Chapter 23

1 The years of Sarah's life were all equally good: This can be explained in several ways:

  • The years of her life were all equally good. Sarah experienced many hardships and challenges, but they were not her life, her focus. Her life's purpose was to fulfill her Divine mission, and she remained consistent in her devotion to God throughout her entire lifetime. In this respect, all the years of her life were equally devoted to goodness.1
  • Every year of Sarah's life was as complete and perfect as it could possibly have been. Although her later achievements made earlier ones pale in comparison, she lived up to her fullest potential at all times.2
  • The time Sarah spent preparing for her Divine mission was just as valuable as the time she spent fulfilling it. Education and preparation are themselves an integral part of Divine living.3
  • Although Sarah constantly achieved ever-higher degrees of goodness—and it would therefore seem that any given period in her life was, in this respect, superior to the period preceding it and inferior to the period following it—all her years can nonetheless be regarded as being equally good. Her every achievement built upon and perfected her previous accomplishments and, complementarily, prepared her for the greater heights she would eventually reach. In this way, Sarah succeeded in breaking through the boundaries of time and creating a cohesive oneness out of the different periods of her life. This last interpretation teaches us that what we do today affects not only the present, but the past and future as well.4

Sarah's life should serve as an inspiration for us all.

She retained the youthful beauty that she had regained before conceiving Isaac until her last days, and she died completely righteous, untainted by sin: Whereas the body is subject to the effects of time and environmental conditions, the soul, being a Godly entity, is immune to them. In Sarah's case, the energy of her soul so totally permeated her body that it, like her soul, became timeless. Her beauty thus remained unmarred, immune to life's tribulations and the passage of time. The perfection of her physical beauty was a manifestation of her spiritual perfection.5

2 Hearing about Abraham's attempt to sacrifice her son was too much for her: How was Abraham capable of nearly sacrificing his son, whereas Sarah could not even bear hearing about such a possibility? And how could the very same event catapult Abraham and Isaac to such spiritual heights while having such negative repercussions for Sarah?

As we have seen,6 Abraham was somewhat detached from the world and viewed things from their abstract, spiritual perspective. Sarah's focus, in contrast, was on integrating Divine spirituality into the mundane world. So, while Abraham could somehow detach himself from the fact that Isaac's death would spell the end of their Divine mission, Sarah could not. The thought that Isaac was no longer alive opposed everything she lived for, and her soul left her.7

On a deeper level, Sarah's was not a negative reaction. The Midrash8 describes her death by saying that "her soul flew out" of her body, as if released. This expression describes death that occurs through an intense, lofty experience of the soul. It is therefore used in the Talmud to describe the rapture the Jewish people experienced when they heard God's voice at Mount Sinai. According to the Talmud, the people died after hearing each of the Ten Commandments and had to be resurrected each time.9

Upon hearing that her husband and son had risen to the challenge of this ultimate sacrifice, Sarah's soul was freed from the bonds of her body and attained an infinitely higher level of connection with God. It was specifically through this lofty experience that her life's mission was completed and she no longer needed to remain in this world.10


[1] Sarah's lifetime was 127 years: Literally, this phrase reads, "Sarah's lifetime was a hundred years, twenty years, and seven years." The unusual repetition of the word "years" indicates that the three numbers allude to Sarah's perfection in three discrete aspects of her life.

As we have noted,11 the hierarchy of the soul's powers can be divided into three main categories: emotions, intellect, and supra-intellect. These three categories are so different in nature that allegorically, they are represented by different orders of numerical magnitude: the emotions by the one's, the intellect by the tens, and the supra-intellect by the hundreds. Thus, in this verse, "a hundred" alludes collectively to the supra-rational powers of the soul—delight and will; "twenty" alludes to the two principal components of the intellect—chochmah and binah; and "seven" alludes to the seven emotions.

The concluding and seemingly redundant phrase of the verse, "the years of Sarah's life," allegorically indicates that all her diverse soul-powers were permeated by the highest aspect of the soul, which is totally included within God, as a part of Him. We are not normally conscious of this aspect of the soul (the yechidah), but Sarah succeeded in bringing it into full consciousness, allowing it to unify the rest of her soul-powers in absolute dedication to God.

Furthermore, since we are finite creatures with finite abilities, we can only perfect our conscious soul-powers (delight, will, intellect, and emotion) to a limited extent. When, however, we lose our selfhood in the transcendent consciousness of the highest level of our Divine soul, we are no longer limited by the boundaries of self and ego. It is this capacity for selflessness that enables us to live all our years on an equal level of goodness.

Nonetheless, before we can begin living on this level, we must first perfect our conscious soul-powers, as is evidenced by the fact that the Torah first refers to the three different periods (or in this context, aspects) of Sarah's life. But the ultimate goal is to live a life of pure Divine consciousness, beyond gradations and distinctions.12

[2] Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan. Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her: As we have seen, Abraham tended to view things from their abstract, spiritual perspective, whereas Sarah strove to integrate the abstract into the real, the spiritual into the physical. Allegorically, therefore, Abraham represents the soul and Sarah the body.13 The Zohar thus interprets this verse as a metaphor for the death of the body (Sarah), and the soul's (Abraham's) reaction:

Sarah died: After death, the body is no longer a living organism. This leads to its eventual disintegration and the dissipation of—

Kiryat Arba ("the City of the Four"): its four component elements (fire, air, water, and earth), of which all matter is formed—

which is Hebron (Chevron): The four elements of the body, having been unified (chaber)14 while the body was alive—

in the land of Canaan: in this physical world. As we have seen,15 Canaan connotes "commerce" and is thus a metaphor for this world, in which we engage in the "business" of investing in physical existence for the sake of reaping the spiritual "profits."

Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her: The soul, which retains a connection to the body even after their separation upon death, comes to eulogize the body and weeps for the loss of its ability to operate from within it and thereby sanctify the physical world.

Abraham rose from the presence of his dead: In the end, the soul transcends death and disintegration, and continues its eternal existence without the body.16

Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron: As was pointed out above,17 the name Hebron is related to the word for "connect." The dual name of this city thus teaches us an important lesson: Although our patriarchs and matriarchs each personified very different approaches to serving God, their lives demonstrated how these approaches can be connected together in pursuit of the common goal of transforming the world into God's home.

It is also for this reason that we are taught that our prayers—which bind us to God—ascend to heaven via the Cave of the Machpelah in Hebron.18

During Sarah's lifetime, three ongoing miracles occurred in her merit: These three miracles correspond to the three commandments that God entrusted specifically to women: lighting the Sabbath lights, separating challah from the dough,19 and observing the laws governing a married couple's intimate relations.20 The fact that these three miracles all occurred for Sarah indicates that her life was the quintessential expression of Jewish womanhood.21

* * *

Meriting all three of these miracles required some preparatory effort. Abraham and Sarah pitched their tent; only afterwards did God's presence manifest itself as the cloud hovering above it. Sarah prepared dough and lit the lamp; only afterward did God's blessings make her bread miraculously satisfying and keep the lamp lit.

