Five sidrot into Bereshit the Torah pauses for an idyllic, pastoral interlude. However, Chayei Sarah starts with the story of how Abraham acquires Sarah’s burial place, the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron (not mentioned in any other book of the Bible) from Ephron, the Hittite. Abraham states that he is a resident alien and humbles himself before the Hittites in what seems from the text a very demeaning and ingratiating manner. He agrees to Ephron’s price of 400 shekels of silver, a very substantial amount by all accounts. So Abraham, it seems, having been promised the land of Canaan as an inheritance, now pays over the odds for a small part, i.e. a burial place for his wife and family. The Midrash wryly comments: “Let no-one ever claim the land was stolen”.
Then we turn to a happier tale. Abraham, apparently too old to go himself, sends his trusty servant, Eliezer of Damascus, (not named in this Sedra but assumed from an earlier mention), to go and get a wife for his son, Isaac, from Abraham’s birthplace in Haran, but in no circumstances to take Isaac back there. Is it not significant that Abraham sends his steward/servant, really an exalted slave, on such an important mission, as if he were a person of considerable insight and esteem? Would most other nations or tribes have treated their slaves in such a trusting and honoured way? Perhaps he had no other option, but there is no evidence that Eliezer was other than a servant and was certainly not adopted as a son, which was then unknown.
Eliezer’s mission is recounted in graphic detail with fascinating insights. He prays to his master’s God, not his own, accepting that the master’s God applies to this mission. It was a belief held in ancient times that gods were parochial and limited by place, although the latter seemed not to apply to Abraham.
He sets a condition, but asks for a sign, not a miracle; he uses neither magic nor trickery. He only asks that God might direct the destiny of his master’s son. He relies only on the kindness and courtesy of Rebecca and is not concerned with her looks or demeanour. It is character that matters. The story is so enchanting that the writer of the sedra has it repeated by Eliezer to the family – “Rebecca at the well”. This was to be the meeting place for future couplings – Rachel and Jacob, Zipporah and Moses. Obviously, it was the place to meet one’s future wife.
The story also makes clear that Rebecca has to agree to accompany Eliezer back to Isaac, which she charmingly does. They meet romantically at eventide, Rebecca, veiled, getting down from her camel to greet him, and Isaac rushing forward to see her (having apparently, according to Midrash, just invented the Minchah service). He takes her to his tent and she comforts him for the loss of his mother.
Next week, the Torah will pass on to the story of Jacob and Esau, almost bypassing Isaac (whose minor incidents seem to mirror those of his father), as if Isaac is simply a conduit between Abraham and Jacob. The latter becomes the main protagonist in the rest of Bereshit, developing a complex personality that is both unappealing and yet admirable in situations yet to be recounted.
Alan Orchover is a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue.