Dark Comfort: Hayei Sarah 5780

A cloud of loneliness and loss hangs over Parashat Hayei Sarah. The main losses are the deaths of our first matriarch Sarah and our first patriarch Abraham, but even the happier moments are overcast with sorrow. Why, in chapter 24, does Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac? Three reasons immediately come to mind. The first is stated explicitly: Abraham doesn’t trust the Canaanite neighbors (who have just given him grief over the burial plot for Sarah) with his son; implicitly, he doesn’t trust Isaac to make the journey and match by himself; finally, Abraham is too aged to handle the task, or too worried to leave Isaac alone at home, and so he sends a servant to do the deed.

What a difference ten chapters make. Back in Genesis 14 when Abraham learned of the capture of Lot, he wasted no time, leading his servants into battle to rescue his nephew, vanquishing the local warlords almost as an afterthought. Now in chapter 24, Abraham is old, and not yet satisfied with his years. He is sad and uncertain what will become of his son and of God’s promise. Isaac at forty is incapable of handling his own affairs in the manner of his father and his future sons. Sarah is dead; the lamp in her tent is extinguished (according to Midrash Bereshit Rabba). Darkness has fallen on the camp of Abraham, and a palpable depression has settled in.

The servant reaches his destination of Aram Naharayim and the city of Nahor towards night, and causes his camels to kneel outside the city, near the well where the girls gather to draw water for their homes. Usually we skip ahead to the grand entrance of Rebecca, but let’s pause here in the dusty dusk and consider how pathetic the servant must feel. He is a tired traveler at the end of his road, at the end of the day and suddenly faced with the improbability of his task. Not only will it be hard to find Abraham’s family after all these years, but how is he to convince them to send their precious daughter off with a strange servant to start her adventure in the land of Canaan?

So the servant sits there in the dirt with his camels in the dark, composing a desperate prayer, and then along comes Rebecca, also alone in the dark. It is a miracle, but is it joyous? Does Rebecca seem like a happy girl to you? When her brother Laban asks her if she wants to leave with the stranger, she says without hesitation, “I’ll go.” Perhaps there is excitement in her voice, but it sounds more like desperation to me. Rashi has her add, “I’m going whether you like it or not.” She is alone in her home, even if not home alone. At the end of the chapter, she will meet up with Isaac, who is also alone in his own dark world, literally walking alone in the fields towards night. He will find comfort with Rebecca over the loss of his mother, and the light will reignite in her tent (again with the Midrash). But all of these characters are initially in the dark.

Let’s return to the well where the servant and his camels await Rebecca towards dusk. Why there and why then? The Rabbis anticipate future redemption scenes by the well—fugitives Jacob and Moses will both find their brides there. In both of those stories we learn of danger expected for vulnerable girls who come seeking water. What is the servant doing waiting for a bride in the dark? Alan Cooper directed me to an insightful reading by Malbim, the 19th century Ukrainian Rabbi Meir Leibush b”r Yehiel Michel Weiser. I’m not presenting this as p’shat, the contextual and plain sense of the verse, but it adds to the pathos of the scene.

Malbim says that the servant specifically sought out a poor girl—the kind of person whose family didn’t have servants to send to the well, and had no choice but to send their daughter alone. He reasons that such a family would be less hesitant to release their daughter to leave town and marry a wealthy cousin in a distant land. They wouldn’t mind sending her with a servant, and so the well was where he sought a bride for Isaac. This scene and this reasoning remind me of Paul Simon’s song, “The Boxer.” “When I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy, in the company of strangers, in the quiet of the railway station, runnin’ scared. Seeking out the poorer quarters, where the ragged people go, looking for the places only they would know.” Eliezer is like that desperate boy, running scared, and Rebecca is a ragamuffin from the poorer quarters, looking to leave home.

Another curious feature of these stories, in addition to the darkness, is the presence of the camels. They serve a narrative function, moving the action from Canaan to Aram and back, and they are also a prop to illustrate Rebecca’s strength and generosity when she draws water from the well sufficient for the ten enormous beasts. Perhaps there’s more. In the next scene Laban urges the servant and his camels inside to the stable, saying, “I have emptied the house, and place for the camels.” A lovely Midrash found in Avot D’Rabbi Natan says that the camels refused to enter Laban’s home until he removed his idols (the verb פניתי, “turned out” is often associated with the removal of obstacles as in Isaiah 57). This Midrash illustrates a theme of the rabbis–that the animals of righteous people are also righteous. See the story there of Hanina b. Dosa’s donkey, which after being stolen refused to eat and drink at the home of its captors, and another about the donkey of Pinhas b. Yair, who refused to eat untithed food (Bavli Hullin 7).

Following this line of midrash, Abraham’s donkeys represented his virtue and rebuked Laban for his idolatry. A more recent midrash goes further, seeing the camels as symbolic of kindness, playing on the words gamal (camel) and g’meilut hasadim (acts of kindness). When the caravan conveying Rebecca reaches Isaac, it is once again dark. The Torah says that Isaac was walking “towards evening.” In Hebrew, this is לפנות ערב, which could be read as “to cast out the dark” (as shown above). In this imaginative reading, Isaac was thinking about the darkness of exile and wondering what merit would lead to redemption. He raised his eyes and saw, “here come the camels.” In an extra imaginative step, the word “camels” גמלים recalls the word for acts of kindness, גמילות חסדים. Isaac realized that kindness would conquer exile. (See Itturei Torah I: 200, in the name of Ohel Shlomo).