This lesson holds true for all of us. If we invest our fullest effort, we can be assured that God will bless the results, augmenting them miraculously.22

* * *

A person's essential physical needs can be divided into two categories: internal needs, such as air and food, and external needs, such as clothing and shelter. Our spiritual needs—the Divine consciousness that sustains us spiritually—may also be similarly categorized: the immanent aspects of Divinity, which we can internalize and understand; and the transcendent aspects of Divinity, which we can know about but not truly understand.

When we do our utmost to internalize what we can comprehend and then accept what we cannot comprehend, God blesses our efforts with success beyond measure, just as He blessed Sarah's dough (the Divinity we "ingest" and assimilate) and her tent (the Divinity above and beyond our understanding).

Yet, there is a third human need: light. Lighting up a dark room adds nothing per se to the room, yet the entire ambience has been transformed. Confusion, disorientation, and gloom are replaced by clarity, direction, and joy. Similarly, we can perform our Divine mission impeccably but without light, warmth, and vitality. This is the third miracle: our ability to invigorate our work with warmth, enthusiasm, and vitality. We merit this third miracle by studying the inner dimensions of the Torah.23

* * *

If God wished, He could have kept Sarah's candles burning uninterruptedly, but instead, they had to be rekindled every Sabbath eve. This teaches us that no matter how perfect and miraculous something may seem, it can always be accomplished again on an even higher and more sublime level. When a Jewish woman or girl lights Sabbath candles, she does so with the power of all her spiritual growth and accomplishments accrued during the preceding week.24

3 Abraham rose from the presence of his dead, and he spoke to the Hittites in these words: Here we see the great effect Sarah's life had upon her husband. Abraham's courage to speak forcefully to the Hittites came from Sarah—as he "rose from her presence."

Our sages call the Jewish wife "the mainstay of the home." Her positive influence is recognizable in the actions and behavior of her husband and children.25

4 If you refuse my request: Although Abraham spoke with deference to the Hittites, at the same time he was not willing to negotiate: he stated his position firmly and intimated that he would take the property by force of law if they would refuse to sell it to him. As we see from the ensuing dialogue, the Hittites respected Abraham's seriousness and did not question his right to the property. In fact, they offered to give him not only the burial cave but the entire field.

Similarly, in all cases of fulfilling God's will, we should not hesitate to articulate our position respectfully yet firmly, and make it clear to any voices of opposition—whether originating within our own minds, within our own ranks, or from without—that we will not hesitate to exercise our full rights if need be. When we do not vacillate, not only is any potential opposition nipped in the bud; the truth of our position even transforms possible enemies into friends and helpers.

This is acutely true with regard to our right to the Land of Israel. If the nations of the world would hear us proclaim unabashedly that the land is ours by Divine right, they would stop opposing our possession of it; furthermore, the truth of our convictions would even win them over as allies.26

6 You are a prince of God in our midst: Although Abraham was ostensibly subject to the Hittites' goodwill, they nonetheless recognized his true standing as a "prince of God" and treated him with the utmost deference. Similarly, when God's plan calls for us to be at the mercy of other nations, those nations will invariably recognize our unique mission and even aid us in fulfilling it—providing that we remain steadfast in our own dedication to our goals and demonstrate true Jewish pride.27

13 I am giving you the money for the field: Holy things cannot be acquired "for free," that is, without proper effort.28 This is why Abraham chose to pay to transfer the property into the realm of holiness, even though it was rightfully his in any case.

Similarly, each one of us has been assigned a portion of the world that it is our responsibility to bring into the realm of holiness. We must do this at "full price," with hard work and effort. Even those of us who find it easy to study the Torah and observe the commandments must push ourselves beyond the boundaries of our natural inclinations. Only in this way can we achieve our purpose in the world.29


[9] The Cave of the Machpelah: Allegorically, the word "the Machpelah" ("hei machpelah"—literally, "double hei") refers to the two letter hei's appearing in God's Name Havayah.30 The relationship between the Name Havayah—the source of life—and our patriarchs and matriarchs' burial place—an image of death—is as follows:

The purpose for which the soul is sent to reside in the body is in order for it to accomplish its unique task in disseminating Divine consciousness in this world. Throughout our lifetimes, we will repeatedly feel the need to return (teshuvah) to God and renew our relationship with Him—either in order to reinstate our good standing with Him after a fall or period of estrangement, or in order to improve our already-good relationship with Him.

In the first type of return, we are realigning our behavior (alluded to by the second, or "lower," hei of the Name Havayah) with our emotional commitment (alluded to by the letter vav); it is therefore termed the "lower" return. In the second type, we are realigning our mentality (alluded to by the first, or "higher," hei) with our pristine Divine inspiration and insight (alluded to by the yud); it is therefore termed the "higher" return.31

Thus, the process of return, which forms the cornerstone of our relationship with God throughout our lives, is alluded to by the two letter hei's in the Name Havayah, which, as we have said, are in turn alluded to by the word "the Machpelah."

The final, ultimate return does not occur until the soul finishes its task on earth and leaves the body. Thus, the Machpelah burial cave signifies the consummation of the process of return. This is the connection between the two letter hei's of God's Name and the burial site of the patriarchs.32

[16] Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver…400 full-sized shekels: The Arizal explains that the name Ephron (עפרון) alludes to the souls of those who have passed away and whose bodies are now resting in the earth (עפר); that Abraham alludes to God's attribute of chesed; and that the four hundred shekels signify the four hundred levels of Divine consciousness that God will bestow upon those who have passed away when they will be resurrected in the messianic future.33

Reaching these levels of Divine consciousness results in experiences of transcendent delight. The fact that those who receive this sublime gift are alluded to by the word for "earth" teaches us that they are worthy of this gift specifically because, during their lifetimes, they evinced the defining characteristic of earth—humility, since the earth allows itself to be tread upon by everyone.34 In order for finite creatures to apprehend transcendent Divinity, which is inherently beyond human comprehension, they must first relinquish their preconceived notions about reality. This is an act of self-abnegation, made possible only through humility.

As descendants of Abraham, who epitomized selflessness,35 we have all inherited the ability to achieve selflessness. This is no simple task: those of us who have spiritually refined ourselves (and are therefore practiced in the art of self-abnegation) may fall prey to the arrogance that, by nature, accompanies spiritual advancement. And those of us who are less spiritually refined may lack the tools to expunge what small measure of arrogance we do possess.

Nonetheless, the spiritually refined can derive inspiration from Abraham: while he was one of the most spiritually advanced people that ever lived, he still retained his humility, declaring himself no more than "dust and ashes."36 Spiritual neophytes can also draw upon their spiritual inheritance from Abraham, because37 no qualifications are required to lay claim to an inheritance.38


[13] I am giving you the money for the field: Another reason Abraham insisted on not accepting the field gratis, or even at a discount, is because he wanted to sever all ties between it and its former owners. When someone gives a gift, the recipient remains forever indebted to the giver, no matter how selfless the latter's intentions; thus, the giver forever retains a slight connection to the gift. On the other hand, in a purchase, there remains no one-sided sense of dependency; a mutually satisfactory exchange has taken place, and the seller has severed virtually all connection with the sold object.

