Chayae Sarah, recovering focus in the face of fear

In this week’s parshah, Sarah dies and Avraham negotiates for a burial plot for her, and for his posterity. Thereafter, Avraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son, Yitshhaq. Avraham also takes another wife named Q’turah and they have many more children. After an undisclosed period of time, Avraham dies and is buried alongside Sarah in the cave of Makhpaelah. In the final part of the parshah, the names of the twelve princes that descended from Yishma’ael are recounted, and then he also dies. This parshah reminds us about the cycle of life – its joyous peaks represented by love, marriage and children, as well as its painful troughs, felt as a result of loss.

However punctuated by dramatic events, the day to day experiences of life can often feel monotonous. Nevertheless, despite the seeming monotony, it is also the stage upon which a person can manifest ultimately far-reaching realities. Required to achieve any goals are the behaviors represented by the Torah’s archetypes: a heightened desire to give forth of oneself to experience (Avram – אברם)1, an ability to focus on what is encountered (Sarah – שרה) 2 and an effort made to spread out into experience so as to take notice of and give forth of oneself to things stirred up (Avraham – אברהם)3. While these behaviors enable a person to engage life experience both in times of tedium and excitement, they do not go unchallenged. In this parshah, the archetype represented by Avraham must recover from a devastating loss of focus (SaRaH) in the face of many overwhelming and intimidating opportunities.

Sarah died in קרית ארבע הוא חברון בארץ כנען “the town of Arba\, which was Chevron, in the land of Canaan.” Allegorically this means that his focus was completely drawn away “through the close approach of what was inundating, which is an act of repetitively being bound to experience so as to get to know it well, through the disposing of oneself to what subdues that draws in from experience.” The word for town Qiriah (קריה) comes from the root QaRaH (קרה) which literally means to channel in closely, but is used to mean to happen and to lay close together. The word arba\ (ארבע) comes from the root RaBha\ meaning to lie down or spread out in four directions. Metaphorically, it is used to represent incredibly intense or inundating situations such as the forty days of Noach’s flood or of Moshe being in the presence of haShem, and forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The allegorical meaning of Chevron is based on a combination of the Hebrew meaning to join and be bound and the Arabic meaning to experience and know well. The word /eReTs (ארץ – land, earth) comes from the root RaTsaTs (רצץ – to run upon and crush), but its allegorical meaning comes from the related word /aRTsuT (ארצות), meaning one’s way of disposing oneself or running toward something. Finally, Canaan comes from the root KaNa\ (כנע) meaning to subdue. But related roots such as KaNaS (כנס to enter), KaNaPh (כנף wing, (what is drawn in), KaNaN (כנן to wind around), and KineReT (כנרת the lake, ?drawn into) suggest that literally it means to draw in upon.

In order to restore his focus (SaRaH), Avraham speaks to those things in experience that are frightening him, the children of Chaet (חת). The piel of the verb ChaTaT means to frighten and its associated nouns ChaT / ChiTah (חת – חתה) mean what frightens. Avraham, as one’s spreading out into experience so as to take notice of and give forth to things stirred up, must determine which of these opportunities to engage with so that he might channel (QaBhaR – to bury)4 his dead (מת) or literally “his being drawn out (INTO experience).5” To that end, he requests of Ephron the son of Tsochar to purchase the cave of Makhpaelah that is at the end of his field. But Ephron insists that Avraham purchase not only the cave but also the entire field. The name Ephron (עפרון) comes from the root \aPhaR (עפר) which not only means to cover with particles of dust, but also to glean (gather up every last detail) and to watch over. His father’s name Tsochar (צחר) means “one who makes something clear.” Therefore, Ephron is not able to give him only the cave of Makhpaelah (מערת המכפלה), allegorically representing “what is to be revealed of what is visually covered of the scene.” Rather, as a representation of a mental faculty that gathers up every detail of the experience, Ephron gives him the field (the frenzy going back and forth – שדה), and cave that is with it (cave / what is revealed – מערה) and all of the trees (כל עץ) that are in the field that are within all of its boundary, around. The Arabic root related to the word for tree, /aeTs (עץ), also means what is elusive and difficult to understand. It is this thoroughness that allows Avraham to recover and channel his focus.

