The opening narrative of this week’s Torah reading, Parsha Chaye Sarah records the events that followed on the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father, the Akedah Yitzhak. First, we are told of the death of Sarah who passed away at the ripe old age of one hundred and twenty-seven years. She appears to have died alone, seemingly estranged from her husband Abraham and her son Isaac. At the time of her demise she was in Kiryat Arba; Abraham and Isaac were in Beersheba. Interestingly, the text suggests that Isaac too was living apart from Abraham at the time, a possible indicator of some strife between son and father.
The juxtaposition of her death with the events recorded in the previous narrative, the Akedah Yitzchak, strongly suggests that her passing was precipitated by Abraham’s unilateral decision to slaughter their son, and especially because of their failure to return to her. Traditional commentators have suggested that Satan had told her that Abraham had indeed followed through on his intent and that Isaac was in fact dead, though not knowing his actual fate was probably a greater shock.
When Abraham heard that Sarah had died, he travelled to Kiryat Arba, also known as Hebron, and arranged for the purchase of an appropriate site for her interment. The Torah is silent about Isaac’s reaction to the tragic news and, it does not inform us that he in fact returned with his father to pay his last respects. The subsequent text suggests that he did not take the news well.
After Sarah was laid to rest, Abraham, perhaps painfully aware of his own mortality, set about to find an appropriate spouse for Isaac, a forty years old bachelor. In another of the magical narratives of Sefer Bereshit, Abraham commands his most trusted aide, Eliezer, to travel to Haran and find a wife for Isaac from amongst Abraham’s extended family. We are left to wonder why Isaac did not undertake the quest himself.
Eliezer departed from Abraham’s camp with ten camels and a bounty, meant to impress potential in-laws. When Eliezer arrived at his destination, he immediately took up a position at the local well – the best vantage point from which to observe the inhabitants of an area, and as Jacob and Moses later discovered, an excellent place to meet a potential mate.
Eliezer then devised a plan of his own making to identify the right woman. The Torah describes how Eliezer spoke towards God, as if swearing an oath, and declared that his choice would be the first woman that offered to provide water to both him and his camels. And sure enough, the first woman to appear at the well offered water to Eliezer, for him and his beasts. That woman was Rebecca, Abraham’s great niece
Eliezer then sat down with Rebecca’s father Bethuel and her brother Laban, to secure their agreement to the marriage. He regaled them with a description of Abraham’s great wealth and related the story of the miraculous birth of Isaac, who would inherit this wealth. He then told them of the oath he had taken, to find Isaac a wife from amongst Abraham’s kin, and how Rebecca had been chosen, as if by the hand of God. Such an introduction left Laban and his father virtually speechless: “then Laban and Bethuel answered and said: ‘The thing proceeds from God; we cannot speak unto thee bad or good’.” The next morning Rebecca’s mother tried to delay her departure. Rebecca was given the choice to stay with her kin for another year or go immediately to Isaac, her betrothed. Her answer: “I will go”. Isaac seems to have been immediately smitten by Rebecca, “and she became his wife; and he loved her”. Equally important, Rebecca filled a void in Isaac’s life; “Isaac was comforted for his mother”.
These tales, like many of the narratives of Bereshit, are rich – both in their detail and their ambiguities. Of course, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for the entire turn of events; the move to Beersheba by Abraham indicated the onset of their winter preparations, and father and son would necessarily stake separate camps, to better pasture their livestock. Isaac’s age may be misleading. Biblical men seem to enjoy late starts: Abraham was seventy-five years old when he heard the call of God, and Moses was over eighty when he travelled back to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh. In contrast, Isaac at forty years old was positively youthful and presumably lacked the wisdom of age. Even the unusual choice of words “Isaac was comforted for his mother” may only suggest that a worthy successor as Matriarch of a nation had been found. Sarah’s death too, could have been from natural causes. But then again, maybe not.