Upon closer examination, we see that Abraham took further steps to sever any association between the field and its former owners. As he pointed out to the Hittites, he could easily have assumed ownership of the land without purchasing it, by merely invoking God's promise to give it to him. His purchase was therefore analogous to a king's purchase of property from one of his subjects. When a commoner buys property from another, the seller is still remembered as one of the parties to the transaction—perhaps even as the main party—since the sale could have been concluded only with his consent. But since a king can legally seize his subject's property without his consent, the subject is not an active party to the transaction even when the king buys the property. Thus, purchase by a king truly severs any connection between the property and the seller. By alluding to his right as the land's future ruler, Abraham conferred the force of a royal purchase onto to his acquisition of the field, thus disassociating Ephron's name from it altogether.

It was for this same reason that King David insisted on purchasing the land upon which the Temple would later be built, even though he had conquered this land and it had been offered it to him by the owner as a gift.39

The sages40 therefore state that Jewish ownership of the Cave of the Machpelah, the Temple Mount, and Joseph's tomb in Shechem cannot be contested, since all three were purchased41 at full value and without protest on the part of the seller.42

16 Four hundred shekels: We can gain an appreciation of the significance of this sum by examining the monetary value the Torah places on land. When land has been consecrated to the Holy Temple, a person may redeem "an area seeded by a chomer of barley for fifty silver shekels,"43 i.e., at the rate of 50 shekels per every 75,000 square cubits.44 Accordingly, 400 shekels is the worth of exactly 600,000 square cubits, or one square cubit for each of the six-hundred thousand Jews who left Egypt and received the Torah,45 and who embodied the six-hundred thousand root-souls of the Jewish people of all times.46

Abraham's purchase of the Cave for 400 shekels thus sowed the seeds for the Jewish people's future inheritance of the entire land.47 Although Abraham had already taken formal possession of the land by traveling through it,48 this was his first act of applying his ownership of it.

It is no coincidence that this act was precipitated by Sarah's death. As we have noted, Sarah's whole life was devoted to concretizing Abraham's abstract ideals. Her death signaled the completion of her life's work, meaning that it was now possible for others to follow her precedent. It was therefore only now, in the merit of Sarah's life work, that Abraham was able to actualize his previous, formal acquisition of the land.

It is also significant that this burial site also contained the graves of Adam and Eve. By purchasing their graves, Abraham implied that the Divine mission originally entrusted to humanity as a whole was now being passed on specifically to the nation he was in the process of founding. Once again, it was in Sarah's merit that Abraham was able to particularize the burial site, reminiscent of Sarah's insistence on making Isaac Abraham's sole heir, as opposed to Abraham's desire to include Ishmael in some way, too.49

18 The status of the field and the cave rose: From Abraham we learn that we can elevate physical objects by acquiring them for a holy purpose. In fact, the mere intention of using an object for spiritual purposes sanctifies and uplifts it, even before we actually use it, just as the Machpelah field was lifted out of its former status even before Abraham buried Sarah there.50

We further learn from Abraham that when fulfilling our mandate to elevate the physical world, we should not allow ourselves to be deterred by apparently exorbitant costs, nor should we try to evaluate whether the effort is worthwhile. Thanks to Abraham's willingness to spare no expense or effort, the world has been blessed with access to a holy site, in whose merit and in the merit of those buried there, many of the prayers offered there have been answered. We, too, should never underestimate the potential positive impact of our actions.51

Furthermore, when we take Abraham's example, we can elevate our portion of the world permanently and absolutely, just as Abraham severed all connection between the Cave of the Machpelah and its former owners. Abraham took advantage of his noble status to accomplish this total dissociation; we, too, as members of "a kingdom of nobles,"52 can similarly dissociate our portion of the world forever from its original, non-holy status.53

Chapter 24

1 Abraham was old… and continued to deeply internalize his experiences: Physical aging (facial wrinkles, etc.) is caused largely by allowing life's events to overly affect us. Normally, as people get older, they develop a certain detachment from the vicissitudes of life, either because they have become more relaxed or because their accumulated experience has left them less impressionable than they were in their younger years. The aging process thus slows down and levels off. But because Abraham continued to be deeply affected by events, the years took their toll and the effect became visible. In this context, the Torah is telling us that "Abraham was old…because he continued to deeply internalize his experiences."

Here, we may take Abraham's attitude as an object lesson in how not to behave. Of course, we should strive to emulate his care to deeply internalize his experiences. But at the same time, we should trust in God's protection and not take life's experiences so to heart that they age us physically.54

* * *

The literal meaning of this phrase is "Abraham was old; he came with days." The Torah has already informed us that Abraham was old,55 so the word "old" here must allude to some additional meaning.56

According to the sages, the word "old" in certain cases implies "wise,"57 and the idiom "to come with days" means "to have used all one's days for performing God's commandments."58

The pursuit of wisdom is an act of personal growth and self-fulfillment; performing the commandments, on the other hand, refines and elevates the physical world. In many cases, these two facets of fulfilling God's will seem to conflict. Each competes for our time and attention, forcing us to choose one over the other. Abraham, however, was able to synthesize the two seamlessly. He pursued and achieved his inward and outward goals without compromising either, and did so in such a way that each complemented and enhanced the other.

Blending two opposites is no small feat, one that other righteous individuals who lived before the Torah was given were not able to accomplish. They invariably opted for the path of inner personal refinement and eschewed the challenge of elevating the world.

With the giving of the Torah, however, the ability to blend these two approaches was granted to every Jew. As will be explained further on, the Torah reconciles the opposing aspects in spiritual life; as such, now that the Torah has been given to us, we can follow Abraham's example and pursue both the path of self-refinement and that of the rectification of the world, such that both pursuits complement and enhance each other.59


But how can the Torah consider all of Abraham's days productive, when we know that he was raised as an idolater and only recognized the existence of God at a certain point in his childhood?60 Are we to count the years in which Abraham served idols together with the years in which he served God?

The answer is yes, because it was precisely Abraham's idol worship that compelled him to actively seek the truth. As Maimonides writes:61 "He wondered, 'How can the world run without someone running it?' He continued searching until he found the truth."

As we saw above concerning Sarah,62 the periods of preparation and education in our lives count as part of our periods of accomplishment. With Abraham, we see how even inadvertent periods of negative activity can be counted together with positive periods if we use them as an impetus for positive action.63


[1] God had blessed Abraham with everything, i.e. a son: The Torah's use of the phrase "with everything" to allude to Isaac intends to teach us something about the quality of Isaac's character, as well as to shed light on Abraham's instructions to Eliezer. Isaac was "everything" to Abraham—he embodied every good quality and value that Abraham stood for.

