Wives Replacing Mothers

Chayei Sarah

Dear Rabbi,
This week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, is ripe for ambiguities and questions.
Starting with one of my favorite topics, Sarah, she dies at the age of 127, which if what you stated last week as it relates to Isaac’s age when he was bound to the alter by his father is factually correct, making Isaac 37, then she died the same year of the Akeda. Is there any midrash or some other interpretation of this coincidence that led to a conclusion that upon hearing what Abraham was going to do to her son gave her something like a heart attack and led to her demise? Even if this was not the case, I am sure Abraham heard a mouthful from his wife as to what he contemplated doing.

Based on one of your responses to what I said last week as it relates to Isaac and his not being all there mentally, I ask you about what his father thinks of him when Abraham tells his servant to go choose a wife for his son, not from the women of Canaan, but to the place where Abraham was born to find a suitable mate. There is no mention in the Torah that Sarah was chosen for Abraham, and I know that I am getting ahead of the story by stating that Jacob found a wife, if not wives, on his own, so what was up with Isaac that someone had to be chosen for him?
While I am on how Isaac was given a wife, the whole thing about why there was no worthy Canaanite woman gives me pause. I know that you are going to tell me that the idol worshippers of the land Abraham was currently situated in made it impossible to find a suitable mate for Isaac, but didn’t Abraham leave the land of his birthplace because of the idol worshipping that was going on there including the likes of his own father?

The whole notion of who was chosen for the patriarchs intrigues me. Before I go on with this thought, I want to take something that is contained in the U.S. Constitution and the qualification of a potential president.  According to Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the president must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old, and have been a resident of the United States for 14 years. That means the first seven people chosen to be the President of the U.S.A did not meet all of these conditions. The nation’s eighth president was the first not born a British subject. Martin van Buren was a Democrat who served from 1837 to 1841. The seven men who held the country’s highest political office prior to him all were born before 1776, when the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Britain. Van Buren arrived in the world six years later, in 1782.

One of the most accepted ways to determine if one is a “Jew” is to know the religion of the mother. I realize that one can convert but there is no mention of this in the Torah and none of the Matriarchs were given the designation of being Jewish. Is there a Midrash for this?

To me, there is an interesting aside as to the servant going to Rebecca’s home to see if she can go back and become Isaac’s wife. In the Third Aliyah at Genesis 24:22 we read the following when the servant determines Rebecca is the one:

“Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels].”

In the Fourth Aliyah we are introduced to Rebecca’s brother Laban, and the first thing we read that he does is found in Genesis 24:30 where the following is stated:

“And it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring and the bracelets on his sister's hands, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebecca, saying, "So did the man speak to me, " that he came to the man, and behold, he was standing over the camels at the fountain.”

Laban, the father of Leah and Rachel, shows his true character early when the first thing he notices are the gifts of gold on his sister, but I will not get too far ahead of myself and I will leave it with that observation.

Getting back to Isaac and Rebecca, we learn that as Rebecca is approaching, Isaac is off in a field and in the Fifth Aliyah, Genesis 24:63, the following is stated:
“And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching.”

My understanding of the above is the introduction of the Maariv service in Jewish prayer. Am I correct in this conclusion?

Again based on what I was taught as it relates to Isaac, he was in a terrible depression with the loss of his mother but then we learn in the Fifth Aliyah at Genesis 24:67:

“And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother.”

This again indicates to me that Isaac had some mental issues. While I understand that one can be considered a “momma’s boy”, but taking your wife into your mother’s tent for comfort stretches his grief to a point of asking questions about what is going on in Isaac’s head.

While I am on the subject of love of one’s parents, Isaac surely had an affinity for his mother. Is there anything written about the relationship between Isaac with his father post the Akeda?

Adding to the intrigue that is contained within this week’s parshah, is the subsequent marriage of Abraham to Keturah. I have read that she was really Hagar. To me, there has got to be some doubt about the validity of this because why was it not written that it was in fact Hagar? This is further complicated by the Seventh Aliyah in Genesis 25:12 when we again see the name Hagar:

“Now these are the generations of Ishmael the son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian, the maidservant of Sarah, bore to Abraham.”

If her name appears in the Seventh Aliyah, why is there only the name Keturah in the previous aliyah?

One final question as it relates to the relationship between Abraham and Sarah. Looking again at the Seventh  Aliyah at Genesis 25:8 the following is stated after we learn Abraham has died:

“And Abraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people.”

This Aliyah deals to a large extent with Abraham having children with Keturah. None of them inherit anything from Abraham other than gifts with Isaac getting all of his estate. That being said is there some other paragraph that stated that Abraham was “satisfied” during his time with Sarah?

I know the term “heresy” is running in your mind but I anxiously await your responses.


Dear Mordecai,

Indeed, we have a midrash that connects the very dots that you identify.
“Satan went to Sarah and appeared to her in the countenance of Isaac. When she saw him, she said to him: ‘My son, what has your father done to you?’ He answered her: ‘Father took me and raised me up to the mountains and brought me down into the valleys. He took me up to the top of one mountain, built an altar, arranged the woodpile, and placed the logs. He bound me on the altar and took a knife to slaughter me. If God had not told him: “Do not raise your hand against the boy,” I would already be slaughtered.’ Satan did not finish speaking, and Sarah passed away (Tanhuma, Vayera 23).”
Abraham did not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman, but he also must have been concerned about him going into exile to find a wife in the old country. Whether this is a statement about Isaac’s mental fragility is an open discussion.
You raise an excellent point. Idol-worship existed in the land of Canaan and was the impetus for Abraham leaving Ur Kasdim. I guess the tie-breaker came down to whether the woman was from inside the family or not. Laban is an idol worshipper, but the hope was that Rebecca could be open to persuasion about monotheism.
Great aside about American history and how interesting to compare “who was chosen for the patriarchs to Article II of the Constitution.
I don’t know of a midrash about how Judaism transition to matrilineal descent. However, I know of a scholar who addresses this issue if the topic interests you. See this.
No one can say you aren’t a careful reader. Laban’s response to the gold ring and bracelets subtly indicates to the reader that his true idol is wealth and money.
In fact, Isaac is associated with Mincha, not Maariv, according to the passage you cite. Jacob and his dream of the ladder align him with Maariv.  
I couldn’t help but laugh at what you wrote about Isaac replacing his mother with Rebecca.
The Torah’s silence about the relationship between Isaac and Abraham post-Akeidah speaks volumes. Nevertheless, the Midrash elides this issue in the name of piety, which will disappoint you.
The identification of Hagar with Keturah has also not made sense to me, in part because of the verses you bring. The question remains, Why would the rabbis want to identify Keturah as Hagar. Perhaps they hungered for reconciliation between Abraham and Hagar.
The Torah does not say that Abraham was “satisfied” during his time with Sarah. Nor does it say he loved her, though the Torah does say Isaac loved Rebecca. Perhaps we have a Tevye-Golda situation here, or maybe they had an unhappy marriage.
Heresy is not the word that comes to mind as I read your email. Instead, I think of inquiry and interrogation, which is required for students of the Torah.