Hebrew Insights into Parashat Cha’yey Sarah: B'resheet (Genesis) 23 – 25:18
Even though the name of this week’s Parasha means “Sarah’s Life,” it is actually her death and burial which the opening verses describe. At this point, Avraham is looking to purchase a burial plot for his family. He has his eye set on a particular site in Kiryat Arba, opposite Mamre “which is Chevron”* (23:19). In order to strike the real estate deal, Avraham seeks out Efron (Ephron), who is the owner of a cave called Machpela. “Machpela” stems from the root k.f.l (kaf, fey, lamed – the consonant sounds ch and k are often designated by the same letter, kaf or chaf), which means “double”. The name itself is not specifically explained, though it may have been given to this cave because it possibly had two or more chambers (thus making it especially suitable for burial purposes). Efron’s name, quite appropriately, is derived from the root “ah’far” (a.f.r., ayin, fey, resh) meaning “dust of the ground”. It is the same dust that is mentioned in B’resheet (Genesis) 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return,” the famous words that were pronounced over Adam after he had succumbed to temptation. “Ah’far” is also the term YHVH uses when He makes His promises to the Patriarchs concerning the multiplicity of their seed (Gen. 13:16; 28:14). The ‘equation’ of dust (in Efron’s name) and duplicity (in the name of the burial cave), points to this very promise, in spite of the themes of death and burial and in their very presence.
Avraham pays in full (23:16) for his acquisition, as did his grandson Ya’acov when he purchased a field in the town of Sh’chem (Shechem, in Gen. 33:19), and likewise David, generations later, when he bought Ornan’s (Araunah) threshing floor in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem, 2nd Sam. 24:24, upon which the Temple was later erected). Not coincidentally, Chevron, Sh’cehm (Ya'acov's son's tomb) and the Temple Mount are currently the three most contested spots in the entire land of Israel!
The payment that Avraham made was in hard cash: 400 shekels of silver. The three consonants that form the root for “shekel”, sh.k.l (shin, kof, lamed), also form the verb “to weigh”. Thus, the price paid for the plot was made up of 400 equal units of approximately one half ounce each. All in all Avraham paid about 200 “weighted” ounces, or 12 pounds, of silver. The name “Chevron” is made up of the root ch.v.r. (chaf, vet, resh), which is shared by the following: “to tie, bind, join, unite, friend, and company”. Although in the course of its long history this town has not seen much unity and friendship (it served as David's capital during his seven-year rule over the house of Yehuda-Judah, before he united all of Israel, and is currently divided between the Muslims and the Jews), its name may point to days yet to come.
Chapter 24 highlights Avraham’s senior servant, who “ruled over all his possessions” (v. 2). The servant is here described as a “moshel” (one of the words for “ruler”). “Moshel” is of the same root (m.sh.l, mem, shin, lamed) as terms like: “proverb”, parable, example, to be like, resemble and comparable”. In Tehilim (Psalms) 28:1 the writer cries: “I have become – “nimshalti” - like those who go down to the pit”. The parable in Yechez’kel (Ezekiel) 22:2 is called a “mashal”. In Shmuel Alef (1st Samuel) 10:12 Shaul (Saul) is made a public example of (as a prophet), with the use of “mashal”. The people of Israel is likewise presented as a none-too-positive example among the nations; or in other words, an object lesson, such as in Yirmiyah (Jeremiah) 24:9 where they are called: “a reproach and a proverb… in all places whither I shall drive them” (italics added). There are many more of examples of the usage of the verb and noun emanating from m.sh.l, but how is this connected to the elderly servant?
The servant, as a representative of Avraham, carries out the duties that are delegated to him. As such, he strives to serve by approaching his assignment in the same manner as his master would have done. This is the format, if you will, for the conduct of a true Godly ruler, or leader, who takes his orders from above, endeavoring to carry them out like his Master, thus becoming a representative ‘sample’, a “mashal” or a likeness, of the One whom he follows. The Elohim of Israel spoke…”he who rules over (“moshel”) men, by ruling (“moshel”) in the fear of YHVH, will shine as the light of the sun in the morning….” (2nd Sam. 23:3,4). One such ruler was Yoseph, whose trials and tests were the purifying work of “the Word of YHVH”. Once he was ‘confirmed’ (another word which helps define “m.sh.l”) to this Word, he was appointed a “ruler" [moshe] over all of the king’s possessions” (Ps. 105:18-20). “What is man…” in the eyes of his Creator? In Tehilim (Psalms) 8:5-7 it says, “You have made him to rule” is the Hebrew verb “tam’shile’hu”, that can also be read, “you have made him like…”, or, “you have made of him a proverbial example.” This, then, points to a representational form of rule, or leadership. Avraham's servant certainly displays this characteristic of conforming to his master, so much so that his master’s God becomes his! Yeshua’s words attest to the fact that he too operated by this principle: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (Yochanan - John - 5:19).
