Abraham is one of the great hero’s of the Torah, a brave warrior, a generous host and uncle, and most importantly a loyal and noble man with complete and absolute faith in God. What He said, he heeded; what he was asked to do, he did. Since his call from God to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s home, he has been cast as a dynamic hero whose numerous exploits and adventures filled the narratives with passion, pride and purpose. In this week’s Torah reading, Parsha Chaye Sarah, we are given a glimpse of another side of Abraham; the grieving husband and the worried father dealing with pedestrian events of life.
Parsha Chaye Sarah is unique for a number of reasons. It does not record any commandments. It contains none of the dramatic moments of its predecessors, nor is God an active participant in the stories which it recounts. Its narratives are neither triumphant nor heroic; rather, they expose a raw edge of human emotions generally absent from scriptural literatures. The opening narrative, with its suggestion that there was a causal relationship between Abraham’s unilateral decision to slaughter Isaac, Sarah’s only son, of her old age, and her death, demonstrates the very human and emotional profile of the narrative.
Sarah’s death appeared to have come suddenly, and, while she was alone in Kiryat Arba, apart from both her husband and son, apparently an intentional decision. The Torah relates that when Abraham, who was encamped in Beersheba, heard that Sarah had died, he returned to Kiryat Arba: “he came to eulogize and to bewail her”. Unfortunately, the Torah does not describe Isaac’s reaction to the news that his mother had died. Rather curiously, it also does not reveal whether he returned with his father to inter and mourn Sarah. To add slightly to that mystery, the text suggests that Isaac was living apart from Abraham at the time; a possible indicator of some strife between son and father.
After Sarah was laid to rest, his grieving having abated, Abraham became painfully aware of his own mortality, and set about to secure the future for Isaac. He determined that he would have to find a wife for his son. In another of the magical narratives of Bereshit, Abraham took the oath of his most trusted aide, Eliezer. Eliezer travelled back to Haran, the land of Abraham’s kin, to find a wife for Isaac. The Torah details Eliezer’s search for a bride and importantly the criteria he established to best fit the scion of the founder of a nation. Then we are introduced to Rebecca, a woman who meets Eliezer’s concerns. In a colourful scene Eliezer’s bargains for Rebecca’s hand and then escorts Rebecca back to the lands of Canaan. The Torah recorded that Isaac was pleased with the choice made by Eliezer: “she became his wife; and he loved her”. Equally important, Rebecca filled a void in Isaac’s life that existed because of the death of his mother: “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.
Whatever frame of reference one would adopt, there is an air of tragedy to the entire narrative: that of a son who suffered the loss of his mother, that of a husband who lost his wife, and most notably, that of a woman who died alone, apart or estranged from them both.