Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Cha'yey Sarah with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use B'resheet (Genesis) 23-25:18

Although the name of this week’s Parasha means “Sarah’s life,” it is actually her death and burial which are described by the opening verses. Let us look at verse 1, with its rather curious rendering of Sarah’s length of years. Here is what is being said there: “And the life of Sarah was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah.” It is as though the life of Sarah is being divided up into time periods, the first hundred years, then twenty and the last seven. Her place of death is also ‘overly’ specified: “Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron in the land of C’na’an.” It then tells us that “Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” Were Avraham and Sarah separated before that? In 22:19 it says that Avraham dwelt at Beer Sheva. Could it be that the couple separated? Some postulate that this indeed was the case, after Avraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son. But now, with Sarah’s departure Avraham is seen looking to purchase a burial plot for his deceased wife and for his family. He has his eye set on a particular site in Kiryat Arba, opposite Mamre “which is Chevron” (23:19). Notice that both Kiryat Arba and Mamre are mentioned as names of Chevron. The Canaanites called it Mamre, whereas Arba was a giant (“anak”) who very possibly was a forefather of Goliat the Philistine. Hence these names convey the Canaanite-Philistine history of the place. In order to strike the real estate deal, Avraham seeks out Efron (Ephron) the Hittite1, who is the owner of a cave called Machpela.

Machpela” stems from the root k.f.l (kaf, fey/pey, lamed), which means “double.” In all likelihood the cave was made up of more than one chamber (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” - 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 (see Gen. 13:16; 28:14). Thus the combination of dust (in Efron’s name) and duplication (in the name of the burial cave) point to this very promise,?in?spite?of?the?themes?of?death?and?burial?and?in?their?very?presence.

Notice the response to Avraham’s description of himself as a “stranger and an alien” (23:4) by the sons of Het: “Your are a prince of Elohim among us” (v. 6). Avraham’s humility and lack of pretentiousness and presumptuousness is met by great respect (cf. Matthew 23:12) and by a truthful pronouncement regarding his position. Avraham pays a “full” amount (v. 9) for his acquisition (in spite of the offer to the contrary, v. 6), as did his grandson Ya’acov when the latter 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 (2nd Sam. 24:24, upon which the Temple was later built). Not coincidentally, Chevron, Sh’chem (where Joseph is buried), and the Temple Mount are some of the most contested sites in the land of Yisrael!

The narrative of Chapter 23 presents us with challenging text, which is characterized by on going repetitions, with every point being reiterated as if to make them unambiguous. Here are some examples: In verse 6, “bury, burial, bury your dead,” are repeated over and over. In both verses 7 and 12 Avraham is said to be “bowing down to the people of the land, the sons of Heth.” The mention of the “sons of Heth” reoccurs so many times to the point of sounding superfluous, the transaction for the purchase of the cave and its field is mentioned in vs. 9, 13, 16, and 18, while verse 17 enumerates every article within the property. The question arises as to the purpose of all this seemingly repetitious information, which is capped by, “… the cave of Machpelah, before Mamre, that is Hebron in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave were deeded to Abraham by the sons of Heth as a property for a burial place” (vs. 19, 20). The writer itemizes the conditions, the details, as well as the individuals involved, not leaving any room for doubt or mistake. All of this leads to the conclusion that B’resheet chapter 23 constitutes a legal document, a contract or a deed with all of its stipulations ensuring clarity regarding the ownership of the said property, while also citing the many witnesses who were present. Hence, contesting the rights to this land constitutes a direct defiance of the Word of Elohim! 

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. Soon, in 24:22, we will read about the “weight” (“mishkal”) of the golden nose rings and bracelets that were given to a young maiden in exchange for water.

But back to “Chevron” which name is made up of the root ch.v.r (chaf, vet/bet, resh), 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 Yisrael, and is currently divided between a hostile Muslim population and a small Jewish presence), its name may point to conditions which will prevail in?days?to?come.

Chapter 24 highlights Avraham’s senior servant, who “ruled over all his possessions” (v. 2). The servant is described as a “moshel” (one of the words for “ruler”). “Moshel” has the same root (m.sh.l, mem, shin, lamed) as, “proverb, parable, example, to be like, resemble and comparable.” In Tehilim (Psalms) 28:1 the writer cries: “I have become like – “nimshalti” - those who go down to the pit.” The parable in Yechez’kel (Ezekiel) 12:22 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 Yisrael likewise became a none-too-positive example among the nations; or an object lesson, such as described in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 24:9 where they are called: “a reproach and a proverb… in all places where I shall drive them” (italics added). There are many more 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, was to carry out the duties that were delegated to him. As such, we see him striving to serve by approaching his assignments in the same manner as his master would have done. This, therefore, is format 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 Yisrael said: “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 “conformed” to this Word, he was appointed a “ruler [moshel] over all of the king’s possessions” (Ps. 105:18-21). “What is man…” in the eyes of his Creator? Tehilim (Psalms) 8:6 says, “You have made him to rule,” being the verb “tam’shile’hu,” which may be read also as, “you have made him like…”, or, “you have made of him a proverbial example.” These examples point to a representational form of rule, or leadership. Avraham's servant certainly displayed this characteristic of conforming to his master, so much so that his master’s Elohim became 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” (John 5:19).

