Parshat Hayye Sarah: Marriages Not Exactly Made in Heaven

In a recent episode of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ we see a stern Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth, admonishing his daughter-in-law Princess Diana, wife of the heir apparent Prince Charles. Diana is the prisoner of a miserable marriage. Her husband is contemptuously indifferent to her even as he dallies with a married lover.  The Duke tells Diana, in no uncertain terms, that she can do whatever she likes discreetly, but she should not dare to break up the marriage to Prince Charles.  Why? Because royalty is decreed by God, and divorce is therefore not an option.

Indeed, royal marriages (perhaps especially those made by G-d) –  no matter how miserable the couple may be – have dynastic implications. The emotions of the husband and/or wife are irrelevant. The purpose of the dynastic marriage is to breed an heir who, in turn, will enter into his own (miserable) dynastic marriage  so that the kingdom/tribe/nation can continue.

Watching this episode of The Crown so reminded me of the marriages of our Patriarchs, especially the one of Avraham and Sarah.  They seem to be such a mismatch; there such an emotional, physical and, ultimately, geographic distance between the two. Nevertheless this is a marriage made by G-d, if not exactly made in Heaven, and its purpose is manifest.

The action of the Parsha opens with Avraham “coming to Kiriat Arba which is Hevron” in order to mourn  and ultimately to bury her there.

Last we heard, Avraham was living in Beersheva. The question thus arises whether he and Sarah were, for whatever reason, separated. Indeed, when asked by G-d to sacrifice Yitzhak, Avraham 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 Avraham, following Sarah’s demise, married Keturah וַיֹּ֧סֶף אַבְרָהָ֛ם וַיִּקַּ֥ח אִשָּׁ֖ה וּשְׁמָ֥הּ קְטוּרָֽה (Bereishit 25:1) with whom he had six more sons. We are informed as well, that he had sons from additional concubines  וְלִבְנֵ֤י הַפִּֽילַגְשִׁים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם נָתַ֥ן אַבְרָהָ֖ם מַתָּנֹ֑ת וַיְשַׁלְּחֵ֞ם מֵעַ֨ל יִצְחָ֤ק בְּנוֹ֙ בְּעוֹדֶ֣נּוּ חַ֔י(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 Avraham’s #1 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 Avraham 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. Yaakov adores Rachel, but clearly detests Leah. Rivkah and Yitzhak (we will return to them shortly) are not even on speaking terms, and dwell in separate abodes.

Sarah wields enormous influence on Avraham, but we see mostly dynastic mucilage rather than any emotional connective tissue between the two. Indeed as is evident in the prior Parshiot, Avraham 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 Hevron in order to provide her with a suitably impressive mourning and burial.

In purchasing the Cave of Makhpelah for the astronomical sum of 400 silver coins, Avraham 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 Efron is unbecoming for such an august and powerful personage, let alone one who has been given the land, literally, by G-d.

In Avraham’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” כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מֽוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק (24:4). And he refers to Canaan not as his own land but as the one that G-d promised to his progeny (24:7). 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, Avraham turns to the business of marrying off Yitzhak who is by now rather ripe in years – a man in his mid 30’s, certainly overdue for a bride.

Avraham entrusts the ever-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 for his son, or the way a Hindu motel keeper in Alabama would find a bride for his son back in Uta Pradesh.

Curiously, Yitzhak plays no role in this arrangement. He is both silent and passive. Avraham alone 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 Yitzhak. To say this is puzzling would be a gross understatement.

Can there possibly be something wrong with Avraham’s designated heir? The Midrash alludes to the damage caused to Yitzhak by virtue of the Akedah, indicating a understandable  concern the Sages had with the character of Yitzhak. But this, too, is problematic, as Yitzhak’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 Yitzhak, 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 Esav  sold his birthright to Yaakov, when this is the sort of information that travels very fast. And he is easily hoodwinked by his virtually estranged wife Rivkah and her preferred child Yaakov into giving him the blessing he had reserved for Esav.)

Eliezer sets out, seemingly all alone, for Aram Naharayim in quest of Yitzhak’s bride. The highly emotional and romantic narrative of his arrival at the well, and the fortuitous meeting with Rivkah 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 Betuel or her brother Lavan that Rivkah 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  וַתָּ֨רָץ֙ הַנַּֽעֲרָ֔ה וַתַּגֵּ֖ד לְבֵ֣ית אִמָּ֑הּ כַּדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה (24:28). Do we see here a foreshadowing of the apartness that would characterize her life with Yitzhak?)

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 Rivkah 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” וַיִּתֵּ֨ן תֶּ֤בֶן וּמִסְפּוֹא֙ לַגְּמַלִּ֔ים וּמַ֨יִם֙ לִרְחֹ֣ץ רַגְלָ֔יו וְרַגְלֵ֥י הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ:(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 Yitzhak who is in desperate need of whatever fortification we can possibly give him?

We can picture the majesty of the caravan making its way back to Canaan, as Rivkah and her nursemaid are accompanied by a phalanx of eleven mighty men. Surely Rivkah 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 Yitzhak in the field talking to himself, and asks who he is. Informed that this is her husband-to-be she falls off her camel and then hides behind her shawl וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־הָעֶ֗בֶד מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַלָּזֶה֙ הַֽהֹלֵ֤ךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה֙ לִקְרָאתֵ֔נוּ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָעֶ֖בֶד ה֣וּא אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתִּקַּ֥ח הַצָּעִ֖יף וַתִּתְכָּֽס (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 Rivkah 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 revel in 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 imagined.

(And let us note, too, that when Eliezer returns to Hevron with Yitzhak’s bride , Avraham is nowhere to be found. Not only did he delegate the search for a bride to his servant,  bride, he couldn’t even be bothered to wait around to make sure  his servant had made the suitable choice.)

Yes, Yitzhak loves her initially and takes her to his mother’s tent; “And he took Rivkah as a wife, and he loved her and he was comforted after his mother” וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֨הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַֽחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ: (24:67). 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 Rivkah’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.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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