In 5762, I pondered on why the Torah includes the speech of Abraham’s servant to Bethuel and Laban, explaining all the instructions that Abraham had given him, and relating what had transpired to bring the servant to this point, seeking Rebekkah as a wife for Isaac. After all, the Torah has already told us all of this-why the need to have it repeated, written out, in the Torah?
Something I didn’t notice at that time, but which became strikingly apparent to me the following year, in 5763, is this: When Rebekkah and Isaac meet, the Torah states simply that the servant “told Isaac all the things that he [the servant] had done.” (Bereshit 24:66.)
[Here I am years later in 5778, and something compelled me to revisit this particular musing this year. While I’m working on this, I also need to figure out why. Why this particular puzzle, and why this particular response to dealing with that puzzle.]
Fascinating, isn’t it? We have this elaborate retelling of the servant’s story to Laban and Bethuel. A completely redundant passage. It gives us pause, makes us wonder. Our Torah is quite effective at that, isn’t it? Seeing this apparently redundant retelling in print, we are given pause. So we stop and look at the text, and ask questions, and wonder why it is the way it is. Exactly as intended. For every time the text gets us to question the text, the text is doing its job well!
So, after wrestling with the question of why the Torah contains the complete text of the servant’s retelling, just this short time later the text presents us with another question.
All this elaborate explanation of how Abraham sent his servant, how Gd guided the servant to kin of Abraham there to find a perfect match for Isaac in Rebekkah. 61 verses in all (24:1-61), including the 15 verses of the servant’s retelling the tale (vv34-49.)
Yet the entire story of Isaac and Rebekkah’s first meeting, and their becoming man and wife, is told in just 6 verses (24:62-67). Why isn’t verse 66 replaced with another 15 verses where the Torah relates in intricate detail what the servant tells to Isaac about his mission? Why is the consummation of the marriage of the second in line of our patriarchs and matriarchs not given more time in print?
סב וְיִצְחָק בָּא מִבּוֹא בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב: סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִֽים: סד וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָֽל: סה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל־הָעֶבֶד מִֽי־הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה הַֽהֹלֵךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִקְרָאתֵנוּ וַיֹּאמֶר הָעֶבֶד הוּא אֲדֹנִי וַתִּקַּח הַצָּעִיף וַתִּתְכָּֽס: סו וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָֽׂה: סז וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַֽחֲרֵי אִמּֽוֹ:
Verse 62-we learn where Isaac is living. Verse 63-Isaac encounters the returning caravan with Rebekkah. Verse 64/65-Rebekkah sees Isaac and asks who he is. The servant tells her it is Isaac, and she veils herself. Verse 66-We learn that the servant tells Isaac all that he had done. Verse 67-Isaac brings Rebekkah into Sarah’s tent, consummates the marriage, and finds comfort. All that in six verses? Amazing.
So what is there to be learned from the Torah here giving the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story, yet having just spelled out the events leading up to it in great detail-twice before?
The text, matter-of-factly, proceeds from there to tell us how Abraham took another wife and she bore him 6 more sons.
וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה וּשְׁמָהּ קְטוּרָֽה: ב וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ אֶת־זִמְרָן וְאֶת־יָקְשָׁן וְאֶת־מְדָן וְאֶת־מִדְיָן וְאֶת־יִשְׁבָּק וְאֶת־שֽׁוּחַ:
So what is the lesson here? Perhaps it is “life goes on.” Both Isaac and his father Abraham do what they need to do to continue with life after Sarah dies. Isaac mourns the loss of his mother. (How Isaac feels about his father is likely another matter entirely. We’ve all discussed before the potential mental state of someone whose father tried to offer them up as a sacrifice!)
