations in order to fulfill the will of God. “These women temper paternal authority to bring about God’s will.”

Yet despite her strong entrance and her powerful manipulations of the men in her family, there is eventually something unstable about Rebecca. Initially, in Chapter 24 Rebecca is remarkably self-assured. She appears with her water jug on her shoulder and shows no hesitation in engaging the stranger, watering his caravan of camels, and inviting him home. She is comfortable in her skin—she identifies with her family, but given the opportunity to leave, she announces her intention with the single and unambiguous word, elekh, I’m outta here. This is Rebecca the confident.

Something changes. She sees Isaac, and suddenly she is falling off the camel and covering up. She struggles to conceive, and when Isaac’s prayers are answered, she struggles in pregnancy, finally seeking out God.  Ramban, Nachmanides, dismisses the explanations of Rashi (why did I yearn to be pregnant?) and Ibn Ezra (why is my pregnancy so abnormal?) and says that Rebecca’s question is existential: “Why do I exist in the world?  I wish I were dead, or had never been born!”  Ramban associates Rebecca’s anguish with that of Job—if this is life, why live?

What’s up with Rebecca? My suspicion is that she entered the scene whole, confident that she could fix any problem, and then she was pierced by the suffering absorbed by Yitzhak. Her husband has the least fitting name in Tanakh, Hebrew Bible—can you imagine Isaac laughing? It is almost a cruel irony of his life that the laughter preceding his birth was actually sarcastic. In life he may have suffered at the hands of his big brother, was nearly sacrifiNced by his father, and seems to have endured a silent and paralyzing form of grief over his mother’s death.

It is a mystery as to how these characters, or any persons for that matter develop as they do. But on this day, after the horrible superstorm Sandy, I think about the myriad of young men and women all over the world who left home whole, ready to serve and solve the world’s problems, just like young Rebecca, and some became transformed into fragmented selves, broken by battles that started externally and then infiltrated their minds and bodies.

The time is now for our community to rally for one another so that we don’t have the Rebeccas and Isaacs of the world going into their shells but have people who still want to be a part of this great society.  I believe we can rally now after this storm (and its successor) and help each other heal and feel each other’s appreciation and love.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


In my attempt to be consistent with the Conservative Movement, I strive to utilize the spellings from our Etz Hayim.  As I reached for it to be sure I had the name of Abraham’s servant properly spelled, I realized Eliezer was not mentioned by name in Hayyei Sarah.  I knew that I knew his name, but from where?  In a short journey back to Lekh L’kha, we are given his name.  Perhaps next year we will address why he is only mentioned as “the servant” in Hayyei Sarah so many times.