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November 23, 2000

Two Tribes

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/two_tribes_20001124

"Sarah's life was 127 years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba [now Hebron] in the land of Canaan." So begins a paradoxical Torah portion in which life and death touch with unusual proximity and resonance. Sarah's death sets into train two processes - two textual episodes - each of which achieves completion as Abraham buries Sarah and Isaac weds Rebecca. Genesis 24:67 encapsulates these episodes' interconnection in one of Torah's most moving sentences: "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death."

More than any parsha I know, this one portrays the cycle of generations and relations between different groups in a positive, life-affirming manner. Needing a burial place for "his dead," Abraham enters into careful, strategically nuanced negotiations with Ephron the Hittite - negotiations that culminate in his buying the cave of Machpelah for 400 shekels of silver. Even if this constitutes an ample price, as some commentators assert, the patriarch clearly knows what he needs and how best to achieve it. Adonai may have promised the land to him and his seed as an inheritance, but then and there Abraham relates to its inhabitants with courteous humility. He listens carefully to each of their statements, detecting and responding to its inner meaning; at the same time, he orchestrates a public transaction that avoids misunderstanding and honors his negotiating partner. Not least, he proceeds slowly with due regards for the ceremonial rhythm that elevates human life.

We might say that Abraham appreciates process along with product. So too does his servant, who has been dispatched to find a wife for Isaac. Careful reading of Chapter 24 reveals how the servant keeps silent or repeats known material, hastens to act or decorously slows down - all in response to the person before him. Like his master, he negotiates a tricky situation and emerges gratified. Rebecca's self-confident assertion, "eylech" (I will go) tells us that while the woman who returns home with him has been deferentially gained from her family, she has also given herself.

After his son's marriage and all he has been through, Abraham might well be content to die and "be gathered to his kin." However, in an epilogue of sorts, the text pulls up several loose ends. Shortly after Isaac's birth, Abraham had needed to choose between two woman and two sons. In order to fulfill the larger destiny of which he was the carrier, he had dispatched into the wilderness his firstborn, Ishmael, and the boy's mother, Hagar. While Adonai had assured him that, like Isaac, Ishmael would sire "a great nation," only after both Sarah and Abraham himself have died does the biblical text present the fulfillment of that promise: "These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names by their villages and by their encampments: 12 chieftains of as many tribes" (25:16). As for Hagar, while the biblical text does not directly assuage the rupture of her expulsion, it does provide a hook for a comforting midrash: that the unknown Keturah whom Abraham marries in his old age is really Hagar.

Hagar returned and Ishmael fathering a parallel people - what else remains to cap this portion's feeling of harmony, continuity and repair? Only the seeming detail that when Abraham is buried "in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre," it is "his sons Isaac and Ishmael" who perform the burial (25:9-10). Even without being aware of Ishmael's traditional role as the father of the Arab peoples, we would be moved by this quiet reconciliation between estranged siblings. In these painful times, when our people, the children of Isaac, and those of Ishmael battle over a common homeland, perhaps the lovingkindness of Chaye Sarah can help replenish our wellsprings of hope.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is the dean of religious life at USC.

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