Thereafter, the narrative tells of Avraham sending his servant to find a wife for his son Yitshhaq. Even though the pashat seems to switch to an entirely different theme without segue, allegorically the story of obtaining a burial plot and of finding a wife for Yitshhaq are thematically tied together. The text says: “Avraham was old coming in the days and HaShem blessed Avraham with all.” This “blessing of all” signifies the very same details represented by the trees in Ephron’s field. Avraham, in his spreading out so as to take notice of and give forth to things stirred up, must find a way to engage with and process each of the details found in experience. Now that Sarah has been buried and his focus has been restored, he must find a companion behavior that complements Yitshhaq. Like Tsachor (צחר) from the previous story, the name Yitshhaq (יצחק) is derived from the root TsaHhaH (צחה) meaning to be bright or clear. Unlike most roots in Hebrew, the root Ts.Hh.Q. (צחה) exhibits consonantal fluidity in both Hebrew, Ugaritic and Arabic. For this reason, in more than half the cases, this root is spelled with a letter Sin (ש) instead of a Tsade (צ) in Hebrew. Similarly in Arabic can be found S^aHha/ (become clear, bright, aware, alert); D^aHha/ (become visible, appear, bring to light); D^aHhaK (to jeer, scoff, mock, scorn, fool, laugh). Therefore, the behavior that results from combining one’s ability to focus (Sarah) with one’s spreading out so as to take notice of and give forth to things stirred up (Avraham) is Yitshhaq, “one’s bringing things to light in being meticulously alert to what is around.”

The responsibility of finding a partner for Yitshhaq falls upon Avraham’s servant. The word \eBheD (עבד) means servant or slave, but because the associated verb also means to devote and show devotion, its allegorical meaning is “one’s devoting attention.” Along with ten camels laden with gifts, Avraham’s servant travels to the city of Nachor, Avraham’s brother. There they are made to kneel at the well of water while the servant observes one of the young women drawing water from the well. The word for camel (GaMaL – גמל) literally means one who sucks in (water) to completion. Therefore, in Hebrew this root means to wean, while in Arabic it means to summarize. Allegorically, they represent the ability to completely take in the information available in experience. The purpose of being at the well of water (b’aer hamayim – באר המים) is to clarify (ba’aer – באר) what is stirred up in experience, symbolized by the water (המה > ים > מים).The name Nachor and Charan, the city in which he lives, both come from the root ChaRaH (חרה), literally meaning to prod and incite. Both names represent the things in experience that prod for a person’s attention.

So they go to Nachor where they are prodded by experience, the servant devotes attention to the scene and the camels suck in all the information, for the purpose of clarifying it all at the well. However, despite being prodded by an abundance of information, the human mind is only able to process information serially. Therefore, another mental process must come into play that can grab onto one piece of information at a time. Rivqah, described as an adolescent girl, serves the role as the mental faculty that takes in and processes the information serially. The word for adolescent girl is Na\aR(ah) (נער[ה]). The word literally means “one who is stirred up” from the verb \uR (עור). Allegorically it means “one’s becoming mentally stirred by particular things in experience.” While the root R.B.Q. (Rivqah) literally means to make larger > draw together; in Hebrew it is a bringing together of a team of animals, in Sabaic it means to conspire, and in Arabic it is a lasso used to draw together animals one at a time. Because our minds can only process one piece of information at a time, Rivqah acts as the lasso that successively ropes in particular things from experience. Her role is to draw up things stirred up from experience (water) and channel it to the camels (the ability to suck in all of the information) and to the servant, the act of devoting attention to experience.

