Shabbat Sermon: Chayei Sara (Student Rabbi Tali Artman)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 26 November 2019

A garden enclosed
Is my sister, my spouse,
A spring shut up,
A fountain sealed. (Cant. 4:12)

At the heart of this week’s parasha stands a fountain, a well, the Biblical symbol of the mystery of marriage. The virgin is described in Canticum as a sealed fountain. The temptation of it water, saved only for the husband is both luring and threatening: it can offer seas of pleasure or suffocating darkness, fruitfulness or death. It is a variant on another feminine symbol which appears in our parasha – the burial cave. In Rabbinic Hebrew the word קבר is used for both womb and tomb. Exiting one always leads to the other, but the order cannot be reversed. Both are protecting spaces, in which individuality, in many ways is lost.

The burial cave of Sarah, the well of Rebecca and the well of Issac are all connected here.

It starts with Abraham coming from his own well, Be’er Sheva, to bury his wife. She whose קבר was closed for so many years, and was given a son at 90, only to hear how he almost went to his קבר, making her womb, indeed but a tomb. Buying the burial cave for Sarah is not just a symbolic conclusion as her life as a matriarch, but a string identity statement be Abraham. Choosing to live in a land which was not your ancestors land is hard, but not half as deciding to be buried in it. This final commitment to the land, to making returning to that specific land as dust is to define a new dynasty, to posit Sarah as the matriarch of a new tribe, with a tomb that will be sealed and opened again and again with every generation of offsprings.

It is therefor not surprising that when Abraham send Eliezer to find Issac a wife, the identity question comes up again. Like many immigrants, Abraham wants for his son a bride from the homeland, from the old country. A woman he can understand. But the oath he make Eliezer take is more complicated: the bridge must immigrate herself, creating a bond with him through her own lechi-lach, to mirror his lech lecha. Abraham wants continuity in his new land.

Eliezer ‘s prayer at the well, needs to be read in those lines too: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham” he says, “please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”

Many have written about the scene at the well as a test – the nice girl, the hard working girl, the one who shows hospitality and kindness to both strangers and animals, she is the true bride. But Eliezer is not devising a test for Rivkah, but as he says twice, a test of the love of God to Abraham: “by this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master”. He prays that the kind girl will be the one of the right family, that he would be able to tell who she is, that divine providence over the Abrahamic line would continue. When the beautiful and as nmentioned twice virgin bride, ‘a sealed spring’ arrives, moving to the stone to draw water is the structural parallel to the sealing of Sarah’s tomb.

God grants Eliezer his wish, and shows his love to his old master, as well as to the new. The finding of Rivkah is interpreted by Elizer and Betuel and Laban as a proof of divine intervention in their lives, which cannot be contested in any way. This miracle – the coming together of the right people at the right time, the goodwill and good fortune of the bride and her family, everything indicates a match made in heaven. But as we all know, finding a well is not the same as drinking from it. The love story between Isaac and Rivkah has not yet begun.

Not Many notice that when Rivkah has her adventure at her well, so does Isaac. When they bump into each other at the field, he comes form his own well – Beer Lachai Roi ‘the well which sees the living’ or ‘the well that seems alive’. A strange name for a well, you would agree. What did Issac see in the surface of the water? Was it his mothers’ face? The knife? Did the well call him in? have the powers of the waters of sorrow almost drowned him? Did he dream of a wife? We will never know.

The Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 60, 16 says that he went to this specific well to fetch a relative, Hagar:”She who set by the well and told The Eternal- behold my insult“. Isaac, in his grief, after his mother’s death, seeks the company of his step mother, she whose son was also sent to die and was saved. But unlike Hagar who seemed to be trapped in her grief, held to the medusa of horror in the well, never drawing far from water again,  Issac leaves the spring and goes into the field where he meets Rivkah, riding with the man who came closest to seeing the death of him and his saving – Eliezer. With a set of surrogate parents, those who did not die physically (Sarah) or metaphorically (Abraham), the stage is set for a new story, a new love. “Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

Coming away from his past, from the consequences of the acts of his father, from the well of emotions, Isaac is ready to live again. To transform the pains of the past into a future, to accept his father’s choice for him, to reconcile with Hagar, to come close to Ishmael again, are all the emotional labor of Issac. The burial cave, the well of Haran and Beer Sheva come together. The match between Issa and Rivkah is a healing one, it brings comfort, continuity, and even love.

As we have learned in the haftara today, God’s work is to bring people together, even those who are far, even those who are reluctant, or grieving, or maybe a bit in love with someone else. As it says:

God sets the lonely in families; he leads out the prisoners with singing (bekusharot); Those who did not merit with tears (Bekhi) and those who do with song (shirot).

So may your part be that of Isaac of Rivkah, who were freed from their watery prisons, may grief turn into joy, fear unto love, and tears into song. And may this be a praise of Sarah whose wisdom and courage, whose loyalty and love whose dreams and heartbreaks were all, I am sure mentioned by Abraham as he came to mourn the life of Sarah.