Friday, November 20, 2009

Hayyei Sarah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

“Marriages Are Made in Heaven”

In this week’s portion we turn from the elevated deeds of Abraham, the pioneer of Jewish faith, to the seemingly mundane world of “life-cycle events”: birth, marriage and death. We find here the first detailed account of a funeral and arrangements for burial of the dead (Gen 23); the first quest for a wife (via an emissary, Abraham’s servant Eliezer; Gen 24); and, albeit only in passing, the birth of Abraham’s offspring from his second wife, Keturah, and those of Ishmael (25:1-18). We shall focus here on an aggadic saying that elaborates upon the crucial moment when Betuel and Lavan, Rivkah’s father and brother, agree to the proposal of marriage to Yitzhak conveyed by the servant Eliezer. Mo’ed Katan 18b:

Rav said in the name of R. Reuven ben Itztraboli: From the Torah and from the Prophets and from the Writings [we learn] that a man’s wife comes from God. From the Torah, as is written, “The thing has come from the Lord” [Gen 24:50]. From the Prophets, as is said, ”and his father and mother did not know that this was from the Lord” [Judges 14:4]. From the Writings, as is written, “House and wealth are inherited from one’s ancestors, but a sagacious wife is from the Lord” [Proverbs 19:14].

Before discussing the basic idea implied here, a note on the structure of this saying. This is one of a relatively small number of Rabbinic sayings in which the Sages note that a certain idea appears in all three parts of the Scripture, the implication being that this adds to the validity of the idea thus articulated, suggesting as it does its all-encompassing nature. (Many people may be familiar with the saying from Megillah 31a, recited in Vayiten lekha prayer on Saturday night, that “Wherever you find God’s greatness, there you find His humility”).

Second, the choice of texts here is interesting. The verse from our parashah, regarding the marriage of the middle pair of parents (and note: Isaac was the only one of the three patriarchs who was thoroughly monogamous, taking neither an additional wife nor a concubine) seems straightforward enough and requires no special comment. By contrast, the text from Judges is very strange, possibly the worst marriage in the entire Bible: Samson’s parents object to the Philistine woman from Timnah whom he desires to wed “because she is right in my eyes.” Like so many Jewish parents after them, they object “Are there no girls from among our own people?!” that you need to look elsewhere for a wife. The text adds that they this match was from God in the sense that He “sought a pretext against the Philistines”—that already during the wedding celebrations the bride uses her feminine wiles to cajole Samson into revealing to her the secret of a riddle he has asked, which she promptly conveys to her Philistine cohorts so they can win a bet— and thereby sparking a chain of events leading to the slaying thirty Philistines and him leaving her to marry one of “her own kind” (Samson was notorious for his bad judgment in all his connections with women, being led, as my Hasidic friends used to say, by his “sub-gartelian regions”). The third verse, a wisdom proverb, is again straightforward: that, unlike inherited property, a sagacious wife, no less important for living the good life, is a gift from God.

The basic idea here, that God arranges marriages, is opposed to the modern idea of romantic love, as it is to the conception of marriage as a purely private event between the two people involved. It mitigates no less against the traditional idea of shiddukhim, of marriage arranged by the parties’ respective parents (perhaps with the help of professional matchmakers) based upon practical considerations of economics, family pedigree, etc. It also cannot but elicit scepticism in the modern milieu, in which divorce is rife: if all these matches are from God, why do so many end up in divorce?

(One should note here the obvious: that, notwithstanding the idea that marriages are in some sense Divinely made, Judaism, while frowning upon divorce, clearly permits it—because the Torah knows and accepts human nature, and accepts the failings and foibles of human nature—and does not insist on Edenic perfection.)

