‘Pocahontas’ Parashat Chaye Sarah 5779

The time has come for Isaac to marry and Abraham sets about the task of finding him a wife. He calls his trusty servant, Eliezer, and sends him off to his family in Aram Naharaim, in modern-day Kurdistan. Eliezer is tasked to bring a bride for Isaac back to the Land of Canaan. Eliezer asks Abraham [Bereishit 24:5] “Perhaps the woman will not wish to go after me to this land. Shall I return your son to the land from which you came?” This was apparently the wrong question to ask because Abraham responds with a tirade [Bereishit 24:6-8]: “Beware, lest you return my son back there. G-d, Who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and Who spoke about me, and Who swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants will I give this land’, He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. And if the woman will not wish to go after you, you will be absolved of this, my oath; only do not return my son back there.”

Prima facie, it seems like Abraham overreacted. All he had to tell Eliezer was “Do not bring my son to Aram Naharaim. If the girl doesn’t want to come here, game over.” The entire bit about “G-d, Who took me from my father’s house… Who swore to me… He will send His angel… and take a wife for my son from there” is irrelevant – it does not address Eliezer’s question. Nevertheless, these words must have been of utmost importance: When Eliezer repeats the entire episode of his search for a bride for Isaac for the benefit of Rebecca’s family, he repeats his question about what will happen if the girl gets cold feet. Then, he repeats Abraham’s entire response, including the seemingly irrelevant part [Bereishit 24:40-41]: “[Abraham] said to me, G-d, before Whom I walked, will send His angel with you and make your way prosper, and you shall take a wife for my son from my family and from my father’s house. You will then be absolved from my oath, when you come to my family, and if they do not give [her] to you, you will be absolved from my oath”.  Words that the Torah repeats twice cannot be considered irrelevant. The question is: what do they add?

Three unrelated bits of background information will help us to proceed:

  1. The Midrash teaches that when Eliezer asked Abraham what would happen if the girl did not want to go and live in the Land of Canaan, that Eliezer actually had ulterior motives. According to the Midrash, Eliezer had a daughter whom he wanted to marry off to Isaac. Notice the word that Eliezer uses when he asks Abraham “What if?” He asks “Perhaps (ulai) the woman will not wish to go after me to this land”. The Vilna Gaon notes that there are two ways of saying “what if” in Hebrew: One way is “ulai” and the other way is “pen”. These two words, however, are not interchangeable. “Ulai” means “wouldn’t it be nice if…” and “pen” means “wouldn’t it be terrible if…” When Eliezer asks “what if”, he uses the word “ulai” – wouldn’t it be nice if the girl gets cold feet, because I just happen to have a beautiful daughter of my own that would make a lovely wife for Isaac. Abraham knows exactly where Eliezer is taking the conversation and he nips it in the bud: “Beware, lest (pen) you return my son back there.” Wouldn’t it be nice? It would be absolutely terrible. Abraham was as adamant about Isaac not marrying Eliezer’s daughter as he was about not sending Isaac to Aram Naharaim.
  2. The second bit of background information concerns Eliezer’s use of the word “return” (le’hashiv), as in “Shall I return your son to the land from which you came?” Isaac could not “return” to Aram Naharaim as he had never actually been there before. A person can only “return” to a place in which he has been at least once. Lest the reader suggest that I am being overly pedantic, two medieval commentators, the Chizkuni and Rabbeinu Asher (R”osh), ask precisely this question. They both offer the same answer: as Isaac would be accompanying Eliezer, who had already been to Aram Naharaim, it could be said that Isaac would be returning along with Eliezer.
  3. Finally, we come to our third, and final, bit of background information. Elizabeth Warren is a Democratic Senator from the State of Massachusetts. She is poised as one of the front-runners against President Trump in the 2020 presidential elections. At least she was poised until the “Pocahontas Debacle”. In 2016, Warren began to claim that she was of American Indian descent, part Cherokee and part Delaware, which was strange, as she is quite the Caucasian. In contempt, then-candidate Trump would frequently refer to her as “Pocahontas”, offering one million dollars to her favourite charity if she could verify her ancestry. This year, Warren decided to prove her American Indian genealogy by undergoing a DNA test. The results of the test were underwhelming: the geneticist who administered the test said there was only “a possibility” that she may have 1/1,204 Native American ancestry[1]. The Native Americans were even less impressed. The Cherokee Nation’s Secretary of State said, “Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonouring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well-documented and whose heritage is proven”. The moral of the story is that there is more to belonging to a group than simply sharing the same genes.

Now we have sufficient background to address the topic at hand. When Abraham left “his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home”, the break was complete and irreversible. Abraham did not just leave home and go out on his own. When Abraham accepted G-d’s challenge to move to the land of Canaan, he left his past behind. His future lay in the service to the one true G-d. In an earlier shiur[2] we discussed why it was important that Eliezer bring the girl to the Land of Canaan. We showed that the girl that Isaac would marry must be able to join Isaac in his mission. As there were no Jewish women at the time, this meant finding a pagan and teaching her the way of G-d. This could only happen if she were removed from her family. A local Canaanite would still be subject to the influence of her family.

What about Eliezer’s midrashic daughter? Why didn’t Abraham let Isaac marry her? One possible answer is that Abraham wanted Isaac to have a real wife, not a midrashic wife. Another answer is that Eliezer was a Canaanite slave, and he, too, was subject to the influence of his family. After Abraham dies, Eliezer disappears from the Torah. Perhaps he was swayed by Abraham’s charisma and he could not connect with Isaac’s more serious nature. Perhaps he just got sick of Judaism altogether. Whatever the reason, Eliezer and his midrashic daughter are lost in the sands of time.

When Eliezer asks Abraham if he should “return” Isaac to Aram Naharaim if the girl gets cold feet, he is essentially asking him if there is a way back – for him to one day return home. Abraham’s response is unequivocal: “G-d, Who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and Who spoke about me, and Who swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants will I give this land’, He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.” Abraham no longer has any connection with Padan Aram. He has been reborn. He can no longer “return” to a place that for all intents and purposes he has never been. All that Abraham shared with the people of Padan Aram was DNA and so to connect these people with Abraham “is inappropriate and wrong”. Shared genes does not mean a shared way of life and a shared destiny.

Rabbi Mendel Lew summarizes things: “Judaism demands more [than Jewish DNA] – much more. One primary characteristic is to be sympathetic and kind to others. [While this] is important, educating others in this endeavour is even more valued. It is already in our DNA, but that is a mere technicality. It must be proven – by tangible and genuine action”.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] In the words of Ben Shapiro, a Conservative American pundit, an Indian from India has more American Indian blood than Senator Warren.

[2] Chaye Sarah 5766

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts