Insights on the parsha: Chayei Sara

Life cycles, yichus and the second son.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism Hevron


Two major life cycle events figure in this sidra – death and marriage.

Sarah dies and Abraham buries her in the cave of Machpelah; Eliezer finds a wife for Isaac, and Rebekah and Isaac marry and set up home together.

Both events are decisive for family and human history.

If you choose a marriage partner well, you reap the reward of happiness and if you have progeny they determine your destiny. If your death follows a life dedicated to wisdom and decency, you leave behind the mark of having enriched the human race.

Both events also involve aloneness. Concerning marriage, the Torah begins with the statement, “It is not good for a man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Man needs company and community.

Concerning death, Franz Rosenzweig points out that this is the decisive moment of aloneness. Other people can be by your side and hold your hand, but death itself is a step that you have to take on your own.

Yet it does not have to be the sort of loneliness that makes one frightened. In its own way death is also a time for company and community – with God.

The Bible says, echoed by the final line of Adon Olam, “Into Your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:6).


Without Abraham's concern for Isaac to marry someone from the right background, Eliezer would not have needed such a complicated match-making expedition.

But this is the way that Biblical thinking works: the family a person comes from is an essential ingredient in marital happiness and in building a future.

Jewish parents still operate on the same principle. I cannot count the times that parents have asked what I know about the background of the boy or girl their offspring is going with.

I suspect that some young people regarded this as parental interference, but a logical mind would have told them that success in marriage requires some knowledge of the value system with which a potential partner has been brought up.

As far as Abraham was concerned, he was determined not to allow into the family one of the daughters of the Canaanites.

Was it that they were nobodies and lacked a good enough lineage to boast about?

If that were the entire consideration, the person without lineage could have borrowed or anticipated the retort that is said to have been given by a supposed nobody when asked by a snooty person, "And whose descendant are you?" The retort was, "I am nobody's descendant: I am an ancestor!"

No; lineage has its place, but what concerned Abraham was the idolatrous and probably unethical values of the Canaanite environment.

Even so, Eliezer found that there were issues with some of Abraham's own family such as Laban, and he must have agonised over the question of whether Rebekah would show the better or the not so admirable elements of the family character.


Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, is far from being regarded as a tzaddik by our rabbinic tradition.

Isaac is the favourite son, and it is through him that Abraham’s teachings are to be maintained (Gen. 21:12).

Abraham tried to bring up Ishmael properly but the boy remained a "pereh adam", rough and ready, and became a skilled archer; his ways were such that God warned the patriarch, according to the sages, that this son would cause suffering to his brother (Gen. R. 45:11).

Ishmael married a wife of whom Abraham disapproved, but eventually he understood his father’s views, sent this wife away and married another woman of better character.

This and other facts which the rabbis read into the story led to the conclusion that Ishmael was on the way to becoming a "ba’al t’shuvah", a penitent. The Talmud says that so genuine was the son’s penitence that he returned to Canaan and lived with his father (Bava Batra 16a).

When Abraham died, the Torah says, “And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him” (Gen. 20:9). Superficially, of course, this verse suggests co-operation between the sons, but there is more to it than that.

Look at the order in which the sons are named, Isaac before Ishmael. Isaac was in fact the younger son, and in the days when both were young Ishmael taunted Isaac, according to the rabbis, insisting that as he was older he was more important and it was he who would inherit most of their father’s possessions (Gen. R. 53:15).

What had now happened was that the aggressiveness had gone out of Ishmael and he no longer had a need to push himself forward and aggrandise his own status.

In letting Isaac go first and recognising that this was God’s wish, Ishmael showed he had learned "derech eretz" and reverence for God. This must surely be seen as a sign of t’shuvah.