Avraham’s representative or delegate 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 have to do with water, or the means of obtaining that commodity. Hence we find here “well” (v. 11), “spring (or source, v.13), and trough” (v. 20). The first two are “be'er” and “ayin,” 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 ‘officially’ no direct link has been established 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 “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 "make it plain" 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?italics?added).?But?he?did?not?need to?wonder?for?long…

"Success" is “hatzlacha,” from the root tz.l.ch. (tzadi, lamed, chet), which is also “to prosper," is used a number of times in this Parasha. The primary root means to “advance, or cross" (such as in 2nd Sam. 19:17), and by extension also the “coming of the Spirit” (see Judges 14:6). Whenever its meaning is "success," the verb appears in the active causative form rendering it: “to cause to advance." These, the verb and noun, teach us therefore 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 here for "give me success" is, "to bring about" - “hakreh” - literally, “cause to happen.” “Happening, occurrence, incident” are “mikreh.”  Avraham’s servant, however, being cognizant of the fact that the Elohim of his master is in control of life’s supposed random happenstances, relies on Him to put together the ‘natural’ circumstances in such a way, so as to make clear His?choice?of?the?sought-for?bride.

The chain, of the desired events that were brought about, starts with the appearance of a young maiden named Rivka (Rebecca, 24:15). 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,” itself stemming from an Aramaic word meaning "to crouch.” “Marbek” is always used in connection with fatted calves (ref. 1st Sam. 28:24; Jer. 46:21; Amos 6:4; Mal. 4:2). 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?live?stock.

Later on, upon her departure to the land of C’na’an, 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, when the latter was obedient to the call to offer up Yitzchak (Gen. 22:17). It is quite likely that Avraham’s servant was informed about this blessing. Now, hearing it again in these present circumstances, the "success" of his mission was 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 took 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 been referred to in Avraham’s business transaction:  “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…  ‘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’” (23:10, 18, 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/fold/over,” and in Hebrew “she’arim” (plural for?“gate”).

In addition to the themes of dominion and power in Rivka’s blessing, mention is made of "tens of thousands" - “alfey revava” (24:60). “Revava” is “ten thousand,” whereas “a thousand” is “elef.” “Elef” (a.l.f., alef, lamed, fey), with a slight modification, is the name of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “alef,” lending it a place of prominence, and by implication pointing also to great numerical value. “Aluf” is "chief," but at times also means “a companion.” A large group of (proverbial) "companions" makes up the number one thousand - “elef,” whereas “revava” (ten thousands) stems from the very common root of r.v/b. (resh, vet/bet) meaning "much, great and chief." In the next Parasha we will meet "the greater [who will serve] the younger," which will be designated?by?the?term?“rav”?(Gen.?25:23).

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" or “full” here is “saveh'ah,” which also means "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” (notice the last period in Sarah’s life, in 23:1, is seven – “sheva”). And just as was mentioned about Sarah, her husband’s life span is also divided up into “a hundred years, and seventy years, and five years” (v. 7). Avraham too is buried in the Cave of Machpela (v. 9). Finally, the last verses of the Parasha deal with the death of Yishma'el (v.17),?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, highlight all the more the blessings granted to the progeny left behind, accentuating the abundance of life for which this progeny were destined.

*Archaeological evidence confirms this.
1 The Hittites are the descendants of Canaan the son of Ham (re. Gen. 10:15)


Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

“Friendship,” “success,” “weight,” “much,” “drinking water,” and “life” were some of the terms we came across in our Parasha. Let’s see how we can put then into use in Modern Hebrew. When we want to wish someone to “do well” (“have success”) in most everything, we say “be’hatz’la’cha” (literally - “in/with success”). We also examined the connection to “shekel” and “weight”. Nowadays “shekel” is the currency of Israel, but we still use “mishkal” as “weight,” and “sho’kel” for “to weigh.” Rivka’s family blessed her with becoming “revava” (ten thousand), which is rooted in “rav,” – “much, many, great,” and used commonly as the adjective “harbeh.” Rivka’s kindness and sensitivity were measured by her willingness to give a drink of living water – “water” is “mayim” while “life” is “chayim”.

Do well, friend! (addressing a male)
Be’hatz’la’cha chaver
Do well, friend (addressing a female)
Be’hatz’la’cha chavera!

How much does this weigh?
kama ze shokel?

It weighs much
ze shokel harbeh

A drink of living water

mash’keh mayim chayim (lit. water of life)