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    Abraham: Prince of God – Chayyei Sarah

    November 17th, 2019

    Abraham negotiates with the Hittites, by William Hogarth

    Sarah’s death left Abraham not only bereaved but also anxious to find a good enough burial place for her. His searches led him to Machpelah, the property of the Hittite people.

    The negotiations that led to the purchase of Machpelah are indeed fascinating, especially because of the insight they give into ancient bargaining procedures.

    Almost incidentally we are informed that the Hittites gave Abraham a title, Prince of God, Nesi Elokim.

    It is possible the phrase simply means a great or mighty prince. Biblical Hebrew has no superlative and uses phrases like “a mighty hunter unto the Lord”, “a great city unto the Lord”, etc.

    But perhaps there is a case for the literal translation when it comes to Abraham. What made him great was not so much his affluence or power but his dignity, faith and righteousness.

    It is a lesson for all of us to learn. After all, when the Talmud informs us of the questions put when we seek to enter the World to Come, it does not suggest that anyone will ask, “How much money did you make? How much property did you amass?” but “Were your dealings honourable? Did you give time to Torah? Did you have faith in salvation?”

    Judaism gives due regard to material achievement, but its real concern is whether, like Abraham, we are people of noble character and faith.


    Mourning for a Woman of Worth – Chayyei Sarah

    November 17th, 2019

    The burial of Sarah, by Gustave Dore

    The Akedah, the subject we read about last week, narrates the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22). Immediately afterwards comes the death of Sarah (Gen.23). Our sidra begins by saying that Abraham mourned and lamented for her.

    According to the rabbinic sages in the Midrash Tanchuma, the words the husband used were the Eshet Chayil which later became Chapter 31 of Mishlei and are now chanted at the beginning of Shabbat in praise of Jewish womanhood.

    If we try to fit the words of Eshet Chayil into the life story of Sarah, we come across a series of difficulties. One is the verse, “She considers a field and buys it” (Prov. 31:16).

    What field comes into the Abraham and Sarah story? If the reference is to the field which contains the cave of Machpelah, surely it was Abraham who bought it, not Sarah, and the purchase negotiations are spelled out in today’s reading (Gen. 23).

    Maybe the explanation is that Sarah was forward-thinking and whilst she was alive she had set her eyes on Machpelah as her eventual burying-place. Ever the practical woman, she chose the field but left Abraham to conduct the formal negotiations.

    Can we therefore endorse Mishlei and say it was she who bought it? Probably yes, in the sense that she was the one who paved the way.


    127 – Chayyei Sarah

    November 17th, 2019

    Sarah was 127 when she died (Gen. 23:1). According to the Midrash this was a perfect age to be (Gen. Rabbah).

    Sarah died with the beauty of a young woman and the sinlessness of a child.

    These are the criteria by which to assess a human being – beauty and dignity, righteousness and morality.

    If only we could all merit that kind of judgment, regardless of our age in terms of years!


    The rightful heir – Vayyera

    November 10th, 2019

    The story of the Akedah evoked a great range of Midrashim, even on the verse, “And Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass and took his two young men with him” (Gen. 22:3).

    Who were the two young men? The Midrash believes them to be Abraham’s older son Ishmael and his servant Eliezer. The two of them were told to stay behind at a certain distance while Abraham and Isaac went on up the mountain.

    According to Pir’kei d’Rabbi Eliezer, there ensued a conversation as to what was likely to happen when Abraham came back from sacrificing Isaac, in particular who would now inherit the patriarch’s estate.

    Ishmael was quite sure he would inherit everything, whilst Eliezer replied, “You were driven out of your father’s home, but I was his loyal servant even before you were born. There is no question but that I will be the one to inherit!”

    But a voice came from On High and said, “Neither of you will inherit; the heir will be the rightful owner of the inheritance.”

    On one level this may be taken as a prophecy that Isaac would not be sacrificed but would come back with his father and in due course be the heir.

    On another level the story has a message that looks beyond the immediate events to the distant future.

    When other nations lay claim to the Land of Israel and assert that it is theirs, the Heavenly message is, “The Land of Israel is for the People of Israel. The inheritance is for the rightful owner!”


    Remembering Sarah – Vayyera

    November 10th, 2019

    Depiction of Abraham & Sarah

    The sidra says, “God remembered Sarah as He had said” (Gen. 21:1). What is the meaning of “as He had said”?

    It indicates a Divine promise, which Rashi says was in Gen. 15 where God said Abraham and Sarah would have a child; Ibn Ezra says the promise was given in Gen. 18:10. Possibly the promise arose out of Gen. 20:17, where Abraham prayed that Avimelech should be healed.

    If the context was Sarah having a child in her and Abraham’s old age, it reminds us of how important it is that Jewish parents should have the privilege of posterity and how important it is that they themselves should have the Jewish knowledge and commitment to give their children a firm basis of Judaism.