An Arranged Marriage in Canaan
a.k.a. Parashat Haye Sarah [shortened from the original and slightly abridged]
Sarah died at 127 years
of age in Hebron in the land of Canaan and Abraham purchased a burial plot for her.
old, Abraham decided to find a wife for his son Isaac. He sent his oldest servant to find Isaac a wife. He said
to his servant, “Swear by God that you will not take a wife for my son from among the Canaanites, but that you
shall go to my homeland and take a wife from among my people.”
took 10 camels and journeyed to the city of Nahor. And the servant said, “Let it come to pass that the girl to
whom I say, ‘Please tilt your pitcher so that I may drink,’ will respond with, ‘Drink and I will give your
camels water too.’ ”
descendant of Abraham’s brother, came down to the well and responded in exactly this way. The servant then
explained his mission to Rebecca, to whom he gave a gold ring and two gold bracelets. Rebecca went ahead and
told her brother Laban, and father Bethuel.
Bethuel said, “The matter has come from God. Take Rebecca and go as God has spoken.” Rebecca said, “I will
Isaac was meditating in the field when
he saw camels coming.
Rebecca took her veil and
covered herself. The servant told Isaac all that had occurred. Then Isaac brought Rebecca into the tent of his
mother, Sarah, where her memory was still alive. He married Rebecca and he loved her, and only then was Isaac
comforted in the loss of his mother.
died, satisfied, at the age of 175.
Commentary on the fifth parsha (portion of the
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: This parsha bears the name of Sarah, yet it is mostly about Rebecca. Obviously,
both women’s legacies are being celebrated.
MS: Yes. The story makes it clear that Rebecca is worthy of her husband Isaac and his
marriage to her helps him to cope with the loss of his mother. Rebecca is celebrated for her devotion and her
SAS: Not to mention her willingness to join her unknown future husband at a moment’s
notice and at the proposal of a stranger, a messenger of another stranger. If I were a betting man, I’d say this legendary couple was taking an
outside chance. And the destinies of our people rested on this chance.
MS: That’s where you’re wrong, I think. This is how God directs history – through
quick and dramatic moments of revelation, which are immediately comprehended and obeyed. There’s no betting
here. Just faith.
SAS: Come on, Methuselah! You don’t seriously expect us to believe that the servant’s
meeting with Rebecca was coincidence, and that Bethuel, a Semitic father, let his daughter marry and go far
away on the basis of a one-servant delegation!
MS: Go on – let’s hear your cynical interpretation.
SAS: The story absurdly suggests the servant left the whole matchmaking process in
God’s hands – God would send a girl along to say the predetermined words completely by chance. Well, no
marriage of importance could possibly be arranged in that way.
MS: These were times of much greater faith! People allowed themselves to be guided by
God’s signs and portents.
SAS: I doubt it! What we have here, I think, is a pre-arranged meeting between the
servant and Rebecca, who would identify herself through the pre-arranged, coded greeting. Abraham had a sense
of destiny. He knew he was a patriarch. He couldn’t take a chance with his legacy. He would have scouted out
the territory. At worst, he would have given the servant a shortlist of names, with Rebecca’s on top of the
list. At best, this was a planned union from the beginning, and its quick acceptance by Laban and Bethuel
suggest mere formalities being completed.
MS: I might have known. There is no room for God’s will in your worldview. Do you not
have any kind of trust in the universe, or belief that things will work out for the best?
SAS: Look, some people believe that unseen forces can guide things to an advantageous
outcome. But none of us make important life decisions in accordance with such beliefs. Nor should
MS: At the end of the day, however, Rebecca was asked if she would go with the
servant. She did. There is no suggestion in the story that she was coerced. This reflects her faith that all
would be well. Was she foolish in agreeing to marry without meeting her husband? We know it turned out very
SAS: Look, in ancient societies, the bonds of kinship were strong. Her list of
prospective husbands wouldn’t have been any larger than Isaac’s list of suitable wives. Her range of choice
was limited. Here she was, in the presence of a great patriarch’s house-steward – no ordinary servant. He had
brought impressive gifts and made, on behalf of his master, a proposal pleasing to her family. No future
offer was likely to be any better. Rebecca (and you can be sure, her father and brother) therefore made a
decision based not on faith, or divinely inspired instinct, but on a balance of probabilities. It was a good
offer, and probably a pre-arranged one, and she sensibly fell in with the plan.