This is why Abraham took such pains to find the best possible bride for Isaac, whom he knew was only to be found among his family in Charan. Had Isaac not been the embodiment of his ideals, Abraham would have chosen a local bride; that way, he would have fulfilled his paternal obligation to find his son a bride himself, since it is always better to fulfill an obligation oneself rather than by proxy.64

But because Isaac was "everything" he lived for, Abraham wanted to ensure that Isaac's children would emerge from a union with a woman of the highest caliber.65


[1] Abraham…continued to deeply internalize his experiences: The Divine energy we generate by performing God's commandments spreads around us, encompassing us as a spiritual "garment" that clothes us from head to toe. This garment becomes the interface between our psyches and our surrounding environment, such that all our experiences and interactions are filtered through this Divine aura. This is the mechanism by which we attain, maintain, and enhance our Divine consciousness even while living in the physical world. In the afterlife, these garments take on a new role: they enable the soul to absorb the sublime Godly energies of the Garden of Eden.66

However, we perform the commandments not merely for our own sake, but also in order to refine and elevate the world around us. It is therefore imperative to perform commandments daily, for the spiritual makeup of every day is a unique blend of the spiritual energies that define it.

True, time is also divided into hours, months, years, and so on, and each of these units also possesses its own unique spiritual identity; but the basic unit of time is the day, as is clear from the fact that the successive stages in the creation of the world were delineated by this unit. It is therefore important to observe commandments on a daily basis, since if that opportunity is missed, it can never be recovered, i.e., that segment of time will not have been sanctified.

The Zohar thus interprets the phrase that Abraham "came with days" to mean that he fulfilled the commandments every day of his life.67

* * *

As we have already seen, the literal meaning of these words is "Abraham was old; he came with days," and the word "old" can be interpreted to mean "wise." Furthermore, the word "day" is often understood as an allegory for Divine light and revelation. The use of the plural, "days," thus alludes to two distinct types of Divine awareness: that which is revealed by observing the commandments and that which is revealed by performing otherwise mundane activities for a Godly purpose.

In this context, the verse can now be understood to mean: "Abraham acquired insight because he had drawn both types of Divine revelation into the world.68

Alternatively, the name "Abraham" alludes to God's attribute of kindness (chesed).69 This attribute specifically is termed "old," i.e., primordial, since it was with this attribute that God created the world. "Days," in this context, refers to time, which exists only within the context of created reality. In light of this explanation, the verse can now be understood to mean: "God's primordial chesed was drawn into created reality." Abraham was able to draw this transcendent beneficence into the finite world by himself leading a life of kindness.70

2 I want you to swear to me: In Jewish law, appointing an emissary does not require administering him an oath.71 Why, then, did Abraham make Eliezer take an oath? Did Abraham suspect that Eliezer, his trusted servant and outstanding disciple, would not prove faithful to the task entrusted him?

No, Abraham did not doubt Eliezer's reliability or sincerity. But he knew that people make choices based on their own perceptions and interpretations of reality, and that they can therefore sometimes veer from even their best-intentioned and sincerest promises. In order to ensure that this not happen, it is necessary to bind their commitment to something outside of themselves, to some objective reality. When we take an oath, we are expressing this willingness to transcend ourselves, to commit ourselves to remaining true to our original intent, even if we experience a personal change of heart.

So Abraham's desire to make Eliezer take on oath is understandable. But why did he want him to hold some holy object (in this case, his reproductive organ) while taking the oath? According to Jewish law, a person is only required to hold a holy object when taking most types of judicial oaths (not when swearing in general); furthermore, in such cases, the object held by the person must be either a Torah scroll or tefilin.72

In fact, Abraham did view Eliezer's mission as a judicial case, and in particular, as a classic case of partial admission.73 When someone admits partial guilt in a monetary claim, he is required to relinquish the money that he admits to owing and to swear that he does not owe the rest that he is being sued for.74 As we will see,75 making the world into God's home is, for most of us, an ongoing case of partial admission. God claims that none of our talents, resources, and powers are really ours; rather, He has loaned them to us to enable us to fulfill our Divine mission. Therefore, everything we accomplish is really His, and our duty to sanctify reality applies uniformly to all aspects of our lives. We, however, delude ourselves into thinking that our accomplishments are at least partially due to our own powers and hard work, and that we should therefore to be allowed to enjoy the fruits of our labor in any way we see fit. We require an oath to help us realize that we, in fact, owe everything to God, and therefore no part of our lives is exempt from being imbued with Divine consciousness.

In fact, we take this oath long before we need to use it. Before we are born, our soul is adjured to be righteous.76 Although we do not consciously remember taking this oath, it subconsciously impels us to seek goodness and holiness and to recognize Divine providence. Moreover, by administering this oath to us, God not only compels us to act on it, He also grants us the power to do so.

By virtue of this oath, we realize that indeed, everything belongs to God. Once we understand this, however, God allows (and even encourages77) us to enjoy the fruits of our labors, for we will then do so not for our own self-gratification, but as an expression of our gratefulness to Him.

Making the world into God's home is thus the archetypal case of partial admission. Abraham knew this, as well as the fact that the formation of Isaac's future family would be a crucial step in the process of making the physical world a home for God.78 Therefore, when charging Eliezer with the mission of finding Isaac a wife, he knew it was necessary to imbue the entire enterprise with power and commitment beyond normal mortal capacities. He therefore made Eliezer take on oath, even though he entertained no doubts as to his servant's fidelity to his mission.79

The simple reason the Torah requires someone taking a judicial oath to hold a Torah scroll or tefilin is so that the holiness inherent in these objects will make him afraid to take a false oath.80 On a deeper level, however, the reason is that these objects help us internalize the transcendent Divinity we seek to access by taking an oath. Specifically, the Torah is the bridge between God and the world; it is not only our guide in refining, elevating, and consecrating every aspect of reality, thus transforming the world into God's home—it also enables us to tap the transcendent power to do so. It is thus through the Torah that we access powers beyond our natural capabilities, which is exactly our objective when taking an oath.

Inasmuch as tefilin subordinates the intellect and emotions to the authority of God's will, its effect on us is similar to that of studying the Torah; fulfilling both these commandments empowers us to transcend our natural selves. Tefilin can thus also be held when taking an oath. Preference is given to holding a Torah scroll, however, because the effect of studying the Torah is broader, affecting the whole world, while the effect of donning tefilin is more limited to the person who wears them.