Rivqah (רבקה) presents herself with her jar (KaD – כד) upon her shoulder. Because such a vessel is made of wet clay that is shaped by the fingers, the word KaD (כד) literally means “receptacle of many (finger) impressions.” So when Rivqah goes to the well, she draws up the things that are stirred up in experience (water), putting it into the receptacle of many impressions, and then channels this to the mental faculties (servant and camels) that process the information. However, the servant, his ability to devote attention to experience, becomes overwhelmed by the abundance of information. To counter being overwhelmed, he gives Rivqah a nose ring of gold and places two bracelets upon her hands. The word for nose ring (NeZeM – נזם) also means muzzle. The word for gold (ZaHaBh – זהב) literally means many fleeting impressions. The word for bracelet is TsaMiyD (צמיד). In Arabic this root also means to oppose or resist. What the servant really wants from Rivqah is a single thing in experience to dwell upon, a place to lodge. Unfortunately for him, life experience is full of many opportunities. As she says, “there is with us TeBheN (what to mix with – תבן) and MiSPo/ (cuttings – מספוא). For his part, he acknowledges the same when he says ברוך יהוה אלהי אדני אברהם “Blessed is haShem, the G-d of my lord, Avraham.” Allegorically this means “Abundant is G-d’s bringing forth of existence, G-d’s guidance of my contemplating experience6, the act of spreading out so as to take notice of and give forth to many things stirred up.”

At this point, what was needed was a way to stratify the things that were prodding in experience. Enter Lavan, Rivqah’s brother. The word Lavan (לבן) means both white and brick. Additionally, the verb means to layer bricks. A comparison of related words indicate that this root means to layer out and stratify things such as LaBhaSh (to layer clothing – לבש), LaBhaBh (to layer a cake – לבב), ShaLaBh (to join layers, rungs of a ladder – שלב), HhaLaBh (milk, what layers out – חלב) and L’BhoNah (frankincense, what layers out – לבונה). Furthermore, in Arabic this root is also used to mean undertaking, enterprise, object, wish, aim, and goal. So allegorically, Lavan is an archetype responsible for stratifying experience and setting a priority. The details of how this archetype does or does not work will be explored in the story of Yaaqov. However, one can presume from Yaaqov’s complaint to him “You have exchanged my reward ten times.” (Gen 31:41) that the process can be, at times, inconsistent. In fact, Lavan himself says to Avraham’s servant, “The matter comes out from HaShem (G-d’s bringing forth of existence), we are unable to direct to you bad or good.”

So Avraham’s servant and Rivqah return from Charan and they encounter Yitshhaq in the Negev. Although the word NeGeBh (נגב) means to be dry, this is a secondary definition related to the dryness of the region. In fact, the word negev means “place of over arching heights” from the roots GaBhaBh (to vault and heap up – גבב) and GaBhaH (to be high – גבה). In Arabic it means (to arch over things) so as to distinguish or select something. Yitshhaq, one’s bringing things to light in being meticulously alert to what is around, serves as the archetype that processes the individual details found in experience. So it is he who arches over experience so as to make a selection in coming in from B’aer Lahhai ro/i, the act of elucidating what is regarded as life experience, as a result of one’s seeing. It is he that meditates in the field7 (over the frenzy of experience) at the turn of evening (the time of mixing up or confusion)8.

Allegorically, the story of Avraham is the story of a person’s beginning to engage with different aspects of experience. It began with his heightened willingness to give forth to experience as Avram, yet struggling to achieve focus (Sarai)9. He evolved from having a mere desire to engage experience into one able to draw closer in, toward particular aspects of experience (Hagar)10 and one attentive while advancing forward (Yishma’ael)11. And he attained the ability to focus on particular things (Sarah). The experience with the children of Chaet enabled him to focus upon and clarify every little detail encountered in any given scene (Ephron, son of Tsochar) despite being fearful of it, in being overwhelmed by it. Now the text says ויסף אברהם, meaning “And he was again Avraham.” Most translators don’t know what to do with this construction so they combine it with the next sentence: “And so Avraham was again taking up a wife.” But as nonsensical as it may appear, the text means what it says. He was again himself. Because the death of Sarah, the loss of his focus, turned him into something that he was not. For a distinct period of time, he was not exactly Avraham, the ability to spread out so as to take notice of and give forth to things stirred in experience. To do this again, to be this again, he needed for his Rivqah, his ability to lasso things in from experience, to join with his Yitshhaq, his ability to bring things to light in being meticulously alert to what was around. He is now able to engage (QaTaR – קטר) with each and every aspect of experience encountered through his relationship with Qaturah (קטורה).

