CHAYE SARAH, Genesis 23:1-25:18
The Torah portion this week, Chaye Sarah, which literally means "the lives of Sarah," opens by telling us of her death. In the opening verses, we read of Abraham mourning the death of his spouse and lifemate, and then preparing for her burial.
Describing himself as a resident alien in the land of Canaan, he purchases the burial cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. In time, this will become the burial site of all our patriarchs and matriarchs, except Rachel. It is a site still holy today to all of the Abrahamic faiths.
This transaction in the Torah is no mere recording of a real estate deal. Abraham's purchasing of the cave, in the site of leaders of the community, establishes Jewish roots in the Land of Israel.
And as his formal period of mourning concludes, Abraham slowly returns, as must all who mourn, to the daily routines and demands of life. Perhaps confronting his own mortality and loneliness, he turns his attention to finding a wife for his son, and charges his servant – whose name the text never identifies, but rabbinic tradition assumes is Eliezer – to return to Abraham's native land to find a bride for Isaac.
Abraham does not want his son to marry a local girl in Canaan. Many of our commentators wonder about this; after all, the Arameans were no less idol worshippers than the Canaanites. And although Abraham does not give Eliezer specific guidelines for what type of woman to find, the servant's search for a fitting spouse for Isaac suggests to us those qualities we all seek in a life mate: a true friend and companion. When Eliezer returns with Rebecca, we read for the first time of love in the Torah.
Still, when Eliezer is sent off, we're left with the question: How will he know who is a fitting partner for Isaac? What criteria should he use? Likewise, what do we learn from the story? How do we pick our partners and friends?
What qualities do we want our children and grandchildren to look for as they make friends and find love?
Though the Torah never tells us what Abraham says to his servant about finding the proper life mate, it does tell us what Eliezer does when he first arrives in Nahor. Coming to the well at the outskirts of the city, he does, in fact, do something remarkable.
The magnitude of the action that follows is hinted at by the cantillation mark over the word vayomar – "and he said."
Called shalshelet, this mark occurs only four times in the entire Torah, and indicates a long, stretched-out chant. In effect, it is a significant pause, and tells us that something very special is about to happen.
A Crucial Moment
What's so special?
Before looking for Isaac's bride, Eliezer prays to God. He says: "O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham."
Now, this might not seem like much, but this is the first time that anyone in the Torah prays for personal guidance at a crucial moment. Before acting, speaking or responding – before doing anything at all – Eliezer stops, thinks, looks at the big picture and reflects on what is really important. In prayer, he looks for assurance and guidance.
One midrash tells us that Eliezer himself had a daughter he wanted Isaac to marry, but Abraham told him to find someone in Nahor. So many times in life we react to things based only on what we want. But from Eliezer's prayer, we learn how to connect to something bigger than ourselves – to see life's challenges from different perspectives.
We learn to pause before we act or speak, and take a moment for self-reflection and prayer to God.
Rabbi David Straus is the rabbi of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.