In Abraham's time, no formal commandment to write a Torah scroll or tefilin had yet been given. Therefore, even had Abraham somehow written either of these, they would not have embodied the holiness referred to above, which enables someone to transcend his natural capabilities. The only formal commandment God had given at that point was circumcision. As such, circumcision at that time represented what the Torah in its entirety represents nowadays—the ability to transcend our personal limitations by connecting to God. Therefore, when Abraham wanted to administer an oath to Eliezer, his only choice for a holy object for this purpose was his organ of procreation.81

3 He is now not only the God of heaven but also the God of the earth: Initially, people are prepared to accept the existence of an abstract, remote "God of heaven"; the idea of an intimate, personal "God of the earth," who may encroach upon their private lives, is much more threatening. Therefore, when Abraham began spreading his message of Divine morality, he had no choice but to base it upon the premise of the existence of a "God of heaven." Nonetheless, he continued educating his disciples until they were also ready to accept the existence of a "God of the earth," who is present within all aspects of reality and is concerned with our personal lives, as well.82


We can divide our pursuits between the "heavenly" and "earthly," i.e., between what we do for spiritual purposes and what we do for physical survival or pleasure. Our challenge is to ensure that God be just as much the "God of the earth" as He is the "God of heaven," i.e., that we be as conscious of Him when we engage in physical pursuits as we are when we engage in spiritual pursuits.83

4 Take a wife: The prophets often describe the relationship between God and the Jewish people as that of husband and wife.84 In this sense, we are all entrusted with a mission comparable to the one Abraham gave Eliezer: to go out and find those souls that have drifted away and bring them back to God, their "husband." And just as Abraham assured Eliezer that his mission would be crowned with success, we too are assured that our attempts to bring back the lost souls of Israel will also be blessed with success.

True, God grants each individual free choice, so it would therefore follow that our success is as much up to the individual whom we are trying to influence as it is to our own efforts. But we are also taught that when He wants, God plants good thoughts in people's minds, influencing them to choose good. Therefore, if, like Eliezer, we are totally committed to our mission and pray to God for assistance in its fulfillment,85 we are indeed assured that God will crown our sincere and tenacious efforts with success.86

8 The accursed cannot unite with the blessed: As we have seen, Eliezer was a righteous man, being Abraham's loyal servant and most prized disciple who helped him disseminate his teachings. Nevertheless, Eliezer was descended from Canaan, whose offspring had been cursed to be slaves. The essence of this curse was that Canaan's descendants would forever lack the mentality of self-determination, always feeling like victims of forces beyond their control, slaves of fate or circumstance.

This attitude is diametrically opposed to the Torah's insistence that humanity is free and unbound by any type of moral predetermination. Someone who does not feel that he is free to act as he pleases—and therefore responsible for his actions—cannot be part of the people whose Divine mission is to bring the Torah's message of hope and moral freedom to humanity.

And more importantly, the insidious specter of victimization and predetermination breeds depression; someone who considers himself a helpless and hopeless victim cannot evince the joy in life that must serve as the basis of our relationship to God.87

This exchange expresses once again the theme of this parashah: the uniqueness of Sarah's offspring. Not only are her children unique; even an exalted personality such as Eliezer is considered accursed in comparison.88

10 With all his master's bounty in his hand: Even though Isaac was already forty years old at the time, Abraham nevertheless displayed no hesitation in going to all extremes for his son's benefit, for he knew that his parental role never ends. There is no age limit to the parent-child bond. Of course, there comes a point where our children must take responsibility for their own lives. But even then, as parents, we remain obligated to be involved in their lives, guiding and helping them in whatever ways possible.89


Abraham was willing to relinquish his entire fortune to ensure the success of Eliezer's mission of facilitating the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. So, too, God is willing to give up "all His bounty" to help each and every one of us fulfill our mission of bringing about the "marriage" of the physical and the spiritual dimensions of reality by transforming the world into God's home through our good deeds.90

11 Eliezer miraculously arrived the same day as he had set out: God performed this miracle for Eliezer in consideration of Abraham's earnest desire to live according to the Torah's moral instructions. From this, we see the extent to which God is willing to bend the laws of nature—not only to enable us to fulfill our Divine mission, but also to enable us to live in accordance with the Torah's outlook on life.91

* * *

Secondly, we learn from this miracle that when God sees that we have resolved to fulfill our Divine mission faithfully, as Eliezer had, He suspends the restrictions of nature, allowing us to conclude our mission with unexpected speed and disproportionate success.92 This fact is alluded to further when Eliezer tells his hosts, "God has made my way prosper."93 The Name of God used here is the Name Havayah, which refers to God as He transcends nature.94

* * *

A third, deeper reason why God chose to override the laws of nature in this case is as follows:

A nutshell is not edible, but it performs the valuable service of protecting the edible nut while the latter ripens. Nonetheless, once the nut is ripe, it is pointless to allow the shell to continue to protect it, for this would ultimately cause the nut to rot, negating the shell's very purpose.

Similarly, evil sometimes serves a limited purpose in helping something or someone mature. For example, self-centeredness is necessary during childhood so that children can focus on their own healthy development. Once they mature, however, children must be taught to shed their no-longer necessary self-centeredness in favor of a more mature, selfless attitude toward others.

In this context, the sages liken 95 Thorns must be allowed to protect the rose from being picked while it is growing, but once it is ripe for picking, they cannot be allowed to continue to guard and protect it.

Thus, until Rebecca turned three and became of marriageable age, Abraham had no justification to extricate her from her evil family or environment, or even to initiate such a process. But once that time came, it would have been harmful to leave Rebecca there for even one additional day.

Eliezer's journey, therefore, had to be miraculously quick, for, on the one hand, he could not have left a day earlier, and on the other hand, he could not have arrived even a day later. God therefore miraculously expedited his journey so that Rebecca would not have to be left there for even one unnecessary day.

The "thorns" among whom Rebecca lived knew that they received their Divine sustenance in her merit, just as thorns are sustained by virtue of the protection they give to the rose plant. They would therefore have balked at any attempt to remove her from their protection. Only if they could be convinced that it was God's uncontestable will that she leave would they acquiesce. Eliezer therefore proved to them that God had not only caused his mission to be successful, but that its expedience was important enough to suspend the laws of nature.96

* * *

As with all the events that occurred to the patriarchs and matriarchs, this one, too, presaged the future redemption of their descendants. When it came time for the Jews to leave Egypt, God took them out without a moment's delay.97 So, too, when the long-awaited time arrives for us to be redeemed from our present and final exile, God will certainly not detain us for even one unnecessary moment.98

14 I will also give water to your camels: It is axiomatic that God is perfect; since He lacks nothing, He has no intrinsic need to receive anything from anyone. On the contrary, His intrinsic self-sufficiency makes it natural for Him to bestow His beneficence on His creation. Therefore, generosity is the primary way in which God relates to the world, and generosity is the natural hallmark of people who feel closely connected to God.

In contrast, evil has no intrinsic existence; it therefore has an existential need to receive. No matter how much it possesses, this need to receive remains unsatisfied, making it seek only to take and never to give. Therefore, the hallmark of evil is selfishness.