This reading is quite a stretch, but it is also intuitive and on some level true. The darkness experienced by the characters this week is caused not only by loss, but also by their poor treatment. Kindness has the power to overcome isolation, but it is in short supply. Both Rebecca and Isaac have issues with their families, and so it is appropriate that we find them in the dark. Their desperation makes them natural partners, and yet their partnership will not escape the difficulties of their solitary lives. More than any other couple, they will co-parent, living only with the other, but they will be estranged from each other over rival affections for their twins. Ironically, it is their hesed–loyal kindness but for different sons that will drive Rebecca and Isaac apart and explode their family.

One wonders if a few additional expressions of kindness between these family members—the type of kindness that Rebecca showed the camels—could have staved off the sorrows that will afflict the next generation of the family. For now, they are dancing in the dark, seeking solace and strength in the company of strangers. This reminds us to dedicate a bit more of our attention to the loneliness of people around us, and offer them kindness and friendship to rekindle the joy of their lives.

בראשית פרק כד, יא

(יא) וַיַּבְרֵךְ הַגְּמַלִּים מִחוּץ לָעִיר אֶל בְּאֵר הַמָּיִם לְעֵת עֶרֶב לְעֵת צֵאת הַשֹּׁאֲבֹת:

בראשית פרק כד, לא-לב
(לא) וַיֹּאמֶר בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ ה’ לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד בַּחוּץ וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים: (לב) וַיָּבֹא הָאִישׁ הַבַּיְתָה וַיְפַתַּח הַגְּמַלִּים וַיִּתֵּן תֶּבֶן וּמִסְפּוֹא לַגְּמַלִּים וּמַיִם לִרְחֹץ רַגְלָיו וְרַגְלֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ:

בראשית פרק כד, סג

(סג) וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים:

רש”י בראשית פרשת חיי שרה פרק כד פסוק נח
ותאמר אלך – מעצמי, ואף אם אינכם רוצים:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת חיי שרה פרשה ס סימן טז

טז [כד, סז] ויביאה יצחק האהלה שרה אמו כל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת היה ענן קשור על פתח אהלה, כיון שמתה פסק אותו ענן, וכיון שבאת רבקה חזר אותו ענן, כל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת היו דלתות פתוחות לרוחה, וכיון שמתה שרה פסקה אותה הרוחה, וכיון שבאת רבקה חזרה אותה הרוחה, וכל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת היה ברכה משולחת בעיסה וכיון שמתה שרה פסקה אותה הברכה, כיון שבאת רבקה חזרה, כל ימים שהיתה שרה קיימת היה נר דולק מלילי שבת ועד לילי שבת וכיון שמתה פסק אותו הנר, וכיון שבאת רבקה חזר, וכיון שראה אותה שהיא עושה כמעשה אמו קוצה חלתה בטהרה וקוצה עיסתה בטהרה, מיד ויביאה יצחק האהל

מלבי”ם בראשית פרק כד פסוק יא

(יא) ויברך. זאת שנית הסכים שיקח אשה מבנות עניים, וע”כ הבריך הגמלים אצל הבאר שלשם יבואו השואבות, וזה מבואר שהעשירים אין שולחים את בנותיהם לשאוב מים כי יש להם עבדים ושפחות, ויש בכ”מ חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים בשכר, רק העניים שולחים את בנותיהם לשאוב ושיער כי מי ששולח בתו לשאוב מים ובפרט שהבאר חוץ לעיר הוא לא יחשוך את בתו מלכת לארץ אחרת לקחת איש עשיר וגדול כיצחק, ולא ירע בעיניו מה שהולכת עם עבד, אחר שאינה חוששת על כבוד והולכת לעת ערב בין משאבים, ואחר שאז אינו מבקש מן הנערה רק שתהיה יפת תואר וטובה במדות, ע”ז בקש מה’ שיופיע עזר ההשגחה לזה בסימן שעשה לעצמו בזה:

מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא א פרק ח
כשם שהצדיקים הראשונים היו חסידים כך בהמתן היו חסידות. אמרו גמליו של אברהם אבינו לא נכנסו לבית שיש בו ע”א =עבודת אלילים= שנאמר ואנכי פניתי הבית ומקום לגמלים (בראשית כ”ד ל”א) ואנכי פניתי את הבית מתרפים. ומה ת”ל ומקום לגמלים מלמד שלא נכנסו לבית לבן הארמי עד שפנו כל הע”א מפניהם: מעשה בחמורו של רבי חנינא בן דוסא שגנבוהו לסטים וחבשו את החמור בחצר והניחו לו תבן ושעורים ומים ולא היה אוכל ושותה. אמרו למה אנו מניחין אותו שימות ויבאיש לנו את החצר. עמדו ופתחו לה את הדלת והוציאוה והיתה מנהקת והולכת עד שהגיעה אצל רבי חנינא בן דוסא. כיון שהגיעה אצלו שמע בנו קולה א”ל אבא דומה קולה לקול בהמתנו אמר לו בני פתח לה את הדלת שכבר מתה ברעב. עמד ופתח [את] הדלת והניח לה תבן ושעורים ומים והיתה אוכלת ושותה. לפיכך אמרו כשם שהצדיקים הראשונים היו חסידים כך בהמתן חסידות כמותן: