Parshat Hayei Sarah: Short, courageous and practical

The second story in this week's parsha is Abraham’s servant going to Haran in Aram Naharayim to search for a bride for Isaac.

 UNDERSTATEMENT: ABRAHAM referred to the entire feast as 'a morsel of bread." (photo credit: ARTUR RUTKOWSKI/UNSPLASH)
UNDERSTATEMENT: ABRAHAM referred to the entire feast as 'a morsel of bread."
(photo credit: ARTUR RUTKOWSKI/UNSPLASH)

Parashat Chayei Sarah includes two central stories. The first is the story of the death and burial of Sarah in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Me’arat Hamachpela, in Hebron. The second is the story of Abraham’s servant going to Haran in Aram Naharayim to search for a bride for Isaac and bringing Rebecca back with him. 

The second story is particularly long, with a significant part of it consisting of the servant – identified by the rabbis as Eliezer – speaking to Rebecca’s family. He describes and then reiterates the background of his mission and what occurred when he got to Haran until the moment when he asks them for Rebecca as a wife for Isaac. 

The Midrash in Breishit Rabbah says about this long conversation: “More beloved is the chatter of the forefathers’ servants than the minutiae of the children’s laws.” But we will focus on the conversation of Rebecca, on her voice that pipes up for one moment in the midst of this long story. 

After Eliezer concludes with Rebecca’s father that she would come with him to Canaan and marry Isaac there, he distributes gifts to Rebecca and to her family and they sit down for a festive meal. But the following morning, when Eliezer wanted to take Rebecca and embark on their journey, sounds of hesitation are heard. 

Rebecca’s brother and mother suggested that she remain at home for a year and go only after that. The servant is embarrassed by their backtracking and they suggest, “Let us call the maiden and ask her.” When they ask Rebecca, “Will you go with this man?” they surely expected a different answer from the one they got. Rebecca responded with one sure, secure, unhesitant response, “I will go!”

 Angels visiting Abraham by Willem van Herp. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Angels visiting Abraham by Willem van Herp. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This answer, conveying complete readiness, reminds us of the words with which the series of Abraham stories begins: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Rebecca, too, takes a step similar to that of Abraham. She is ready to leave her land, her birthplace, and her father’s house for an unknown destination. 

Abraham's important traits

THIS STORY reminds us of one of Abraham’s important traits. When Abraham was seeking a burial plot for Sarah, Ephron, the owner of what was to become the Tomb of the Patriarchs, said, “I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you… bury your dead.” But when the deal was about to be sealed, it turned out that Ephron was not quite so generous when he asked for the exaggerated price of “400 shekels of silver” for the field and the cave. 

In another story we read last week, Abraham locates three passersby and offers them hospitality, “And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts;” and then he offers them a feast. “And Abraham hurried to the tent to Sarah, and he said, ‘Take three se’ah of meal [and] fine flour; knead and make cakes.’ 

“And Abraham ran to the cattle and he took a calf, tender and good, and he gave it to the youth, and he hurried to prepare it. And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them.” And he referred to this entire feast as “a morsel of bread.”

The Babylonian Talmud compared these two stories and concluded: “From here we learn that the righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not do even a little” (Tractate Baba Metziya, 87).

One of the characteristics of a righteous person is that he does a lot but speaks a little. He does not show off his good deeds and does not emphasize them. On the contrary, an evil person speaks highly of himself but, in actuality, does nothing. 

Rebecca was another link in the chain of the patriarchs’ family. Her short and courageous response of “I will go” shows how suitable she was to be part of Abraham’s family. She was prepared to embark on a long journey for an important purpose, but she does not talk too much. She makes a decision and acts on it.  ■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.