Parashat Hayei Sarah: From womb to tomb

Parashat Hayei Sarah Fr

"And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother. He married Rebekah, she became his wife, he loved her, and so Isaac was comforted after his mother" (Genesis 24:67). The biblical portion of Hayei Sarah features two main stories: the burial of Sarah (Chapter 23) and the search for a wife for Isaac (Chapter 24). What connects these stories and chapters? Furthermore, two of the Torah portions which deal with death - this portion and the portion which describes the death of Jacob - have names which express "life": Hayei Sarah and Vayehi. Why is this? The simplest explanation is that the motif which unites both parts of our portion is the ideal of hessed - lovingkindness. Our sages have taught that "lovingkindness (hessed) performed for the dead is the truest form of lovingkindness, since it is given without any expectation of repayment" (Rashi, to Genesis 47:29), and Abraham spares neither effort nor funds to acquire a burial plot for his deceased, beloved wife. Hessed also plays a central role in the selection of a wife for Isaac - the heir to the covenantal patrimony. Eliezer, entrusted with this delicate mission by his master Abraham, stands by a well and stipulates that the young woman who will draw water for him and also offer to draw water for his camels shall be the one designated by God for Isaac (Genesis 24: 43,44). Hence it is hessed which must direct an individual from marriage to grave. But I believe there is an even deeper meaning which informs both accounts, and which also requires, and expresses, hessed. The Midrash connects the name Rivkah (Rebekah/RVKH) with hakever (hkvr), literally "the grave," which is Rivkah spelled backwards. And if the reader finds the link between this name and that word a bit startling, I might remind you that throughout the Tractate Nidda, the word kever (literally grave) is used as a synonym for womb (rehem)! What is the connection between "grave" and "womb," which seem to relate to opposite life experiences? As soon as the search for Rebekah is concluded, the Bible records: "And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother…. and so Isaac was comforted after his mother" (Gen. 24:67) Rashi cites a famous midrash, "'And he brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother,' and behold she became the image of Sarah his mother, that is to say she became Sarah his mother: for as long as Sarah was alive, a light remained burning from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, a blessing was to be found in the dough, and the divine cloud remained attached over the tent; once Sarah died, all these ceased, and when Rebekah arrived, they all returned" (Bereishit Raba 60: 16). The three "gifts" initially brought by Sarah and continued by Rebekah express the three commandments specifically directed to married women: the commandment to kindle the Sabbath lights (an illumination which speaks of familial peace, and which - in the case of these matriarchs - lasted for the entire week), the commandment of halla (which the matriarchs extended to mean an "open house" of hospitality) and the commandment of nidda and mikve (which leads to family purity and stability). Each of these expresses the lovingkindness of giving of oneself to others, to one's family and to one's spouse. And of course the merging of the personalities of Sarah and Rebekah expresses the continuity of generations, the Jewish ideal of children maintaining the values and lifestyle of their forebears. In a profound sense, the future is predicated upon the past; it is the "graves" of our ancestors which inspire the lives of their progeny, and grandchildren who bear the names and ideals of their forebears. Now we can understand why these biblical portions which seem to be dealing with death are actually announcing continued life into a glorious future of redemption. God promised Abraham that through him all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:3); however, the blessing will only be fulfilled through the progeny who have been influenced by his teachings and deeds. As Abraham's tent was blessed through Sarah, Isaac's tent was blessed through Rebekah. And so Jacob/Israel summons his children to his deathbed so that he may reveal "that which will befall them in the end of days" (Gen. 49:1). On one level, he doesn't specifically prophesy. But he does bless and define his sons, each of whom is to develop into a tribe; he also singles out Judah, from whom the scepter of majesty shall not depart until the period of redemptive peace, when Israel becomes the gathering place for all nations (Gen. 49:10). This is the meaning of our praise in the Amida prayer to the God "who performs acts of lovingkindness, the possessor of everything, who remembers the lovingkindness of the ancestors, and brings redemption to the children of their children for the sake of His Name with love." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.