Rebecca and Eliezer, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, c. 1660, Museo del Prado, Madrid,Spain

Chayei Sarah | פרשת חיי שרה

Sefer Shemot | ספר שמות

Shemot 1:1-6:1  [Hebcal] [על-התורה] שמות א א-ו א

Haftarah: Yirmiyahu 1:1-2:3 (Sefardi) | Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Ashkenazi) | Yechezkel 16:1-14 (Teimani)

[על-התורה] (תימנים) הפטרה: ירמיהו א א- ב ג (ספרגים) | ישעיהו כז ו- כח יג; כט כב – כג (אשכנזים) | יחזקאל טז א-יד


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Parashat Vayera opens with the death of Sarah and closes with the death of Avraham. A note of finality is also given to Yishmael’s story: his lineage is given, a sign of closure. Yishmael, as Hashem has promised, will give rise to a great nation, but that nation’s story veers off from the main narrative here (in later Jewish thought, after the advent of Islam, Yishmael became associated with Arab Muslims). A large portion of the parsha is dedicated to the backstory of Rivka, Yitzchak’s wife.

Sarah’s Death

[Bereshit 23:1]

Where we left off in the last parsha, Avraham was heading back with his two young servants towards Be’er Sheva after the events of the Akeidah. The opening pasuk of Chayei Sarah tells us that Sarah has died, aged 127, in a place called Kiryat Arba (קִרְיַת אַרְבַּע), also known as Chevron (Hebron, חֶבְרוֹן), to become one of the most important Jewish sites in Eretz Yisrael.1 Midrash sees the relating of Sarah’s death following the Akeidah as a causal relationship, suggesting that Sarah died when she heard about what happened on Har Moriah:

וכשבא אברהם מהר המוריה, חרה אפו של סמא״ל, שראה שלא עלתה בידו תאות לבו לבטל קרבנו של אברהם, מה עשה, הלך ואמ׳ לשרה, אי שרה, לא שמעת מה שנעשה בעולם, אמרה לו לאו, אמ׳ לה לקח אישך הזקן לנער יצחק והקריבו לעולה, והנער בוכה ומייליל שלא יכול להנצל, מיד התחילה בוכה ומייללת, בכתה שלש בכיות כנגד שלש תקיעות, שלש יללות כנגד שלש יבבות, ופרחה נשמתה ומתה.

When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah in peace, the anger of Sammael [Satan] was kindled, for he saw that the desire of his heart to frustrate the offering of our father Abraham had not been realized. What did he do? He went and said to Sarah: Have you not heard what has happened in the world? She said to him: No. He said to her: Your husband, Abraham, has taken your son Isaac and slain him and offered him up as a burnt offering upon the altar. She began to weep and to cry aloud three times, corresponding to the three sustained notes [of the Shofar], and three howlings corresponding to the three disconnected short notes [of the Shofar], and her soul fled, and she died.

Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 32:8 2

We are also told that Avraham “comes” (וַיָּבֹא) to mourn (לִסְפֹּד) her and to grieve for her (לִבְכֹּתָהּ). The כ of the word לבכתה is written smaller than a normal letter in the Torah scroll (וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ). This type of diminutive letter is called a zeira (זעירה) in Hebrew, and they are scattered throughout Tanach along with other specially-rendered letters. The Tur in his Torah commentary says the letter is small to indicate that Avraham cried little for Sarah,3 but there are those who say the opposite, that it indicates that one should not mourn too little.4

There is also the question of where Avraham was at the time of Sarah’s death, given that he “comes” to Chevron to mourn for her. It is variously suggested that he was in living in Be’er Sheva5, that the couple was temporarily in different places,6 or that he was in Chevron with Sarah.7

The Purchase of the Cave of Machpela

[Bereshit 23: ]

Sarah’s death and the need for burial brings to the fore Avraham’s status as a temporary alien in the Land that has been promised to his descendants. Arising from her funeral, Avraham declares as much publicly before the Hittites (בְּנֵי חֵת): גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם. What follows is a politely intense, notably drawn-out negotiation in which Avraham asks the Hittites to give over (תְּנוּ לִי) land to him as a landholding for the burial of Sarah (אֲחֻזַּת קֶבֶר).

