Parshat Hayei Sarah: Patriarchs and matriarchs, yin and yang

“...and Isaac brought her to the tent of his mother Sarah, and he wedded Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after losing his mother...” (Genesis 24:67)

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
While Rachel is loved and Rebekah is admired, Sarah is a bit neglected in the popular mind.
The few scenes in which she appears in the Bible don’t always put her in the best light. She laughs at God’s notion that she will yet bear children and, when confronted about it, denies it.
Sarah so despairs of God’s promise that she gives her maid Hagar to her husband as a concubine. She subsequently afflicts Hagar to such an extent that the maid has no choice but to flee her oppressor.
Aside from these brief and unflattering depictions, Sarah seems to be more of a supporting character than a leading lady. Sarah’s role serves to be more acted upon than an actual player. She seems to lack the bold initiative displayed by Rebekah and Rachel. Her place seems to be in the tent, waiting for Abraham’s command to rustle up a meal for arriving guests.
Sarah’s position is echoed even more so in her son, Isaac. While this week’s parsha is called Hayei Sara, meaning the life of Sarah, the focus is on the life of Isaac, who is now coming into his own.
The most curious characteristic to emerge from Isaac is his passivity. In the briefest of sketches (more is written about Lot and Laban), we find three pivotal moments in Isaac’s life.
The first is the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac; the second is his marriage to Rebekah; and the third is being deceived by Jacob for the paternal blessing. In all three instances, Isaac is acted upon, and while he is a willing participant (perhaps even allowing himself to be duped), he is nonetheless passive vis-à-vis the events that surround him.
It’s clear that the most profound of all three is the Akeda. In the story, Isaac asks about the lack of a sheep on their way to the altar and is clever enough to understand from Abraham’s cryptic answer that he, Isaac, is the intended victim. This does not prevent his willing consent, thus making him a partner with Abraham.
But consent is not to be equated with initiative. The Akeda is numbered among the 10 trials of Abraham.
The same holds true with his marriage to Rebekah.
It is Abraham’s servant Eliezer who acts to bring a wife for his master’s son. Isaac looks up while walking in the field and his bride is literally brought right to him.
But before this meeting of the two, we are treated to a detailed description of Rebekah greeting Eliezer. In the story, Rebekah, a young girl, repeatedly returns to the well, schlepping jugs of water to quench the thirst of Eliezer and his many camels. Let’s not forget that camels can drink about 135 liters each, and there were many camels. This young girl must have made dozens of trips to the well and back.
This proactive picture is repeated for us once again in Eliezer’s account of what just happened. As we know, every word of the Torah is pregnant with meaning.
There are no superfluous words or stories. Why does the Torah recount a description that we just finished reading a few moments ago? This action-packed description is especially startling when compared to Isaac, who is best described as passive.
At first glance, the reason Eliezer recounts the story is that he was so impressed by it. He has traveled a long way from the land of Canaan, after being sworn by his master not to take a wife for his son from among the daughters of Canaan.
Eliezer did not understand why he had to travel such a distance. Upon seeing the act of hessed performed by Rebekah, Eliezer understands why he had to travel so far. This type of hessed simply didn’t exist among the Canaanites.
But even more importantly, Eliezer sees Rebekah’s proactive nature and realizes that this would be the perfect match to Isaac’s passivity. They would complement each other.
Our sages teach us that ma’aseh avot siman l’banim, “the deeds of the parents are road marks for the children.”
Each one of the patriarchs and matriarchs stand as a paradigm of a type of behavior that we might need to adopt. Sometimes we need to take an active role, and sometimes we need to take a step back and observe, while biding our time till the hour is right.
It has been said that “the eternal people fear not the long road.” On a long journey we sometimes need to shift strategies in order to survive. We study the lives of the men and women of the Bible in order to learn from them the skills necessary to navigate this world.
Our heroes are not just human, they are intensely human.
It is because of their humanity that we can learn from them.
Our Christian friends often look to Jesus for inspiration in how to lead their lives. For us Jews, though, we have nothing to learn from someone whose mother is a virgin and has God for a father. Of course he is going to turn the other cheek; it’s in his DNA! Yet we Jews are humans and need other human beings to set examples for us and to learn from them.
When Sarah laughs at God’s word, she is expressing the very same doubt we all have in the face of God’s promises. And when she is chastised, we all learn the same humility in the face of God’s omnipotence. Sarah’s desperation for a child is recognized by countless Jewish women throughout the ages, and it is only because of her humanity that this desperation has any meaning.
In this week’s parsha we are confronted again and again by just how real and human our heroes are. Let’s take a lesson from them and continue to be inspired by them to be better people.
Shabbat shalom
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.