These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE Dvar Torah] Chayei Sarah: I saw the sign”

Posted on November 14, 2014 by Myra Meskin

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MyraMeskin וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה: וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ:

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her. (Bereishit 23:1)

Parashat Chayei Sarah is a bit of a misnomer – where one might assume the story to focus on the life of our matriarch, the opening lines mark her death and the number of her years (in somewhat curious formatting: “one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years”). After Avraham’s purchase of her burial plot in Hevron, the rest of the parsha centers around the mission of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, to find a wife for Isaac from among Avraham’s kinsman.

When Eliezer arrives in Charan, he prays to God by the well and asks for a sign: he will know the woman who is to be Isaac’s wife when he asks her for water and she offers to water his camels as well. Rebecca passes Eliezer’s test, and after some negotiating with her family, manages to bring her to Isaac and the two are married. A final event in the life of Avraham is recorded – his marriage to Keturah and their six sons – and the parsha is bookended by death, counting the days of Avraham: “one hundred years, and seventy years, and five years.”

What has always astonished me about this story is the immediacy with which the prayer of Eliezer is answered! “Now he had not yet finished speaking, and behold, Rebecca came out” (Bereishit 24:15). According to Midrash Rabbah, only three people were answered by God as their words came out of their mouths: Eliezer, the servant of Avraham; Moses and Solomon. Now, with all due respect to Eliezer and his loyal and devoted service to Avraham, he certainly seems the odd-man-out on that list. So what is it then about his prayer that is seemingly so deserving of such an immediate answer?

The way each of us will answer this question is necessarily tied up in the idea of how we perceive God’s involvement in our daily lives and what an “answer” from God would look like. When we stop to think about it, the “sign” Eliezer prays for is not a strange or even overtly miraculous event – a stranger by a well who’s finished a long journey and requests water is a fairly mundane situation. What follows then is that the wisdom in Eliezer’s prayer is a lesson in how to see the miraculousness of ordinary everyday occurrences. When any of us have questions about important decisions that impact the course of our lives, it would certainly be easier to pray for an overt sign from God; but in the world we live in, I’m not sure that’s how most of us experience God’s workings in the world. Our task then is to be able to see God working all around us, to be able to name and recognize those signs that will direct us on our path. For Eliezer, he knows that the woman he chooses will carry on the legacy of Avraham and Sarah. As a result, he names the characteristics of kindness and compassion as paramount for taking on that role, and he is able to name exactly how those midot would play out in the situation he finds himself in at the well.

In the end then, the parsha is no misnomer at all. Although not directly focused on Sarah’s life, the story told is that of her legacy and how it will be carried on. In the end it’s not about the specific “one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years” of her life, rather it is about the way she managed to use that time to leave an indelible mark on the world. May we all be blessed to use our time in this world for such good, and may we all see clearly those signs that will lead us there.

Shabbat Shalom.