MS: You not only deny divine providence – you’ve removed the romance from the story!
The way we tell it, a loving God has directed two young people towards a loving union. As in a marriage
ceremony, God is seen as witness to a sacred union, and – more – in this union he is the matchmaker! Abraham
and the servant left the matter entirely in his hands, and he picked the bride!
SAS: I feel like breaking out into a song from “Fiddler on the Roof”. Yes, that is the
appeal of your story and I’ll admit, it’s told with considerable grace and charm. My view, however, is that
this romance was stage-managed a lot more than your story indicates.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
From a Jewish Greek world
to a Christian world (circa 66 CE to 600 CE).
In this period the Synagogue came into prominence as the spiritual and educational
centre for the Jews with prayers, responses, reading and interpretation of the Bible as regular rituals. The
Synagogue became the centre of Judaism in the Diaspora. The Christians followed the same model for their
church. There were millions of Jews in the countries around the Mediterranean and beyond. Many of them were
intolerant of the details of keeping Jewish religious laws but very accepting of the new faith according to
Jesus that was so close to what they perceived as the essence of Judaism. From among their ranks, and from among various gentile communities, came
the vast numbers that later flocked to Christianity.
But anti-Semitism did not come just from the Christian movement. For centuries before
Jesus, there had been conflict between Jews and Greeks. The Jews were accused of being isolationist and their
refusal to practise the formalities of state worship made matters worse. Greek intellectuals fanned the
flames of anti-Semitism for the Romans. The fact that Rome used Greek soldiers in the former Greek empire
inflamed the situation. The revolt started by nationalistic Jews in 66 CE was the result of the desecration
by Hellenists of a synagogue in Caesarea, in Judea. The rebels saw the Jewish upper classes as being
Hellenised and identified them with the sins of the Greeks. Jewish radical nationalists ended up burning down
the Temple to destroy all records of debts. The Roman garrison in Jerusalem was massacred and Roman
reinforcements were badly mauled.
Rome replied with massive force in 66 CE and overcame the countryside outside Jerusalem. In September 70 CE
the city of Jerusalem was besieged and captured. The people were sold as slaves, massacred or died in the arenas
in Roman cities. This is the beginning of the Diaspora, or the
Dispersion, of Jews through the Mediterranean countries and further afield. The Jewish world was divided into
what we now basically know as Israel, and the Diaspora. Initially there were Jewish Christians and Gentile
Christians but by around 70 CE the Jewish Christians as a movement had died out. From this time on the
divergence between Judaism and Christianity grew. Over the next few hundred years the texts that were to form
the body of Christianity were written and accepted by some but not all Christians. The Jesus of history became the Christ of faith. Anti-Jewish writings were introduced into Christianity of which Jesus the Jew
would not have approved.
During the first century CE the Jews constituted around 10 percent of the Roman
Empire. They were almost all literate and had the only social welfare system that existed. By the mid-second
century their intellectual focus had narrowed from writing history and philosophy to commenting on the
religious law. The Torah became the focus of Jewish life. Ceremonies such as the Passover Seder and community
prayers were established. An enormous body of commentaries was made, layer upon layer, and later analysed by
Maimonides, Joseph Caro and others. The Jewish religious courts based their rulings on this enormous body of
Constantine, a Roman Emperor, converted to Christianity in 312 and, except for a
two-year period in 361-363 when his nephew Julian the Apostate renounced Christianity, all subsequent Roman
Emperors were Christian. About 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish at the beginning
but when the word spread that Christians would be favoured for jobs and patronage, there was a wholesale
conversion to Christianity. By 600 CE, 90 percent of the two million Jews in the world were living in the
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
Three celebrants can read the parts of Ben, Chaya and their father
Dad, it looks like this period of history saw us in all kinds of trouble. We struggled to preserve our
identity against the Hellenists in 66 CE and in doing so we brought the might of the Roman Empire down upon
us! Next thing we knew, we were scattered throughout the Mediterranean, struggling to survive within
countries that were becoming more and more Christian. If we’re the Chosen People, we must have been chosen
FATHER: Some would say you were right, Ben! And, in
many respects, that story of suffering was just beginning! Much further along the trail lay the Shoah, and
all the tragedies it brought. History, to use some classic understatement, has not been kind to us. But we’re
still here. There’s no point in dwelling too much on the tragedies only. The story of Judaism in the Diaspora
is a remarkable one of survival, courage and adaptability. We aren’t simply victims. We’re
CHAYA: Adapting without losing your identity! How do
you do that?
