Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Chayei Sarah

The years of the life of Sarah

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה

And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years: the years of the life of Sarah. (23:1)

Zohar makes much of the way this is broken up, and noting that is a reminder to myself to look there if I want to work with that.

Another interesting thing going on here is pointed out by Ben Baruch in his comic Shabot 6000:

A mersenne prime is a prime number that is a power of 2 with 1 subtracted from it. Powers of two are digit places binary, which is the joke.

Normally I would stop there, figuring powers of two to be irrelevant to exegesis, and just accept the joke for what it is. But a power of two comes up someplace else as well - in the 32 paths of creation that is the opening line of the Sefer Yetzira. Not sure there's anything worth doing with that, but there it is.

Buying the gravesite.

Most interesting here is the way the transaction took place: in the presence of witnesses. But not before their eyes, but in their ears.

וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל־עֶפְרוֹן בְּאָזְנֵי עַם־הָאָרֶץ לֵאמֹר אַךְ אִם־אַתָּה לוּ שְׁמָעֵנִי נָתַתִּי כֶּסֶף הַשָּׂדֶה קַח מִמֶּנִּי וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת־מֵתִי שָׁמָּה
And he spoke to Ephron in the ears of the people of the land saying "but if you will only listen to me, I have given the silver of the field - take from me and I will bury my dead there."

My transation here is rather literal, because I think its an important metaphor. The transaction does not take place לִפְנֵי, before the people, but בְּאָזְנֵי, in the ears of the people. This is taking place in speech. Money is changing hands. A contract is made that is not written but carried out in the full hearing of everyone. And it seems, from the way Abraham is saying let me buy the land (on my terms, so I own it) and then AND ONLY THEN will I bury my dead. It almost seems as if Abraham finally burying Sarah is a bargaining chip he uses to get them to let him buy the land.

But why would they object to selling him the land? Because he is an immigrant, a foreigner, and to own land in a place is to control it. If they give him a land for a grave, well, they have helped him meet a need, but if he buys land, he is more than a sojourner. If he buys land, he might well SETTLE there. Hence the reluctance.

A Wife for Isaac

וְהַנַּעֲרָ טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד בְּתוּלָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל
And the lass was very nice to look at, and a virgin and no man had known her and she went down to the well and filled her pitcher and went up.

The curiosity here to me is why וְהַנַּעֲרָ and not וְהַנַּעֲרָה? Morgan suggests that the final ה is in any case a mater lecciones and that this is merely a defective spelling. Fine as far as it goes but a defective spelling cannot pass without comment. So what is the significance of the missing ה?

It's interesting to note that the divine name comprises materes lecciones entirely. For this reason, when a word is spelled defectively, or when one shows up in an unexpected place (as later in this parsha אֹהֵלָה אִמוֹ where what looks to be a heh of direction shows up in a place where it makes little grammatical sense) the Zohar makes much of it. The Zohar's drash supposes that Rebekah is a direct replacement for, perhaps even a doppelganger of Sarah. I do not like this reading, it is eerily oedipal and a bit off the mark. But an idea that has occurred to me is that that extra heh is there to show that the defect - that Rivka was still living at home is a family of origin that is kind of sick - is repaired as she settles into a new home with Isaac who loves her. Unqualifiedly.

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