The Hittites respond with deference, calling Avraham “the elect of G-d among us” (נְשִׂיא אֱלֹקים אַתָּה בְּתוֹכֵנוּ)—but put off his request, instead suggesting that he feel free to bury his dead wherever he so desires on their land. Avraham bows respectfully, but holds firm: he requests an introduction with Ephron the son of Zohar, from whom he wishes to buy a cave at the edge of his land, at the full market price. This cave is known as maarat ha-machpelah, “the cave of Machpela.” Machpela is often used today as a proper noun (the name of the cave), but most commentators understand it as a descriptive adjective from the root כ-פ-ל, “to double.”8

Ephron, who, it so happens, is present among the throng of Hittites, answers Avraham immediately (implores, really): he tells him that he will give him the burial plot as a gift, the cave along with the field that it’s in. But this is not what Avraham is after, so he bows again and insists on paying the market price, saying “accept it from me” (קַח מִמֶּנִּי).

Stymied, Ephron names an exorbitant price, one he presumably wagers Avraham won’t be willing to pay: 400 silver shekels.9 “What is that between you and me?” says Ephron (בֵּינִי וּבֵינְךָ מַה הִוא).10 Ephron does not manage, however, to call Avraham’s bluff. Avraham pays him the 400 shekels at the market rate (עֹבֵר לַסֹּחֵר).

This is how Avraham becomes a legitimate landowner in Eretz Yisrael:

וַיָּקָם שְׂדֵה עֶפְרוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּכְפֵּלָה אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי מַמְרֵא הַשָּׂדֶה וְהַמְּעָרָה אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ וְכָל הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל גְּבֻלוֹ סָבִיב: לְאַבְרָהָם לְמִקְנָה לְעֵינֵי בְנֵי חֵת בְּכֹל בָּאֵי שַׁעַר עִירוֹ.

So Ephron’s land in Machpela, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Avraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of the assembly in his town’s gate.

Bereshit 23:17-18

Only then does he bury Sarah, in her very own Land.

A Wife for Yitzchak

[Bereshit 24:1]

Seeing as he has grown old, Avraham turns to the matter of arranging a wife for his son Yitzchak. He calls upon the senior servant of his household to “Put your hand under my thigh” (שִׂים נָא יָדְךָ תַּחַת יְרֵכִי)11 and swear not to find a Canaanite woman but rather to “go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Yitzchak” (כִּי אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי תֵּלֵךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי לְיִצְחָק).12 The servant suggests that this errand might go better if he brings Yitzchak along, but Avraham won’t countenance Yitzchak going back to the land that Hashem explicitly took Avraham out of. So off goes the servant, camels laden with gifts, up to Aram-Naharayim.

Rivka – רִבְקָה

[Bereshit 24:10]

At the well outside the city, the servant utters a prayer in the name of Hashem that his mission should be successful. Specifically, he asks for a sign: if one of the women coming out to the well should agree to give him water to drink, and then offer to also water his camels, he will know that she is meant for Yitzchak and that his prayer has been answered. “He had scarcely finished speaking” (וַיְהִי הוּא טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר) when Rivka appears. She is Avraham’s kin: the daughter of Betuel, Avraham’s nephew (the son of his brother Nachor with his wife Milcah).

Rivka is young and beautiful13 and, importantly, does exactly as the servant specifies in his prayer. Still not completely sure, he presents Rivka with heavy gold nose-rings and arm bands and asks her if he might lodge at her father’s house. When Rivka readily and graciously agrees, the servant is satisfied that his prayer has been answered and that she is meant for Yitzchak.

Rivka’s brother Lavan (לָבָן) runs out to greet the servant, calling him “the blessed of G-d” (בְּרוּךְ ה’), and shows him hospitality. Presented with a meal, the servant first insists on telling Rivka’s family the whole story of why he came and about his prayer. He asks for a straight answer about the proposed marriage: “And now, if you mean to treat my master with true kindness, tell me; and if not, tell me also, that I may turn right or left” (וְעַתָּה אִם יֶשְׁכֶם עֹשִׂים חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת אֶת אֲדֹנִי הַגִּידוּ לִי וְאִם לֹא הַגִּידוּ לִי וְאֶפְנֶה עַל יָמִין אוֹ עַל שְׂמֹאל).