Not easily. Out in the world, living within an increasingly dominant Christian culture, the incentives to
convert and assimilate were sizeable. In few periods of history has there been any advantage in being a
minority group. The world loves conformity, and there always been suspicion of a people that maintained its
racial, cultural and religious differences within countries and empires cast in different
BEN: But, interestingly, we have been faithful to
our ancestors, our history and our tradition at great cost. I can see that.
CHAYA: Yes, and I think that’s something to be very
proud of. The very fact that we are here, on a Friday night, celebrating Shabbat, is proof of our commitment
to our identity and our traditions.
BEN: But we’ve also fitted into the larger world
very well at times. And that’s the way I think it should be. I want to be successful in my home country and I
don’t want to be viewed as an outsider. I want to be Jewish and fit into the greater community. Why can’t I
have both? They’re not incompatible.
FATHER: Well, that’s the pluralist ideal that
democracy cherishes. It allows communities to foster their own cultures and traditions provided their people
work within the framework of the law and don’t undermine the very freedoms upon which nationhood is
That’s OK for us, isn’t it? In fact, we fit in better than some other groups do.
FATHER: That’s true. Mostly, as a culture, we’re
happy to live and let live. Anti-Semitism, however, has remained a serious problem even within so-called free
BEN: You see, that’s what I’m worried about.
Political and religious sentiment can change quickly. From what we’ve been hearing, Jews have had to flee
from place to place very often. You can never be sure that things will stay the way they
FATHER: You’d think Jews were relatively safe in
countries like the USA, Britain, Australia, Canada and a number of European countries. But periodic attacks
on symbols of our traditions should make us constantly vigilant, though. Even though in the Diaspora we trust
that by operating in good faith and being productive citizens, we can prosper and maintain our roots, it is
Judaism that remains the source of our identity and our permanence. Everything else is transient.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s
- When a man travels and finds books that are not known in his hometown, it is his
duty to buy them, rather than anything else, and bring the books back home with him.
- The biggest worriers can’t pay the smallest debts.
- He who need not borrow lives without worry.
- Many complain of their looks but who complains for their
- A groom and a bride have glass eyes.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Moses (13th – 16th century
Moses established the Jewish
nation in the realm of monotheism (one god) and a covenant between God and the land of Israel and its people. It
may be a coincidence that around the same time Akhenaton, a monotheistic pharaoh, ruled with his queen,
Nefertiti in Egypt and outlawed all gods except his. The Egyptians worshipped Aten, a god of the sun, but
monotheism only lasted for a short time. Many scholars suggest that Moses may have fled Egypt after Akhenaten’s death (ca. 1358 BCE) when
many of the pharaoh’s monotheistic reforms were being violently reversed. Moses was
the great lawgiver of the Jewish people and organised its judiciary. He had a very important role in the
establishment of three religions that believe in one God – Judaism, Christianity and
Emma Lazarus (1849 –
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled
masses...” These famous words are part of “The New Colossus” written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, and engraved on
a memorial plaque that was affixed to the Statue of Liberty in 1903. It was an expression of her belief in
the United States as the ideal destination for Europe’s masses yearning to breathe the fresh air of
democracy. Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, in New York City. She had a thorough knowledge of Jewish
history and literature and was very interested in Jewish affairs. She was particularly concerned about the
plight of immigrants and Russian Jews after the Russian pogroms of 1881-82. Lazarus expounded her ideas and plans for the rebirth of a Jewish cultural
revival in the United States and in the Holy Land. Lazarus was only 38 years old when she died from cancer.
She will always be remembered for her work and concern for the “huddled masses”. By encouraging immigration
to the United States, she changed the development of the US and the Western world.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together
to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week with renewed strength, confidence and
We now cordially invite you to
join us for some coffee and cake.