Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Chayei Sarah and the Matchmaker

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. . . .” We all remember these words uttered in the song sung by Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava from Sholem Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof. These words echoed inside me as I read this week’s parsha. The words seem relevant to our parshas hashavua. Our parsha describes an ideal, the perfection of devotion: eternal love between partners. This description is what Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava search for in Sholem Aleichem’s story. The parsha appears to be fixated upon demonstrating a superhuman quality in Abraham, of idealized fidelity to Sara in her death, to honor the dead, L’kavod hamasim.

Recall, in our parsha, when Sarah dies in Hebron. The first two verses quickly describe Sarah’s death. The next twenty verses describe Abraham, pleading and securing with the Canaanite inhabitants a site to bury his wife in Hebron.

But honoring the dead, L’kavod hamasim doesn’t end there for Abraham. Abraham arranges for his son Isaac to be married off to Rebecca. Isaac’s betrothal to Rebecca was arranged in honor of his mother, Sarah. Recall from our text, Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, laden with many gifts, to search for a wife for his son Isaac in Abraham’s birthplace. During this journey, Eliezer stops at a well and is introduced to Rebecca. Eliezer chooses Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife. Then in Gen. 24:67, “Isaac then brought [Rebecca] into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

However, honoring the dead, L’kavod hamasim is still unfulfilled for Abraham even after marrying Isaac to Rebecca. Abraham’s devotion to Sarah outlived her life. Abraham still remained in love with Sarah even after her death. When Abraham takes on another wife at the end of his life named Keturah, she according to Midrash Chayei Sarah, is limited to secondary wife status. Upon Abraham’s death, he is buried next to Sarah, joined by his first two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Keturah and her children are sent away and are not buried next to Abraham.

But are these descriptions realistic? Abraham’s devotion to Sarah, as described in these verses, seems to be outweighed by him deceiving Pharaoh in Genesis 12 when they come to Egypt. Recall when they arrive, how Abraham abandons Sarah so she may enter Pharaoh’s court. Sarah and Abraham’s relationship was not without its challenges. They were not perfect, but that is not how we remember them. Why do we remember Abraham and Sarah’s life in this parsha differently?

Abraham’s devotion in our parsha is depicted as a superhuman quality. It departs from reality. It doesn’t seem possible. It seems as implausible as Abraham’s and Sarah’s ages when they died. So why then do we read it? Why do we venerate these words with credence? Why do we perpetuate a myth to the language used by Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava in Fiddler on the Roof? The legendary prince charming who stays loyal to his princess until the very end perpetuates an unrealistic expectation of people.

The hard and fast reality was that Abraham got around. He had at least two, maybe three wives. He abandoned Sarah in Egypt. Equally as bleak was the hard and fast reality of shtetl life. It was miserable. We left and escaped it. Matchmaking in the shtetl was grotesque. Men and women were matched regardless of affection or age. “Romantic” may be the description used for each circumstance, but the reality was something different.

In some sense, idealizing these characters turns them into superheroes. But is it okay to have superheroes? Men and women with superhero qualities? Is it wrong to imagine a romantic existence of eternal fidelity? I pondered this question when I lived in Israel. During my time in Haaretz, I visited the graves of the righteous tzadiks in Tzfat. Initially, it was a mystical curiosity that led me to visit these sites. Going into the graves, I knew to accept some things without question or judgment. One thing I was unprepared for was that the experience of visiting the graves of the tzadiks was a romantic one. Women and men circled some of the graves seven times while reading tehillim, psalms. The scenic views surrounding the graves and the beautifully decorated blue and white artwork of the sites were romantic. There was even a wedding going on at one of the gravesites. A similar experience was visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Sarah and Abraham are said to be buried.

While visiting these sites, it occurred to me that we live in a world with an existential desire and need for superheroes. It is interwoven into the human psyches. Told and retold over millennia, the biblical stories of David and Goliath, Moses and the Pharaoh, Jonah and the Whale, Samson, and so on, all appeal to a very basic understanding of our people. Our people are a people in need of superheroes. The story of Sarah and Abraham from this week’s parsha is no different. Abraham is depicted heroically in these verses, and sometimes we need a hero in our lives to set an ideal or expectation because reality is much more broken.

Case in point—more recently, I came across something in a few paintings by Marc Chagall. The paintings are entitled “Sarah and Abimelech” (1960), “Sarah and the Angels” (1960), “The Vision of Ezekiel” (1956) and his most famous “Paradise” (1961). I noticed that the women all appear to be the same person in the paintings. So, who was she? Sally E. Norris points out in Between the Text and Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue that the women painted were Chagall’s late wife, Bella. Norris points out that Bella’s untimely death in 1944 devastated Chagall.[1] Norris goes on to suggest that Chagall “refrained from any artistic production for nearly a year, devoting his grief-filled attention instead of compiling Bella’s letters and papers. And although Chagall eventually re-married, the spirit of Bella remained with him, infusing his heart and soul and art until his own death more than forty years later in 1985 at the age of ninety-seven.”[2] Norris concludes that Chagall had a “life-long love for Bella and the predominance in his artistic corpus of a common female figure with Bella’s dark hair and abstract bodily shape”[3] showed this. She also “defined the ideal female representation for him.”[4]

Focus our attention on the word used by Norris here, “ideal.” Chagall’s depictions were abstractions from reality. Bella and Sarah were idealized representations of femininity and fidelity. Nonetheless, Chagall somehow sought to depict them as tangible figures. For Chagall, he was reliving an ideal, the heroic motif of L’kavod hamasim, of eternal fidelity, which appears in Parshas Chayei Sarah. Chagall’s uses these idealized biblical characters as a canvas for the expression of love for his late wife. It gave him direction, inspiration from a broken experience. The biblical story lifted him from the depths of despair, from the brokenness of our reality, to create something beautiful. The story told in Parshas Chayei Sarah expresses love idealized. When we think fondly about the matchmaker of Sholem Aleichem’s story, we are choosing to romanticize an illusion of people. Even if we know better, the illusion is useful. It gives us something to strive toward. The process of romanticizing an illusion of people elevates the matchmaker to someone similar in importance to Eliezer, of this week’s parsha. Our tradition teaches us that Eliezer was the first matchmaker, the first shadchan.[5] He is the attestation of the ideal we romantically listened to in Tevyeh’s story. We need him. We need this story. We need something to canvas, alongside our experience, something to reach for as an ideal. Pashas Chayei Sarah gives us this. It is what we need to hear and what need to believe.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon

[1] Norrs. Between Text and Canvas. p. 90.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.
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