Lavan and Betuel (Rivka’s brother and father) reply that the matter was clearly decreed by G-d so they can’t but consent. Bowing before Hashem, the servant next requests to leave with Rivka right away. The family requests a delay of 10 days, but the servant insists on leaving immediately; the family consults Rivka and she agrees to go with the servant. She and her nurse join the servant’s entourage and head back towards Eretz Yisrael. Rivka gets the following blessing from her family before she goes:

:אֲחֹתֵנוּ אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה וְיִירַשׁ זַרְעֵךְ אֵת שַׁעַר שֹׂנְאָיו

O sister!
May you grow
Into thousands of myriads;
May your descendants seize
The gates of their foes.

Bereshit 24:60

Yitzchak was by now living in the Negev in a place called Be’er le-Chai-Roi (having been so named by Hagar in Lech Lecha.) He is out in the field doing something described by the unusual verb lasuach (the phrase is לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה). Rashi says it means praying, from the root for “converse”; Ibn Ezra says it comes from the root for “shrubs,” meaning that he was walking between the shrubbery.

Raising her eyes (וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ), Rivka spots Yitzchak walking towards them and asks the servant who the man is. When she learns that he’s the servant’s master, she understand that this is her future husband and covers herself with a veil. When Yitzchak hears about the successful mission, he “brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rivka as his wife. Yitzchak loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ).

Keturah – קְטוּרָה

[Bereshit 25:1]

We are now told that Avraham takes a wife whose name is Keturah. According to Bereshit Rabba, this is an alternate name for Hagar, who had not given birth since Yishmael but here resumes her relationship with Avraham.14 But others disagree and understand this to be a newly introduced woman.15

Keturah bears Avraham other sons, some of whom become the fathers of nations: Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuach. Yokshan has a son named Shva (Sheba) and Dedan; the latter’s descendants are the Asshurim (Assyrians), the Letushim, and the Leummim. Meanwhile, Midian’s descendents are Efah, Efer, Chanoch (Enoch, not to be confused with the Enoch of pre-flood times), Avida, and Eldaa. Of these the notables are Sheba, the Assyrians, and the Medians.

Avraham wills all that he owns to Yitzchak, but also gives abundant gifts to his other children, whom he send off to the East.

The Death of Avraham

[Bereshit 25:7]

Avraham lives until the age of 175, when he “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin” (וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו). His sons Yitzchak and Yishmael bury him in the Cave of Machpela that he had purchased from Ephron the Hittite, next to his wife, Sarah. Hashem blesses Yitzchak, who settles in the Negev in Be’er le-Chai Roi.

The Lineage of Yishmael

[Bereshit 25:12]

We are now given the lineage of Yishmael, which seems to serve here as a summative conclusion to his story. That is, Yishmael now exits the main arc of the narrative of Bereshit and the focus is on Yitzchak and his descendents. Yishmael has twelve sons who become the heads of twelve tribes (as will Yaakov, Yitzchak’s son): Yishmael’s firstborn son is Nevayot, followed by Kedar, Adbe’el, Mivsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Chadad, Teima, Yetur, Nafish, and Kedmah.

Yishmael’s death is described in similar terms to Avraham’s: he lives to be 137 and “breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his kin” (וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו). Of the fate of his descendents, we are told: “They dwelt from Chavilah, by Shur, which is close to Egypt, all the way to Asshur (Assyria); they camped alongside all their kin” ( וַיִּשְׁכְּנוּ מֵחֲוִילָה עַד שׁוּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מִצְרַיִם בֹּאֲכָה אַשּׁוּרָה עַל פְּנֵי כָל אֶחָיו נָפָל).