[I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how all this might tie in with the thesis of my as yet unfinished biblical fiction book telling the story of how Isaac went to live with Hagar and Ishmael. If my thesis is correct, life for Isaac went on – but away from his parents. With Isaac’s return to the fold after the death of Sarah a new way of making life go on will unfold. I wonder, too, if Isaac would have remained near his father if Rebekkah had not come along while he was back home? The Torah never explicity mentions that Isaac came home to mourn his mother, It only mentions that he had recently arrived from Beer-Lahai-Roi, where he had been settled and living. It doesn’t make clear he has returned to the fold. Is there more to this story than meets the eye. Did Abraham orchestrate all this? Did he time the sending of his servant to find a wife for Isaac with his knowledge that Isaac would be coming to visiting in order to properly mourn his mother? Was this a chance encounter, or an elaborate machination? Was Abraham hoping to bring his son back home through this plan? Had the timing not worked, had Rebekkah not been there for Isaac to see (and vice versa) might Isaac have gone back to Beer-Lahai-Roi and continuing living with Hagar and Ishmael, as I suspect he had been since the akedah?]
Perhaps the Torah omits further detail to illustrate how life must go on. Abraham and Isaac (and Ishmael) must put the death of Sarah behind them. Isaac Must also put behind him the trauma of the akedah, and fulfill his obligation to carry on the lineage by getting married. Not much else needs to be said, so this is perhaps why it isn’t said.
Yet, if this is indeed the case, it complicates the question of why the Torah so fully relates the exploits of the servant who retrieves Rebekkah. Why does this aspect of “life goes on” (after all, Isaac had to get married if he was to carry on the story) get so fully explicated when others are not?
It certainly serves to illustrate how and why Rebekkah is really the right person to be Isaac’s wife. She and her family demonstrate hospitality much like their kinsman Abraham. However, the Torah could have made this point without all the other details. It could even make the point that G”d clearly had a hand in these events in a lot fewer words. I’ve taken a stab at a condensation. You might try your own hand at it. It isn’t hard to do so and still convey the general story. But what of conveying the message? Could the message the Torah intends to impart truly be conveyed in another way?
It’s all a puzzlement. And that’s the whole idea. It makes us stop and think. This is not a simple book of history, of stories. The Torah is meant to engage the listener, the reader, to make them wonder why the Torah does one thing in one place and another someplace else. The rabbis worked so hard to try and smooth over the wrinkles in the Torah. And they achieved some amazing results through their midrashim and other interpretations. Yet somehow, I wonder if this misses the point. Need we try to be apologists for these seeming inconsistencies? Do we have to smooth over the rough spots? Are these inconsistencies and rough spots themselves the lessons, the meat of what the Torah is trying to teach us? Life is not perfect. Stories are not perfect. Things happen. Things seem odd. Yet, through it all, life goes on. Sometimes, we learn all the minute details, other times we do not. We simply have to adjust ourselves to this reality and move on.
So, as is often the case, my answer to the question of “what’s wrong with the text?” is that nothing is wrong. All is how it is. Let’s learn what we can from it and move on with our lives. As did Abraham and Isaac.
[Here I am, in 5778, and I read these words, and can’t believe I was willing to just let things slide like that. On the other hand, maybe the fact that I’m responding with a visceral discomfort to what I had written earlier is really maybe evidence of a current discomfort that I’m failing to recognize. At the same time, there’s a part of me that realizes that “moving on” might be exactly the message I need to hear in my life at the moment, and this why I chose this particular musing to recycle this year.]
Life must go on. Life does go on. Yet we are fortunate in that G”d has given us the vehicle to suspend the inexorable march of life and time-Shabbat. Use it wisely, so that dealing with the reality of life that must go on is made just the little bit easier and sweeter that Shabbat, out of all time and place, can make it.
©2017 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Chayyei Sarah 5777 – Contentment
Chayyei Sarah 5776 – Still Not Warm (Revisited and Revised from 5767’s “Never Warm”)
Khayyei Sarah 5775 – Revisiting L’kha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5774 – The Books of Hagar and Abishag
Hayyei Sarah 5773 – Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 – Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 – The Book That Isn’t – Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 – Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 – Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 – A High Price
Hayei Sarah 5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L’cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 – Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn’t