As his children, Yishma’ael and Yitshhaq, represent his two most fundamental behaviors. When a person, like Avraham, spreads out into experience so as to take notice of and give forth to things stirred up, those things encountered in experience must be acknowledged. Yishma’ael is the process that acknowledges each thing encountered when advancing forward into experience. Whereas Yitshhaq is the process that looks out at experience and tries to acknowledge many things from a distance. When Avraham is completely drawn out, fully manifest, which is represented by his death, these two behaviors channel (bury) this behavior. Each of us walks about with all of these archetypes at our disposal. They are fundamental behaviors of mental processing. It is through the conscious utilization of these behaviors that a person can engage in dialogue with haShem, G-d’s bringing forth of existence, and with Elohim, G-d’s guidance being presented in experience.12

1 – Avram – meaning exalted father, because the word Abh (אב), comes from the verb /aBhaH (אבה) to willingly give forth of oneself, allegorically Avram means “one’s heightened willingness to give forth of oneself to experience.”
2 – The verb Sarah (שרה), from which comes the name Yisrael (ישראל), does not exactly mean to wrestle, nor does its associated noun exactly mean princess. It means to fix on something either visually or physically. When used to mean to fix on something physically, it could be used to mean wrestle. When used to mean to fix on something visually, its male counterpart, Sar (שר), means an overseer, a member of the court.
3 – Avraham (אברהם) a person’s spreading out so as to take notice of and willingly give forth of oneself to experience, comes from /aBhaR or /eBaeR (אבר – to extend outward, spread wings, take flight) + HaMoN (המון), those that are stirred up, from HaMaH (המה – to stir up). Also the name contains hints of the verb /aBhaH (אבה), meaning “to willingly give forth of oneself” in Hebrew and “to take notice” in Arabic.
4 – QaBhaR (to bury) literally means “to channel.” Jastro notes that the root also means to inundate and flood. Furthermore, QaBhaTs (קבץ – to gather together), QaBhaL (קבל – to accept, receive) and QaBha\ (קבע – to rob) allude to this. Finally the root QaBh (קוב – (Arb – to dig a shallow, to hallow out)) evolved from QaW (קוה – to channel together).
5 – dead (מת) literally means “what is drawn out-away.” It is related to MaTay (מתי – when, lit: drawn out in time), and MaTaQ (מתק – to savor, draw out in time in tasting), and מתח to draw / spread out. Allegorically it can be used to mean the disappearance of something or paradoxically, the complete drawing out of something INTO existence.
6 – Adon (/aDoN – אדון), lord, comes from the verb DuN (דון) to abide (in contemplation) which comes from DuM (דום – to be still, silent). Furthermore, from DuN (דון) to abide (in contemplation) comes DYN (דין) to judge.
7 – SaDeH (שדה) field, is related to the verb SaDaD (שדד – (drag behind) to level / harrow ground) which in turn is related to ShaDaD (שדד – (to drag) > to overpower, plunder, ruin, destroy). The idea of going back and forth can be seen in the related verbs ShaDaKh (שדך – haggle, negotiate, stipulate) and ShaDaPh (שדף – to make swing back and forth, to blast)
8 – \eReBh (ערב – evening, to mix, confuse) comes from the verb \aRaH (ערה – to pur out). A mixing of day and night.
9 – Sarai (שרי), similar to Sarah in footnote 2, but has a plural component indicating an attempting to focus on many things.
10 – Hagar (הגר), from the verb GuR (גור) to draw in toward something
11 – Yishma’ael (ישמעאל), ShaMa\ (שמע) means to listen, be attentive; El (אל) can mean G-d (as in the pashat) or G-d the initiator of what advances forward in existence or, as in the preposition El (אל), advancing toward.
12 – Most derive Eloah (אלוה) / Elohim (אלהים) from אל. I believe that the word evolved from LaWaH (לוה) meaning to escort and guide. Hence, initially the word Elohim (אלהים) referred to the pantheon of gods, whose purported purpose was to guide and escort humanity. With the advent of monotheism, the word was used with a singular verb to represent G-d, but continued to be used to represent the pantheons of others, a council of judges and people of similar purpose.

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Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

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David Kantrowitz (1991 – 2009) Judaic Classics version 3.4. Institute for Computers in Jewish Life, Davka Corp., and/or Judaica Press, Inc.

G. del Olmo Lete & J. Sanmartin (2003) A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition. Leiden: Brill. Translated by Wilfred G.E. Watson

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About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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