Everett Fox

Fox Tales: Parashat Hayyei Sara – The Word Leads

Biblical literature thrives on verbal repetition. Time and time again, a Hebrew word or word root, echoing through a text, draws it together and points to an important idea or theme. This was Martin Buber’s great contribution to reading biblical texts, one which he and Franz Rosenzweig made a guiding principle of their German Bible translation (1925-1962). In their view, and in mine, one should try to keep at least this aspect of the Hebrew alive in translation as much as possible.

A good example of this technique, which Buber dubbed “Leitwortstil” in German, “leading-word style,” occurs in this week’s reading, with the everyday verb yatza’, “come/go out,” as the key. It unifies this chapter (24), the longest in Genesis, and packs a punch toward the end.

I would suggest that an important theme in this story can be traced through the repetition of yatza’. It first appears when Avraham’s servant asks whether he can take Yitzhak back to the Old Country (Harran, in Syria) in order to find a bride. He uses the phrase “back to the land from which you once went out” (v. 5), which provokes a stern refusal from his master. The servant then sets out alone, asking God to point out the chosen girl when he arrives. Sure enough, he encounters Rivka at a well, “going out” to draw water (v. 15). When she acts toward him with consummate graciousness, he knows that she’s the one. The result is that her brother Lavan hurriedly “goes out” to greet the servant (v. 30), who, even before accepting the family’s hospitality, makes sure to recount his mission and his meeting with Rivka. In his description, he is careful to include how she “went out” to draw water and took care of him and his camels.

Up until this point in the narrative, yatza’ has occurred seven times. The eighth, in v. 50, proves to be the crucial line of the story. When Rivka’s family is asked to let her go back to Canaan with Avraham’s servant, they let her be the decider, acknowledging that the whole affair is God’s doing. The text at this point could have used a standard biblical expression such as “this was from YHWH” (see Psalm 118:23). But true to the way the audience has been set up by the repeating yatza’, it reads instead, “The matter has gone out from YHWH; / we cannot speak anything to you, for ill or for good”–that is, God is pulling the strings, and the decision is not up to us. The servant’s fateful encounter with Rivka, thus fulfilling his master Avraham’s request, is anything but accidental.

The verb appears one last time in the narrative, when the groom, Yitzhak, appears to greet his bride. We should not be surprised to hear the word yatza’ used here: “Now Yitzhak went out to stroll in the field” (v. 62), at which point the approach of camels heralds the arrival of his bride. Thus the circle of the text closes, and the reading that began in chapter 23 with the death of Sara ends with the thought that, in finding Rivka, Yitzhak is at last comforted for the loss of his mother. Through the language of the story, the narrator tells us that all this has “gone out” from God.

In this way, sprinkling “leading” words in a story, biblical tales drop hints for the reader, like breadcrumbs, to help us find our way through the text. It is up to us to follow them by actively searching for what the artfully wrought Torah is trying to tell us.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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