Eliezer therefore sought a woman for Isaac who would display kindness. When Rebecca went beyond fulfilling his specific request by offering to also water his camels, he saw her expression of kindness as an indication that she was a Godly person and thus a fitting match for the son of Abraham.99

15 He had not yet finished speaking when Rebecca came out: When we do not receive the answers to our prayers immediately, it is because we have overly "distanced" ourselves from God. God may have in fact already answered our prayers, but because of our self-imposed "distance" from Him, His answer may have to undergo a lengthy process before reaching us. Those who have "distanced" themselves from God less can receive the answers to their prayers more quickly, and those who have so fully attuned their lives to God's will and presence that they have eliminated all distance between themselves and Him can be answered immediately. When two separate entities join, they can communicate instantaneously, but when they fuse into one, their communication is intrinsic and need not even be articulated.100

Likewise, the extent to which our prayers express our desire for unity with God also affects how quickly we can receive God's answer to them. Thus, the Torah relates three instances in which God answered a prayer instantaneously:101 Eliezer's prayer to find a match for Isaac, Moses' prayer to be vindicated before Korach's assembly,102 and Solomon's prayer that God rest His presence upon the Temple.103 The object of each of these prayers was the revelation of God's unity with creation:

  • The descent of heavenly fire in the Temple would demonstrate how Divinity can unite with the physical world. The Temple would thus be able to inspire us to unite our lives and our portion of the world with God, making them in to His true home.
  • Moses' vindication against Korach's accusations would demonstrate how Divinity can unite with a human being, transforming him into a prophet.
  • The marriage of Isaac and Rebecca would be the prelude to the Giving of the Torah, our guidebook and tool for uniting the world with God.104

Isaac and Rebecca's marriage brought together two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum: Isaac represented the height of spirituality (especially inasmuch as he had been sanctified as an ascent-offering when he was bound on the altar105), while Rebecca (although herself totally righteous) came from a family of idolaters and a place of hedonistic materialism. Similarly, the Torah and its commandments enable us to redeem the spiritual potential latent within materiality and to sanctify the physical world.

God's response to Eliezer came before he had even completed his prayer, while His response to Moses and Solomon only came after they had completed their prayers. This is due to the essential difference between the way God is united with the Torah and the way He unites with people or with the world. Both humanity and the world were created as separate entities, conscious of themselves as being distinct from the God who made them. Only with proper effort can they unite with God and can their consciousness dissolve into His. The Torah, in contrast, is a priori one with God.

Therefore, Solomon's and Moses' prayers that God demonstrate how He unites with the world and humanity could at best be answered immediately. In contrast, Eliezer's prayer that God manifest the power of the Torah—by arranging the match between Isaac and Rebecca—was answered even before it was fully articulated. In fact, the only reason God waited until Eliezer had almost concluded his prayer before answering it was so that he could recognize Rebecca by the criteria he had established in his request.106

Furthermore, the Torah expresses the general revelation of God in the world, while the His revelation in the Temple and through the prophets express particulars of this general revelation. Eliezer's prayer for the match was therefore answered more quickly than were those of Solomon and Moses.107

* * *

Additionally, Eliezer's prayer gave voice to his realization that he could not rely on his own capabilities to perform this mission. As soon as he declared his self-effacement to God, he earned the privilege of witnessing the miracles that God would perform for Abraham.108

To the extent that we emulate Eliezer's realization of his dependence upon God and orient our prayers toward the revelation of God's unity with the world, God's answers our prayers can, too, immediately. As God Himself promises,109 "Before they call I will answer, and while they are yet speaking I will hear."110

Finally, it was in Abraham's merit that God answered Eliezer's prayer before he finished it. We, too, as Abraham's heirs, can be assured that, no matter how dark the exile, God is prepared to respond to our every need—even before it is fully verbalized.111


[16] She filled her pitcher: The numerical value of the word for "pitcher" (kad) is twenty-four, alluding to the twenty-four books of the Written Torah. The spring alludes to the source of Divine wisdom. The twenty-four books form the channel through which God's wisdom flows into the world.112

Additionally, the word for "her pitcher" (kadah, the word kad plus the letter hei) alludes to the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is identified with the sefirah of expression, malchut,113 which in turn is identified with the final hei of God's Name. The Oral Torah is a pitcher that draws from the twenty-four books of the Written Torah.114

Alternatively, while the pitcher symbolizes the Written Torah, the spring into which it was lowered symbolizes the Oral Torah. Dipping the pitcher into the water thus signifies the synthesis of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.

Furthermore, Isaac personified the Written Torah and Rebecca the Oral Torah. Thus, the incident of the well is an expression of the unity soon to be accomplished through their marriage.115

Despite the vast body of knowledge that constitutes the Oral Torah, it is nonetheless no more than a "pitcher" of water in comparison to the vast "sea" of Divine wisdom hidden within the entire Torah. Only in the messianic era will this infinite body of knowledge be completely revealed, as the prophet declares,116 "the world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seabed."117

21 The man wondered about her, silently wanting to know: When we are confronted with a startling new and deep insight, we are initially awe-struck and disoriented; this breaks us out of our previous, limited mindset. Only after our mental complacency has been thus eliminated can we become absorbed and engrossed in the new insight.

These two stages are recognizable in the episode involving Eliezer. Eliezer first "wondered about her." He was startled by the Divinely-orchestrated flow of events and thereby lost his self-awareness. Once this happened, he was able to become fully engrossed in the events and begin "wanting to know" if this was indeed the woman he was seeking for Isaac. Had he not relinquished his ego, allowing himself to be amazed at the display of Divine providence, his personal interests and motives would have interfered with his ability to interpret the events correctly—"to know whether or not God had made his journey successful."118

22 A gold nose-ring…alluding to the half-shekel…and two gold bracelets…alluding to the two tablets: Eliezer's gifts to Rebecca, the bride in the first marriage explicitly mentioned in the Torah,119 allude to the two pillars upon which a Jewish home and marriage must be founded: fulfillment of the commandments and study of the Torah. The half-shekel donation was a form of charity, which is the quintessential commandment;120 the half-shekel nose-ring thus alludes to all the commandments. The two bracelets allude to the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, which are the foundation of the entire Torah.121

The Ten Commandments that would be inscribed upon the tablets: The Ten Commandments is the only section of the Torah that was engraved upon a tablet; the rest of the Torah was written with ink on parchment. Letters written on parchment remain discrete from the parchment and can be scraped off or erased. But when they are engraved on a tablet, they become an integral part of the tablet and cannot be separated from it without destroying a portion of the tablet itself.

By giving a gift that alludes to the Ten Commandments, Eliezer was indicating that a Jewish home must be based on a commitment to the Torah as intrinsic as letters engraved in stone. A Jewish family must not merely comply with the Torah's demands while remaining essentially disconnected from it. They must become one with it, its values and perspectives engraved in their very being.

Furthermore, the Jewish people accepted the Ten Commandments unconditionally, even before having heard them. Similarly, our commitment to the Torah should be unconditional, predicated on the approval of neither our mortal values nor our intellect.122

22 A gold nose-ring weighing a beka: The Torah here refers to the half-shekel by its weight, a beka, without defining it as a half-shekel. In contrast, in its description of the half-shekel that the Jewish people gave for the census, the Torah states, "a beka per head, which is a half-shekel."123 Strangely, rather than defining it here, the first time it is used, the Torah defines the term beka only toward the end of the Book of Exodus.

The reason for this is that the Torah is contrasting our relationship with God before and after the Giving of the Torah. Our relationship with God is like a marriage, in that God and the Jewish people are like two halves of a whole—each one is incomplete without the other. Eliezer alluded to this interdependency by betrothing Rebecca to Isaac with an object that weighed a half shekel.