Haftarah Summary – והמלך דוד זקן בא בימים

[Melachim Alef 1:1-31]

The haftarah opens with a description of the aged King David that echoes the description of the elderly Avraham in the parsha, “King David was now old, advanced in years” (וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים). The story that follows describes a struggle for succession among David’s sons, in which his chosen heir to the throne, Shlomo, is contested by the unchosen Adoniyahu—paralleling the uneasy rise to succession of Yitzchak over Yishmael. In both stories, the mother of the appointed heir (in the parsha, Sarah; in Melachim, Batsheva) reminds their contested co-wives (Hagar and Avishag of Shunem, respectively) of the rightful heir.


Image: Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Rebecca and Eliezer, c. 1660. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Notes

  1. There are numerous explanations for the name Kiryat Arba, which literally means “Town of the Four”: that four giants lived there (Rashi and Ibn Ezra); that four couples were buried there: Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka (spoiler alert), and Yaakov and Leah (Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabba 58:4); or that it was known by the four names of Mamre, Eshkol, Kiryat Arba, and Chevron (Kli Yakar on Bereshit 23:2).
  2. With a parallel passage in Tanchuma, Vayera 23:3-4. This Midrash is cited by Rashi on Bereshit 23:2.
  3. Baal ha-Turim on Bereshit 23:2.
  4. מדרש אותיות קטנות, cited by R. Menachem Kasher in תורב שלמה ד ע’ 922.
  5. Bereshit Rabba 58:5, cited by Rashi on Bereshit 23:2.
  6. Chizkuni on Bereshit 23:2
  7. Ramban on Bereshit 23:2 states that when the text says that Avraham “comes” it means this casually, as in from inside the tent, and not in the sense of coming from afar.
  8. See Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 23:9, where he explains it as “a cave within a cave,” as well as Rashi on Bereshit 23:9, who calls it “a structure with a loft above it; another idea, that it is doubled in the sense of couples [buried there].”
  9. Shoftim 17:10 gives 10 shekels as a year’s salary. For other land prices in Tanach, see Shmuel Bet 24:18–35 (but compare to Divrei ha-Yamim Alef 21:18–26); Yirmiyahu 32:1–23; and Melachim Alef 16:24.
  10. This can be read as a sign of closeness between the two, and/or as a coy remark.
  11. This appeared a strange way of swearing an oath by Chazal’s time; see Bereshit Rabba 59:8, echoed by Rashi, which suggests that one swears an oath on a sacred object and at the time the thigh stood in for milah (circumcision). But Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 24:2 gives a historical explanation, that it was the custom at the time.
  12. Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 24:4 says אַרְצִי refers to Harran where Avraham previously lived and מוֹלַדְתִּי refers to Ur Kasdim. This figures into the debate about where Avraham was originally from; see more in Lech Lecha.
  13. The idea that Rivka is three years old in this scenario comes from the calculations in Seder Olam Rabba, a work of rabbinic chronology. (It’s cited by Rashi on Bereshit 25:20 at the beginning of the next parsha, Toldot.) Seder Olam Rabba makes two key assumptions: (1) when Rivka appears in the lineage of Avraham’s brother given following the Akeidah in Parashat Vayera it is because she was born at the time of the Akeidah; (2) that Sarah died immediately after the Akeidah. We know that Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak at age 90 (Bereshit 17:17) and that Sarah was 127 at her death, which, following Seder Olam, must have been her age at the time of the Akeidah. This makes Yitzchak 37 at the Akeidah, and we also know that he is 40 when he marries Rivka (Bereshit 25:20). Thus, Rivka must be three years old during this scene at the well. However, there are other views of Chazal. Sifrei, as cited in Tosafot to Yevamot 61b ד”ה וכן הוא אומר, says that Rivka lived to the same age as Levi’s son Kehat, who we know from Shemot 6:18 lived to be 133. This would make Rivka 14 at the time she married Yitzchak, which is how the Gra (Vilna Gaon) emmends Seder Olam.
  14. Bereshit Rabba 61:1-4, cited by Rashi on Bereshit 25:1; the Chatam Sofer on Bereshit 25:1 adds that now Avraham married Hagar as a full wife, whereas before she was a concubine.
  15. See Ibn Ezra to Bereshit 25:1.

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