Hayei Sara 5770: Was That a Stupid Sign, or What?

This week we follow the story from the death and burial of Sarah, Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca through the death of Abraham.

In the middle of this week’s portion{Gen 24} is the story of Isaac getting a bride. When Abraham was old, Isaac is still feeling down about his mother’s death. Abraham therefore sends his head of servants to find Isaac a wife. Abraham makes this unnamed servant, who most think was the Eliezer from his commando raid to save Lot, take an oath not to find one of the local girls. Instead he is go back to the old country, find some woman related to Abraham, and bring her back. When Eliezer gets to the old country, he’s totally clueless about how to proceed. So he prays for a sign. The maiden who offers to give him water as well as his 10 camels will be Isaacs bride. A soon as he finishes a “good looking maiden, a virgin, no man had known her” [Gen 24:16] named Rebecca does in fact offer to give water to his camels. He gives her some trinkets and asks her name. Dumbfounded, he finds she is a relative of Abraham. She offers lodging for both him and the camels. Rebecca then runs and tells her family all about this stranger. After some storytelling and bargaining over timetables,he convinces her relatives for Rebecca to leave with him as soon as possible. They start out , and when she sees Isaac for the first time, she swoons so much she falls off her camel. They meet, immediately marry, head over to Sarah’s tent and live happily ever after, or at least until the twins are born.

Talmud and Midrash notes the request to water camels as one of the five dumbest oaths ever given in Tanach. Yet, unlike any of the the other four, this frivolous line is often repeated in the text of the story. “Drink and I will also water your camels” is repeated four times: three times by Eliezer, and once by Rebecca, who adds “Until they (the camels) finish drinking.” Repetition in the text is usually a way of reinforcing.

Camels drink a lot of water, and usually all at once. A camel can drink up to 30 gallons at a time, meaning Rebecca could have drawn 300 gallons of water, if she kept her promise that they have their fill. This is not a frivolous task- it is a task of deep hospitality.

The Midrash tells us the tents were closed after Sarah’s death. It was from an open tent that Abraham was able to see the three angels from last week’s parsha. Abraham’s hospitality was dependent on Sarah’s. Note Abraham ordered Sarah to bake cakes. In that hospitality was holiness, and no where is more the place for hospitality than the kitchen- the place of food. I always notice how people, no matter what the event, congregate in the kitchen or around the grill on the patio. In a strange sense, the original temple service was nothing but a big barbecue. Often it is in cooking food that we connect with each other. When there is joy in the kitchen there is holiness in the house.

Abraham’s home and hospitality wasn’t the same without Sarah. Eliezer knew this and thought that the greatest thing that the next generation could have was the return of hospitality. A woman who would go the extra distance when a stranger approached was the best for Isaac.

Rebecca understood the power of the kitchen. Later in Genesis, there are stories about cooking. She would eventually teach her favorite son Jacob how to cook. He would eventually use his culinary wizardry to get his brother to give him the birthright for a bowl of stew. She would use her own culinary wizardry to help Jacob get the blessing as well. Rebecca knew how to cook, but to go the extra distance she didn’t just feed the people, she gave water and offered food to the camels.

At the end of our story Rebecca is taken to Sarah’s tent. The Midrash[Breshit rabba 60:16] notes when Sarah was alive, the dough was always blessed, and a cloud resided over the tent. When she died both disappeared, only to return after Rebecca took up residence. To most this cloud was the cloud of the divine presence the Shechina. I think a little differently than this. I’ve seen that cloud, or more often smelled it. Between Chicago’s wind and local environmental laws limiting the amount of particulate matter from ovens, often its hard to see these days. To me its the smell of my true home: the kitchen. Its the smell of good cooking. Good cooking wafts through the air and says “Come on in! Come and get it!” I believe the cloud which is the Shechina can be found is in the cloud of smoke from an oven or stove. When the ovens are alive, the house is holy, for there is the chance for hospitality. Both men and women when they fire up the grills, ovens, ranges, and mixers, only to share that which they make are doing some of the holiest work of all- feeding family, friends and strangers.

Eliezer did not make a frivolous statement at all. It was incredibly pointed. The woman who would feed and give drink to anyone, reguardless of species or the effort involved, that would be the one for Isaac. In our modern lives, what would be the thing we most want our potential mate, or current mate to say to us. What one thing, what “let me water your camels” statement wraps up the values we search for in that person? Eliezer was clear in what he was looking for and with God’s help, being so clear he found it immediately. Maybe if we are as clear, with God’s help, we will find what we are looking for as well.

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Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of makeapppie.com and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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