Inasmuch as the Torah is what binds us to God, prior to the Giving of the Torah, our union with God was akin to the attachment of two discrete entities. After the Giving of the Torah, however, our union with God became akin to the fusion of two halves into a whole.

This verse therefore uses the term beka alone, only alluding to the concept of "halfness" (since the word beka itself means "a split"), since the unity of God and the Jewish people at that time only approximated the relationship of two halves of a whole. In contrast, the verse describing the census clearly defines a beka as a half-shekel, for after the Giving of the Torah, we were able to unite with God as two halves of a whole.124

34 Eliezer began: The Torah is generally sparing in its words. Why, then, is the Torah so verbose in narrating Eliezer's search for Rebecca, first relating the episode and then reporting Eliezer's recounting of the incident to Rebecca's family in great detail?125

One answer: The Torah's laws are designed to enable us to transcend nature, to overcome the world's natural unreceptiveness to Divine consciousness. In essence, then, they transcend all natural boundaries, including that of human intellect.126 They can therefore only be revealed to us through allusion and exegesis. In contrast, the Torah's narratives (despite the fact that many of them contain open miracles), occur fully within the context of nature——and thus can be related explicitly.127

Another answer: the elaborate recounting of Eliezer's narrative itself helps us to grasp the terse laws of the Torah, despite their infinite nature: Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, exemplifies the values of selfless commitment and devotion. By elaborating on Eliezer's narrative, the Torah intends to imbue us with this selflessness, making it the foundation of our spiritual lives. Once we have developed this selflessness, we are better able to grasp the Torah's laws, unencumbered by preconceived notions and biases or the finiteness of our nature.128


[52] The angel accompanying Eliezer killed him: By having chosen to conform to his idolatrous milieu, Bethuel had aligned himself with the forces opposing Godliness and goodness. There was thus very little about Bethuel's life that could justify its continuance other than the fact that he fathered the righteous Rebecca, who was destined to become the wife of Isaac. However, instead of facilitating this match, Bethuel chose, for no apparent reason, to oppose it. In so doing, he not only lost his primary justification for existing; he positioned himself as the most serious threat to reality's progress toward its Divine goal. He thus negated the justification for his existence and was removed from the scene.129

[55] We estimate that she only needs another ten months to obtain the rest: There are two possible calculations they may have made to arrive at that number: Possibly, they evaluated the worth of the gifts that he had given her and saw that it equaled one sixth of her total needs. Alternatively, the twelve months allotted may be viewed as sufficient time to acquire twelve different types of ornaments for the different seasons of the year. Because Eliezer had twice given gifts to Rebecca,130 two of the customary twelve months could thus be deducted.131

[58] I will go even if you do not give me your consent: Rebecca's immediate and unequivocal consent to the proposed marriage seems rash: This was the first she had heard about the match,132 it involved going off with a man she hardly knew to marry a man she had not yet met, and it went against the wishes and advice of her family.133

The only way we can explain her reaction is if we assume that it came directly from Divine inspiration and was, in essence, beyond her control. God willed Rebecca to make this decision, in further fulfillment of Abraham's promise to Eliezer that the angel of God would "go before" him, to pre-arrange and expedite the entire process without hindrance.134

60 They blessed Rebecca and said to her…may your descendants take possession of the cities of their foes: This verse, too, reflects Eliezer's un-natural success: Not only was Rebecca's family unable to prevent her marriage to Isaac, they even gave it their blessings. Furthermore, they prayed that her descendants should be victorious over their foes, and this would eventually include Laban himself!

Again we learn that if we wholeheartedly commit ourselves, as Eliezer did, to fulfilling our Divine mission, we, too, will see miraculous success.135

63 He had instituted the practice of praying at the day's end: We recite the morning prayer before beginning our workday and the evening prayer after completing our day's activities. In contrast, the afternoon prayer requires us to stop in the midst of our mundane affairs and focus on God.

Our daily, mundane affairs are symbolized by "the field," the area outside the city limits, which is untamed and uncultivated. Through instituting the afternoon prayer, Isaac transformed "the field" into a place of prayer to God.

The morning prayer undeniably serves as our principal daily renewal of Divine consciousness. Nonetheless, afterwards, it remains to be seen how we will fare when we go out into "the field." Will the secular and material influences of "the field" cause us to lose the spiritual awareness and closeness to God that we achieved during the morning prayer? By stopping in the middle of our mundane affairs in order to recite the afternoon prayer, we demonstrate that our involvement in material affairs does not separate us from God.136

Our lives are metaphorically divided into the stages of morning, afternoon, and evening, i.e., childhood, adulthood, and retirement. During childhood, we are sheltered from the responsibilities of "real" life and can remain focused on God without too many distractions. Upon reaching retirement age, we can once again disengage from worldly affairs and focus on what is truly meaningful. The true challenge occurs in our middle years, when we go out to "the field" and are fully engaged in earning a living and raising our families. It is especially during this period in our lives that we are called upon to raise our eyes upward, just as Isaac did, and focus on our true purpose in life.137

Isaac went out: On a deeper level, we are taught in the Midrash that during the three years from the binding of Isaac until Rebecca became old enough to marry, Isaac was hidden in the Garden of Eden. Only when the time came for him to establish a family did he emerge from the Garden to greet her.

The Garden of Eden is devoid of evil and cannot tolerate any form of it. Isaac's seclusion in the Garden of Eden until his marriage teaches us that the proper preparation for marriage—for building an everlasting home—is living life in a way that fosters and preserves purity and innocence.138


[63] He saw camels approaching: Isaac knew that whereas in the morning, God's attribute of kindness is dominant,139 as nighttime approaches, the forces of darkness—God's attribute of judgment—are gathering strength.140 He perceived, however, that praying in the afternoon, when people are normally preoccupied with pursuing their livelihood, can transform God's attribute of judgment into kindness, and he therefore instituted the practice of praying in the afternoon. The appropriate response to increasing darkness is a corresponding increase in our connection to God.141

This transformation is alluded to by the fact that Isaac saw "camels" immediately after reciting the afternoon prayer, for the sages state142 that seeing a camel in a dream signifies that the dreamer was destined to die but his death sentence was commuted to one of life.

In addition, the word for "camel" (gamal) is related to the word for "bestowing" (gomel). Isaac's vision of approaching camels can thus be allegorically interpreted to mean143 that, as a result of the commutation of God's verdict of judgment to one of kindness, he envisioned an imminent bestowal of God's kindness upon him and his descendants, the Jewish people, who would emerge from his marriage to Rebecca.144

[63] He had instituted the practice of praying at the day's end, as well: Nonetheless, Isaac did not wish to offend his father by formally instituting an additional daily prayer, for this might imply that his father's devotional efforts were somehow lacking. 145 Isaac therefore prayed in the field, privately, even though it is normally preferable to pray indoors.146 However, when Abraham found out about his son's innovation, he adopted it, as well,147 and thus the afternoon prayer was formally instituted.

