Chayai Sarah — Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Sometimes life demands a certain clinical decisiveness. In last week's reading, this need for decisiveness was exacerbated by the heightened tensions that came to the fore in both sibling and marital rivalries. Sarah saw conflict on the horizon with her handmaiden, Hagar (aka, Keturah), vying for power in the family lineage through her son, Ishmael, so she sized up the future conflict and acted with clinical decisiveness, demanding of Abraham: "Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of a slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac." (Genesis 21: 10-11). Although Abraham takes Hagar as a wife in order to create progenitors who will carry forward his legacy, Isaac is the only designated heir.

Abraham eventually reaches the ripe age of 175 years. Even though his actions appear to have caused the death of Sarah, in Parashat Chayai Sarah, Abraham is buried beside his beloved in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Despite all the tensions within family dynamics, matriarch and patriarch are reunited. If only such relief and compatibility could be experienced more fully in life.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Rebekah. Although the parsha bears the name of another matriarch, Sarah, most of this week's narrative is dedicated to her daughter-in-law. Some biblical scholars argue that Rebekah is the most important female character in all of Torah. Professor Carol Meyers (Duke University) writes that "Rebekah's role as mother of nations looms larger than that of her husband as father of nations.... This fact makes us wonder whether we ought to replace the familiar sequence 'Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob' with a more accurate 'Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob' in referring to the leading figures of this period of the ancestors." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Toldot -- Genesis 25:19-28:9

Isaak_zegent_Jakob_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-110Charles de Gaulle, the French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces in their resistance of Germany during World War II, once quipped:

How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?

De Gaulle's ironic observation points to a larger question about how we embody and deal with conflict that extends beyond our immediate selves -- beyond our immediate families -- and that impacts entire nations?

Rebecca is all too familiar with this question, and she quickly learns how the struggle she feels intimately in her womb becomes a struggle in the world:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your innards; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. Two nations and the younger shall prevail over the elder.” (Genesis 25:23)

Although it is lost on most modern readers, the Book of Genesis is known for its audacity insofar as it challenges and overthrows the conventions of Near Eastern literature which privileges the myth of primogeniture, namely, that the elder son is the dominant one who is expected to inherit land and legacy. Jacob eclipses Esau, his older brother, just as Ephraim eclipses Manasseh.

What can we learn from this theme in scripture of a younger child eclipsing the older one, particularly in the Patriarchal Period? After all, if this extends beyond two siblings to an eighth child, as in the case of David being chosen over his seven older brothers (I Samuel 16: 6-13), then something is clearly afoot here.

The genius of Judaism remains its willingness to contend with discrimination and to continue against all odds to find its place in a world that does not necessarily run according to its rhythms. Our contemporary challenge is to continue channeling that genius in order to better both the children of Abraham and Adam -- a diverse family of which we are all proud members.

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: “Issac blessing Jacob,” by Govert Flinck, 1638