November 8, 2001
A Tough Match
Parshat Haye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
Our parasha includes a description of possibly the first shidduch (arranged marriage) in history. With the death of his beloved Sarah, Abraham turns his attention to the future and sends his servant back to "the old country" Haran to find a wife for Isaac. The mission with which he charges the servant is clear:
1) Do not take a local woman for his wife;
2) Even if you find a wife in Haran, do not bring Isaac back there -- she must be willing to uproot herself and live out her life in Canaan.
Upon arriving at Haran, the servant prays to God for help in completing his mission:
"See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, 'Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,' and she says, 'Drink, and I will water your camels too -- let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac."
The servant ignores Abraham's instructions to find a girl who is willing to uproot and come to Canaan. Instead, he introduces a "hospitality test" which was never mentioned by Abraham. As we all know, his prayer was answered, his mission succeeded, and Jewish history was born -- but why wasn't the servant truer to his task?
There is yet a more troubling question about Isaac: Although the stories immediately preceding this one should have included Isaac in a central role, he is nowhere to be seen. From the time that Abraham is told to stay his hand and not slaughter his son on Mount Moriah, Isaac "disappears" from the text -- he isn't even present at his mother's burial. It is only with the arrival of Rebecca that he "returns to the stage."
What happened to Isaac atop the mountain, bound and lying on top of the altar, that affected him so profoundly?
When we look back at God's original directive to Abraham regarding Isaac, we find an ambiguous command: v'Ha'alehu sham l'Olah -- which might be translated "take him up there as an Olah," meaning "offer him up." It might be understood as "take him up there for an Olah," meaning "show him how to perform an offering."
There is, however, a third way of understanding the phrase in question, which may explain Isaac's "disappearance" in the subsequent narratives. Unlike other offerings, the Olah is given completely to God. No part of the Olah is eaten by people. Within the matrix of offerings, the Olah represents the dimension of our personalities that longs to be totally bound up with God, unconcerned with -- and unfettered by -- mundane issues.
Take a fresh look at the command: "Take him up to be an Olah," in other words, do not offer him up (i.e. slaughter him), but make him an Olah, an offering that is solely dedicated to God.
Indeed, Abraham's hand is only stayed with reference to Isaac's physical life, but, as the Mishnah would later dictate, once an offering has been brought up to the altar, it can never lose its sanctity.
From the moment of his binding, Isaac became the human, living Olah. His life was no longer one of earthly concerns and interactions -- he became an otherworldly man. This may be why he didn't really return from the mountain -- because, in the greater sense of things, he never "came down." He was no longer a child of Abraham and Sarah, but his own separate, sanctified being. This is why he, alone among the patriarchs, was never allowed to leave the land -- his expanded altar, as it were.
This is why Abraham appointed his servant to find the appropriate partner for Isaac. Abraham knew, from his own experience, that in order to carry on the mission of spreading God's word, it would take another Abraham -- someone who knows how to reach out to others, who can interact with this world in a sanctified manner. Isaac can no longer fulfill this task.
He sent his servant to find someone willing to leave home, separate from family and move west, to the land of the future and promise. His servant hears, in the directive given him by his master, a familiar refrain: "Go from your land, your birthplace and your father's house to the land that I will show you."
The wise servant understood that his master wanted another "Abraham" as a daughter-in-law. He set out to find someone who exemplifies Abraham's attributes and values -- best typified by his enthusiastic hospitality; hence the "test."
A young woman who demonstrates Abraham-like kindness will be capable of working with Isaac, and together, they will continue Abraham's mission of bringing people closer to God's truth through kindness, love and hospitality. Rebecca passed the test with flying colors; she was the one who finally brought him back to the stage of history, building the next tier of the foundation of the great nation promised to Abraham.