Avraham’s 'representative' servant is instructed to perform a mission, but is not told how to carry it out. He chooses to present a 'fleece' to "YHVH, the Elohim of my master Avraham" (24:12). The fleece and its fulfillment focus on water, or on means of obtaining that commodity which is so precious in that part of the world. Hence we find here “spring (or source), well and trough”. The first two are “ayin” and “be'er”, respectively, and the last one is “shoket” (from the verb “le'ha'shkot” - "to give a drink"). “Ayin” is also the word used for “eye.” Although the experts see no direct link between “spring” (or “source”) and “eye”, Yeshua refers to the latter as a type of a source when He says in Matthew 6:22: “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.” The root of “be'er” (“well”) is identical to the root of “ba'er” (b.a.r, bet, alef, resh), which means to “expound or clarify”, as it appears in Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 1:5; 27:8 and in Chavakook (Habakkuk) 2:2 (where "inscribe" should read "clarify" or "expound"). And thus, it is the episode by the well which makes the results of his mission clear to the inquiring servant, as he is "gazing at her [the girl] in silence [and wondering]… whether YHVH had made his journey successful or not" (24:21). However, he need not wonder for long…
"Success" is “hatzlacha”, from the root tz.l.ch. (tzadi, lamed, chet), which also means to "prosper", and is used a number of times in this Parasha. The primary root, tz.l.ch, means to “advance, or cross" (such as in 2nd Sam. 19:18), and is used for the “coming of the Spirit,” (also in Jud. 14:6). Whenever it is used to mean "success", the verb appears in the active causative form, rendering it: “to cause to advance." These, the verb and noun, teach us, therefire, that prosperity and success may be obtained only with the help of an ‘external force’, just as is exemplified here by the servant who is completely dependent on YHVH to “cause him to advance.” The servant's awareness of this fact is also expressed by his prayer in 24:12: "O YHVH Elohim of my master Abraham, please give me success this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham." In this instance the root tz.l.ch, for "success" does not show up at all. The literal wording for "give me success" is just "to bring about".
The chain of the desired events, that were brought about, starts by the appearance of a young maiden named Rivka (Rebecca). Her rather curious name originates from the root letters r. v/b. k. (resh, vet/bet, kof), which are also the root letters of “marbek”, that is, “stall”; in itself stemming from an Aramaic word meaning "to tie down" (the animals). “Marbek” is always used in connection with fatted calves (ref. Amos 6:4; 1st Sam. 28:24; Mal. 4:2; Jer. 46:21). Rivka's name points without question to the importance her family attached to their possessions, (by naming her thus they were also expressing hopes regarding their livestock).
Upon her departure, Rivka's family blesses her saying "...Our sister, you will become [multiply into] thousands of ten thousands, and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies" (Gen. 24:60). This blessing is being uttered by Rivka’s family members without being aware that a similar blessing, about the seed possessing the gate of those who hate them, was also pronounced by YHVH's angel over Avraham, upon the latter's willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak (Gen. 22:17). It is quite likely that his master informed about this blessing now, hearing it again in these present circumstances, the "success" of his assignment is being confirmed to him yet again.
“Gate” is “sha'ar” in Hebrew (sh.a.r, shin, ayin, resh). Because much of the administration, justice, and business used to take place by the city gate, he who possessed the gate also had charge over the entire city (or area). "The gate of the enemy" denotes, therefore, the enemy's area of control and dominion. Earlier on in our Parasha “gate” has also been referred to in Avraham’s business transaction, in 23:10 and 18: “And Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the ears of the sons of Heth, of all that went in at the gate of his city, saying…” And: “The field of Ephron was certified… to Abraham for a possession in the presence of the sons of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city” (italics added). These transactions, by the "gate", have lent that word yet other meanings: "measure", "calculate", or "recon", as we shall see in next week's Parasha (Gen. 26:12), where the term used is "(one hundred) times over".
Rivka's blessing, in addition to the themes of dominion and power, also speak of: "tens of thousands". “Ten thousand” is “r'vava”, whereas a “thousand” is “elef”. “Elef” (a.l.f., alef, lamed, fey), with a slight modification, may become the name of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “alef”, lending it a place of importance, and hence, by implication, pointing also to a great numerical value. “Aluf” is "chief", but at times also means “a companion”. It is perhaps a large group of "companions" that proverbially make up the number one thousand. “R'vava” is one of the words stemming from the very common root of r.v/b. (resh, vet/bet) meaning "much, great and chief". In the next Parasha (in Gen. 25:23) we will meet "the greater (who will serve the younger)" that will be designated by “rav”.
The Parasha ends in the same way it had begun: burials are the order of the day. First Avraham dies…"in a ripe old age, an old man satisfied…” (25:8). "Ripe" here is “saveh'ah,” which is also "satisfied", (of the root s.v.a, or sh.v.a), a word we examined last week when we looked at the figure “seven” and “oath”. Avraham, too, is buried in the Cave of Machpela. Finally, the last verses of the Parasha deal with the death of Yishma'el, whose burial place is not mentioned.
Multiplicity in various forms, leadership, prosperity, dominion and greatness are some of the terms we encountered in this Parasha, whose main narrative is "sandwiched" in between deaths and burials. These deaths, however, seem to magnify all the more the blessings granted to the progeny left behind, accentuating the abundance of life that it is destined for.
*A reminder that the letter combination “ch” stands for the guttural sound similar to the one in the Scottish “loch”.