The following notes on Parshat Hayyei Sara are from a previous year, plus some minor edits and improvements — jjg
The bizarre betrothal and marriage of Isaac and Rebecca
The action of the Parsha opens with Abraham “coming to Kiriat Arba which is Hebron” in order to mourn Sarah and ultimately to bury here there. Last we heard, Abraham was living in Beer Sheba. The question thus arises whether he and Sarah were, for whatever reason, separated. Indeed, when asked by G-d to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham does not consult with Sarah even though he had all night in which to do so, and even though G-d had once told him to obey her preferences. Hence it may well be that the two were not living together at that time.
At the end of the Parsha, we discover that Abraham, following Sarah’s demise, married Keturah (Genesis 25:1) with whom he had six more sons. We are informed as well, that he had sons from additional concubines (25:6). Whether or not Keturah, as the commentaries say, was Hagar, it is evident she was not just another concubine, but someone he loved dearly as she alone is mentioned by name.
Can it be that Sarah was Abraham’s number-one wife but not necessarily his greatest love? That both by virtue of her ‘yihus’ and G-d’s preference, she received the honor and distinction of being the wife of our patriarch and, of course, our matriarch, but as often happens among royalty there can be a great gap between title and emotion?
So the question is; did Abraham have all these concubines during his marriage to Sarah or did he wait until she had passed away before indulging his desire for additional relationships? I would suggest the latter, otherwise why would it have been necessary for Sarah to promote Hagar to the role of designated child-bearer when there were obviously other options and other children from which to choose?
Interestingly, a wide emotional gap between husbands and wives seems to be the rule rather than the exception among the three patriarchs. Jacob adores Rachel, but clearly detests Leah. Rebecca and Isaac (we will return to them shortly) are not even on speaking terms, and dwell in separate abodes. Sarah wields enormous influence on Abraham, but we see mostly dynastic mucilage rather than any emotional connective tissue between the two. Indeed as is evident in the prior Parshiot, Abraham doesn’t seem to have much of an issue with the inevitability of Sarah being ravished by the monarchs of Egypt and Grar so long as he is not murdered en passant. And now we have them apparently living so far apart that he has to arrive to Hebron in order to provide her with a suitably impressive mourning and burial.
In purchasing the Cave of Mahpela for the astronomical sum of 400 silver coins, Abraham displays a remarkable lack of confidence in terms of his G-d-given claim to the Land of Canaan. His obsequiousness to the sons of Het and Ephron is unbecoming for such an august and powerful personage, let alone one who has been given the land, literally, by G-d.
In Abraham’s defense let it be said that as an immigrant to Canaan he, like all immigrants, could never quite accept the fact that this was his country. Like the Yiddish-speaking Jews in America who would sing “Belz mein shteitele Belz” decades after receiving their citizenship in the ‘goldene medineh’, he would forever remain a part of Aram Naharayim, i.e. “my land and my birthplace” (Genesis 24:4). And he refers to Canaan not as his own land but as the one that G-d promised to his progeny (Genesis 24:5). Furthermore, realizing that such a sense of ownership can only come from being born and raised in the Land, he does his best to assure that Isaac never leaves it.
A strange marriage,indeed
Having buried Sarah, Abraham turns to the business of marrying off Isaac who is by now rather ripe in years – a man in his mid 30’s, certainly overdue for a bride.
Abraham entrusts the utterly loyal Eliezer to find a bride from among the girls of his native Aram Naharayim much as an early 20th century Greek or Turkish immigrant in America would send back to the old country to find a suitable bride his son, or the way an Hindu motel keeper in Alabama would find a bride for his son back in Uta Pradesh.
Curiously, Isaac plays no role in this arrangement. He is both silent and passive. Abraham decides he should have a bride, and how this bride should be acquired. Clearly he trusts his slave Eliezer more than he trusts his son Isaac. To say this is puzzling would be a gross understatement.