As I understand it, the root idea underlying this notion is that the attraction of a given man towards a given woman, and vice versa, is in some deep sense inexplicable. In this, it resembles the modern ideal of romantic love, but goes beyond it to see a connection between the souls. God works, by bringing about these unions—which in one striking midrash is described as His main concern since the Creation of the universe!—to further other, long-term, even cosmic goals, of which the man and woman may be utterly unaware: first, to “bring down souls” into the world, creating these specific children by the union of this man and this woman. Another aspect is that of tikkun hamiddot: marriage hones and refines the character of each partner, by mating them someone whose nature forces them to develop hitherto undeveloped facets of their character. For that reason marriage is never easy (e.g., our first proof-text, the marriage of Yitzhak and Rivkah); from this perspective, divorce is the result of the inability one or another partner to rise to the challenge presented.

But more than that: the account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 is read, in a central midrash, as implying, not male superiority or priority, but that the first human being was a hermaphrodite, embodying the qualities of both sexes; the taking of the woman from the rib in verses 21-22 describes is the bifurcation of this primal man/woman, who ever thereafter seeks his/her missing half. And perhaps the fact that Adam must be cast into a deep sleep (tardemah) hints at the role played by the unconscious in love and marriage—if you will, the Jungian notions of the anima and the animus….

Sarah’s Burial

Here in Israel, West Bank settlers and their supporters like to make Parshat Hayyei Sarah into “Shabbat Hevron”—a reading focused exclusively on our claims to Eretz Yisrael, through the fact that Avraham bought the plot of land in Hevron fair and square. Hence, it is important to me to suggest alternative readings for this chapter.

Two salient points: The chapter on Sarah’s death and burial begins with Avraham coming “to lament for Sarah and to weep her” (לספוד לשרה ולבכתה)—and only thereafter setting about to bury her, preceded by the lengthy and rather verbose description of the process of purchasing a suitable burial plot. This is contrary to the familiar contemporary halakhic procedure, in which the first, immediate concern upon any death is to bury the dead, and only thereafter to turn to expressions of mourning and lamenting during the week of shivah. Two answers: first, that the events here preceded the giving of Torah, with its prescribed mourning forms. Second, that weeping and lamenting are the normal human response to the loss of a beloved one; practical thoughts about burial, and the business dealings that may need to precede it, only follow once one has somewhat regained one’s composure.

Incidentally, the verb ספוד refers to the wailing and lamenting (נהי, קינה) that are the main feature of funerals and mourning in Biblical descriptions—and in many traditional Jewish circles, whether Middle Eastern or Eastern European, to this day. The decorum and dignified silence of Western funerals is a feature of Northern and Western European, especially Protestant, culture, and its American offshoot—and arguably neither particularly healthy emotionally nor natural. The noun hesped (“eulogy”), derived from the above Hebrew verb, comes from the causitive form (הפעיל) of that verb, and at root means: speech whose purpose is to elicit wailing and lamentation. Or, as the Talmud says, “The reward of a [good] eulogy is weeping.” (On the other hand, eloquent eulogies were an important genre in classical culture; some of the most important speeches in Greco-Roman literature were eulogies, serving as it does as an opportunity for refection on the meaning of life, the “summing up .”)

The bulk of Chapter 23 is devoted to a description of Avraham’s bargaining, first with his Hittite neighbors generally, than with Efron ben Zohar, for the purchase of the “Makhpelah” field for Sarah (and, in time, for his entire family). All this is couched in flowery, elaborate language, filled with demonstrations of magnanimity: “You are a prince of God among us; bury your dead in the best of our graves “ (by implication, for free). But Avraham is insistent on buying it fair and square; notwithstanding that burial is a matter if human dignity, to which even the poorest are entitled, he wishes to leave no doubt as to the legality of the transaction. Interestingly, even though the procedures for buying and selling are not listed by Rambam as a mitzvah—Hilkhot Mekhirah is one of the few sections of the Yad in which he says “these laws do not contain any positive mitzvah”; the procedures for acquiring ownership, of real property and of mobilia, are an integrally part of the Torah. And, as our Rabbis noted, behind the language of generosity and largesse—“What are four hundred shekels between me and you?”—the affair is conducted in a hard-nosed, business-like manner.


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