From a deeper perspective, when Abraham instituted the morning daily prayer, he also adopted the practice of praying the afternoon prayer—since, as we know, he kept the entire Torah, even rabbinic ordinances—but he did not encourage the rest of his family to pray the afternoon prayer until he saw that Isaac had undertaken to do so on his own. He then formalized it.148

[64] When Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac: This was one last manifestation of Abraham's promise that God would ensure the success of Eliezer's entire mission. Even with his mission completed, supernatural orchestration of events continued to ensure that there would be no unnecessary delays. The very moment Rebecca and Eliezer arrived, they "chanced" upon Isaac in the field.149

66 Eliezer cited the miracles God performed for him as proof that he had fulfilled his mission devotedly, without any personal motives.

Similarly, when we approach our Divine mission with this underlying selflessness, we can indeed be assured of complete success, even if many miracles are needed along the way.150

67 The lamp she lit on Friday again remained lit until the following Friday: Jewish law dictates that if the woman of the home cannot light the Sabbath candles for whatever reason, her husband must do so in her stead.151 Since, as we know, Abraham observed all the commandments (even the rabbinic ordinances),152 he lit the Sabbath candles after Sarah's passing. Yet, despite his great righteousness, his candles did not remain lit throughout the week, as Sarah's had. Rebecca, who was only three years old at the time, understood that it was not enough for Abraham to light Sabbath candles, and made sure to kindle them herself, too. Her intuition was clearly confirmed when her candles continued to burn miraculously the whole week (as had Sarah's before her)—something that Abraham's candles never did.

This demonstrates the unique ability of Jewish women and girls—who are all "daughters" of Sarah and Rebecca—to influence the spiritual character of the home, illuminating it with the holiness of the Sabbath throughout the ensuing mundane week. Although the illumination provided by their candles might be physically visible for only a limited time, their spiritual illumination remains the entire week.

By nature, the male is the gatherer: he brings the provisions, the raw materials, into the home. But it is the woman who refines them and prepares them for human consumption, transforming all the man gathers into a viable, livable home. This is true both materially and spiritually: only the woman possesses the spiritual power to make the home fit to be a home for God, as well. Therefore, Abraham's candles could produce no more than a natural, limited light; he was not truly able to spiritualize the house.

It is instructive to note that this and the other miracles returned even before Rebecca married Isaac.153 Thus, we can view three-year-old Rebecca's lighting of the Sabbath candles as a precedent for the custom to have young unmarried girls, from the age of three, light Sabbath candles each Friday, in addition to those lit by their mother.154

Considering the extent of today's spiritual darkness, it would seem wise for all Jewish communities (even those who, in the past, did not follow this custom) to encourage all girls from the age of three, who can understand the concept of Sabbath candles, to adopt this custom. This will bring much-needed spiritual light, both to their own home and ultimately to the entire world.155

Chapter 25

1 Abraham again: Literally, these words mean "Abraham enhanced," alluding to the fact that it was only after Abraham enhanced the quality of his own Divine service that he was able to spiritually elevate Hagar. We must first elevate ourselves in order to elevate someone else.156

Her deeds were now as pleasing as incense: One of the ingredients of the incense offered up in the Holy Temple was derived from the blood of a non-kosher animal.157 This fact demonstrates the incense's unique capability to elevate even entities on the lowest rung of spirituality to the heights of holiness. Hagar is therefore compared to the incense, because her return to Abraham and the path of truth after having lapsed into idolatry mirrors this unique characteristic of the Temple's incense.158


[5-6] Abraham gave all that he owned to Isaac. Abraham gave gifts to the sons of the concubine…. He sent them…away from his son Isaac: Abraham bequeathed the birthright of the Jewish people to Isaac, as well as the rights to the Land of Israel that had been promised to him by God. He gave gifts to all of his other children and then sent them away from Isaac, clearly signaling that his other children did not have any claims to the Land of Israel.159

[9] Ishmael respectfully allowed Isaac to lead: Although Ishmael had repented before Abraham's funeral,160 the Torah makes no mention of this fact before this. This is because Ishmael's primary sin was his assertion that since he was the firstborn, he should receive a double portion of the inheritance;161 thus, the proof that he had truly repented came only after Abraham died, when he could have claimed the double inheritance due the firstborn. By allowing Isaac to walk ahead of him, he was demonstrating that he had truly repented, since he was conceding that Isaac was Abraham's legitimate heir.

It is appropriate that Ishmael's repentance is mentioned specifically in parashat Chayei Sarah, for Sarah deserves the credit for Ishmael's reformation. Her insistence on disciplining Ishmael eventually led him to repent and recognize the truth.162

11 Abraham himself was afraid to bless his son Isaac: But Isaac himself later did attempt to bless his son Esau.163 As we will explain in more detail later on, he did so in the hope that this extra influx of Divine energy would inspire Esau and enable him to repent. Why, then, was Abraham afraid to even bless Isaac, rather than making the same calculation?

The answer lies in the intrinsic difference between Abraham and Isaac. Abraham embodied loving-kindness, while Isaac embodied strength and severity. Abraham therefore sought to reveal the good within other people by focusing on their positive behavior. With Esau, this was clearly impossible, for whatever good he possessed was too buried beneath the effects of years of sinful living. Only the overwhelming power of Isaac's approach could possibly connect Esau with the limitless energy of repentance.164

12 Ishmael son of Abraham, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's maidservant, bore to Abraham: Before describing Ishmael's greatness and enumerating his many descendants, the Torah reiterates his lesser status for two reasons: (a) in order that his descendants remember that their forefather was merely the son of Sarah's maidservant, meaning that they therefore had no claim to the birthright of Abraham and Isaac; and (b) so that the descendants of Isaac not be intimidated by Ishmael's descendents.

This, too, is part of Sarah's legacy.165

18 He dwelt throughout the area of all his brethren: This is similar to God's earlier promise to Abraham that Ishmael would "dwell near all his brothers,"166 but with one significant difference. The literal translation of the word for "he dwelt" used here (nafal) is "he fell." The Torah thus informs us that as long as Abraham was alive, Ishmael would continue to "dwell" securely in his father's merit; once Abraham would die, Ishmael would "fall" and be harassed by his enemies.167

On a deeper level, however, this statement—made now, after the Torah has enumerated Ishmael's descendants—reinforces the lesson inherent in the Torah's reiteration of Ishmael's inferior lineage before it detailed his descendants.168 Ishmael's well-being depends upon his cognizance of his status as Abraham's son through Sarah's maidservant. As long as the spirit of Abraham lives within him and he recognizes Isaac's superiority, he is capable of "dwelling." As soon as Abraham perishes in his mind and he ignores his identity, "he falls."169

He dwelt throughout the area of all his brethren: Or, literally, "He fell throughout the area…." Ishmael was the "fallen" version of Abraham. Abraham personified holy love—love for God and kindness to others. Ishmael personified love in its "fallen" version, an obsessive desire for physicality and sensuality.

In our own lives, it is our task to transform our love for material things—the fallen love of Ishmael—into a holy love for God.170