Can there possibly be something wrong with Abraham’s designate heir? The Midrash alludes to the damage caused to Isaac by virtue of the Akedah, indicating a certain concern the Sages had with the character of Isaac. But this, too, is problematic, as Isaac’s passivity is manifest even prior to the Akedah when he agrees to go almost mutely along with his father, and allows himself to be offered on the altar despite being a supposedly healthy man in his 30s whilst his father is an absolutely ancient centenarian.
(The subsequent narrative evidence we have of Isaac, as evidenced in Parshat Toledot does not add much to his lustre either as a man or as a man of his times. He is the only patriarch to have but a single wife. He is unable to distinguish which of his sons should carry the mantle of leadership. He is clearly oblivious to the fact that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, when this is the sort of information that travels very fast. And he is easily hoodwinked by his virtually estranged wife Rebecca and her preferred child Jacob into giving him the blessing he had reserved for Esau.)
Eliezer sets out, seemingly all alone, for Aram Naharayim in quest of Isaac’s bride. The highly emotional and romantic narrative of his arrival at the well, and the fortuitous meeting with Rebecca who provides both him and his camels with water is legendary.
(It is parenthetically interesting that after receiving the gold nose ring and bracelets from Eliezer, it is not to her father Bethuel or her brother Laban that Rebecca runs – after all it is they for whom she labors as a water-fetcher, and who should be first informed and asked regarding hospitality – but rather she runs to her mother’s house (Genesis 24:21). Do we see here a foreshadowing of the apartness that would characterize her life with Isaac?)
Up until this point in the narrative we are under the impression that Eliezer was a heroic, solo act. That he traveled alone with his train of ten treasure-laden camels. Indeed there is no mention of Rebecca offering drink to anyone but Eliezer and his dromedaries. It is not until he arrives at the family compound that we first get wind of the presence of others, when water is given to wash Eiezer’s feet and the feet of “the men that were with him” (24:32).
One wonders why this entourage – likely comprising mighty, warrior types who were eminently capable of defending what we now understand was an entire caravan – is painted with such a soft brush that we barely acquire, let alone retain, any lingering awareness of them. Can it be that doing so would diminish from the power of the epic? Or more likely that it would diminish from the stature of Isaac who needs whatever fortification we can possibly give him?
We can picture the majesty of the caravan making its way back to Canaan, as Rebecca and her nursemaid are accompanied by a phalanx of eleven mighty men. Surely Rebecca could only imagine that these warriors must pale by comparison to the groom awaiting her at the other end her journey.
Arriving finally at her destination toward dusk, she spies Isaac in the field and asks who he is. Informed that this is her husband to be she falls off her camel and then hides behind her shawl (Genesis 24:64-65). Tradition would have us believe that she was so awed by what she saw that she lost her bearings on the camel. And that in an act of consummate modesty she veiled herself.
We would like to believe this was the case. Yet if Rebecca was so modest, why during all the time she was traveling as a betrothed woman among eleven mighty men, did she travel unveiled? Could it be that the veiling had noting to do with modesty and everything to do with her disappointment? Realizing this man would be her husband, she fell off the camel in shock and despondency, and then covered her face in utter despair?
Let us try to imagine a beautiful young woman, being transported a great distance to a land whose language and customs are unfamiliar, in order to live forever among total strangers. During this journey she would be beset by daydreams about the man to whom she was betrothed – a man who would be no less a man than her troop of protectors, namely powerful, masculine warriors. And to what does she arrive, but the utter antithesis of what she had dreamed of.
Yes, Isaac loves her initially and takes her to his mother’s tent; “And he took Rebecca as a wife, and he loved her and he was comforted after his mother”(Genesis 24:66). Although it is rather strange that a bridegroom would choose to consummate his marriage on the bed of his recently departed mother. One can only imagine what Freud would have to say about that.
There is no indication of reciprocity. We can only assume Rebecca’s mute quiescence to her fate, and the start of a marriage of emotional estrangement that required shrewdness and subterfuge for her to gain strength and prevail as both mother and decision-maker in determining the course of Jewish history all on her own.