Our Voices (HaKolot Shelanu)

Some Thoughts on Parshat Chaye Sarah

The following d’rash was given by Dr. Hal M. Lewis on Saturday, November 14, 2020.  In addition to being a treasured member of CBI, Hal is the former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership. 

Though we are only a few short weeks into our annual Torah reading cycle, which began with Simchat Torah, today’s parsha, chaye sarah, provides ample insight into Judaism’s long tradition of textual interpretation. Known in Hebrew as midrash, Judaism has long recognized that there are multiple ways of reading and understanding a text. Borrowing from the language of the rabbinic sages, themselves, for every source there is a p’shat, from the Hebrew word pashut – simple, that is, an uncomplicated rendering of the text, and a drash, an interpretive understanding of that same text. From the Hebrew, lidrosh, to dig deeply, the rabbis pioneered the midrashic process or what scholars today call biblical exegesis. Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, those who lent their own interpretations to the biblical canon were treasured and celebrated as the great expositors of Jewish wisdom.

From the very opening words of this parsha, the text cries out for further interpretation and explanation. Why name the parsha chaye sarah the life of Sarah?, when the text begins by telling us that Sarah died. Why enumerate Sarah’s age as 100 years and 20 years, and 7 years instead of just saying she was 127 years old?

In each instance, and many more, the traditional commentators have a field day endeavoring to explicate these textual conundrums. As they understood it, Judaism is predicated upon the notion that the simple rendering of the text is by definition insufficient. The reality is that the midrashic process – reinvesting new meaning in an ancient source – keeps a text alive; it prevents stagnation and an inevitable descent into irrelevance. Ancient texts lose their potency if we are not willing to infuse new meaning in them, if we are unwilling to dig deeper – לדרוש  – to unveil a more potent insight. The way we engage with a source is to squeeze from it, its manifold meanings as they have evolved and changed over the millennia. And one need not be an ancient rabbi to do so. In this way, commentators of every generation become partners with the original authors, whether they are held to be human or divine.

If textual interpretation was core to the Jewish experience in ancient and medieval times, how much the more so is it critical for post-modern Jews, when connecting to ancient perspectives that can often be challenging and even off-putting. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a biblical text’s simple meaning stands in sharp contrast to contemporary sensibilities around issues of gender and the role of women. And, as you might expect, today’s parsha, steeped in the culture and mores of the ancient near east, provides jarring examples of just such potential conflict. And yet, here too, the process of midrash – of delving deeply to go beyond the p‘shat,  the face value of the text, offers us the possibility of reading an antiquated text with new and fresh perspective.

In this regard we are indebted to the array of modern scholars and feminist commentators who, rather than reject a text outright, because of its surface-level offensive nature, strive to go beyond, לדרוש, to dig deeper. Led by the work of the Union For Reform Judaism’s The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, and pioneers such as Dr. Judith Plaskow, Dr. Susannah Heschel and others, an entire body of scholarship now exists dedicated to investing ancient, often misogynistic texts, with new significance. And, happily for us, parshat chaye sarah offers fertile territory in which to learn more.

As I mentioned in my introduction, despite its name, very little about this reading has to do with the life of Sarah. The real focus is on the search for a suitable wife for Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac. While evidence of the patriarchy and the value system of the ancient near east is certainly in evidence when we read this account, the body of contemporary midrash offers us alternative perspectives that we ought to consider.

On its face, the biblical narrative describes how Abraham, now old and worried about his progeny, sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a suitable wife for his son. Abraham’s instructions are clear, Eliezer must return to his master’s homeland, find an appropriate spouse from among his kinspeople, and escort her back to Isaac. Like many of us, Eliezer plays a bit of a mind game, establishing criteria as to how he’ll know if he’s found the right woman. As a “good wife,” she must be kind and compassionate such that when Eliezer requests something to drink, she will also offer to provide water for the 10 camels he brought along on the journey. Sure enough, the script follows suit. Rebekah, relative of Abraham’s brother Nahor, does exactly that – she feeds the servant and the camels. Confident that he’s found the perfect woman, Eliezer meets the relatives, exchanges some gifts, brags about the wealth of his master, Abraham, and concludes the transaction, ready to bring Rebekah back to meet the mishpacha.

With these as the major elements of the story, we ought not be surprised that many contemporary readers find this parsha so far removed from contemporary sensibilities as to be unrelatable. But such an approach is the easy way out. As we learn from several feminist biblical commentators, when we dig a bit deeper at least two really intriguing components of this story emerge.

Upon receiving instructions from Abraham to “go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac,” Eliezer asks a strikingly modern question. “What if the woman does not consent to follow me to this land …?” Way to go, Eliezer! Imagine the significance of even posing this question! To contemplate that the woman in question might very well resist the potency of the patriarchy is nothing short of astounding and inspiring. Moreover, Abraham’s response might also be considered enlightened, not only for that time but in any tribal society. “And if the woman does not consent to follow you,” Abraham tells his servant,  “you shall then be clear of this oath to me…” Amidst the male-dominated world in which the Torah was written, the very idea of a woman’s ability to exercise independent consent ought not be ignored. This is not to turn a blinds eye to the realities of the Near East and the often-male-supremacist traditions associated with ancient Israel. But along with the great women rabbis and enlightened thinkers of modernity, we owe it to ourselves to continue to find contemporary meaning in a premodern sacred text.

An even more striking example of what today’s gender scholars call agentic behavior (from the word, agency) is tucked neatly within later verses of the parsha. After the servant, Eliezer, concludes the arrangements for Rebekah to leave her family and travel with him to Isaac’s home, her family demurs. “Let the maiden remain with us some ten days then you may go.” Eliezer resists, however, and requests that he be allowed to leave as soon as possible in fulfilment of what he understands to be God’s will and his master’s intent. While everything we know about the ancient Near East would suggest that the decision to go or not was up to Rebekah’s tribal leaders – guess which gender? – the Torah provides an unanticipated and uplifting response. Her family said, “’Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.’ They called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she said, ‘I will.’” Before examining this text, who among us would have predicted this outcome. The Torah here provides evidence of a woman with agency, who despite the patriarchal society in which she lives, is accorded the respect and recognition in which she, not her father or brother or uncles can decide elements of her own fate.

Commentators, ancient and modern, understand the significance of what’s going on here. Rebekah’s independence as a woman and a wife belongs to her. Far more than her husband, Rebekah will go on to be understood by Jewish tradition as a strong, self-actualizing voice on behalf of the Jewish people. While her actions will subsequently be open to critique (think deception in conjunction with Jacob and Esau) her strength is unassailable. Indeed, her willingness to leave her family is compared favorably to the iconoclasm of her father-in-law, Abraham who turned his back on his idol-worshipping kinsfolk.

In these observations I have tried to make the point that when it comes to Torah analysis, standard assumptions, the p’shat or simple rendering of the text, often misses the point. If we reject a text without further midrashic examination because of its difficulty or pre-modern sensibilities, then we fail to penetrate the text, to discover its deeper and more resonant meaning. As Jews, we are the heirs to a tradition in which seeking to delve deeply into problematic text is what we do. Simply because a verse is difficult to understand or problematic based on contemporary sensitivities is not a reason to dismiss the text out of hand. On the contrary we are duty bound to confront the text, to dig deeper, to find new meaning in ancient teachings. Because that is how we reinvest in our enduring and ever-evolving religious civilization. Shabbat shalom.

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