Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
PARASHAT CHAYEI SARA
The Sending Away of Bnei Ketura
By Rav Michael Hattin
With the awesome trial of the Akeda now behind us, the faith journey of Avraham and Sarah is effectively completed. Parashat Chayei Sarah opens with a report of the aged Matriarch's death, and then describes her subsequent internment at the cave of Machpela in the hills of Chevron. With the undisputed purchase from the resident Chittites of the site containing the rocky sepulcher, Avraham finally accomplishes what he and Sarah had spent a lifetime attempting to achieve: the securing of a tangible foothold in the Promised Land. With Sarah's death, thoughts of his own mortality now propel Avraham to seek a spouse for their beloved son Yitzchak. But he is wary of Yitzchak marrying a local Canaanite woman, for besides the questionable moral values of such a person, he does not want the newlyweds to be openly embraced by the larger clan and culture of which that woman would inevitably be part. Therefore, he dispatches his ever-loyal Eli'ezer to kin who still dwell in distant Mesopotamia, conversely cautioning the servant on oath to in no wise contemplate returning Yitzchak to his former homeland: "if the woman does not want to follow you back, then you shall be acquitted of this oath, but do not return my son to there!" (24:8).
Upon his arrival, Eli'ezer is immediately successful, making the acquaintance at the well of the beautiful and virtuous Rivka who graciously draws water for him, his servants, and for his many gift-laden camels. Securing her family's blessing, he returns with her to Canaan, and Yitzchak realizes that he has found not only his soul mate, but also the rightful successor to his own mother Sarah. The legacy will be transmitted, and the final verse of this first section of the Parasha emphasizes Rivka's unprecedented effectiveness at filling the void left by Sarah's death:
Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka as his wife and he loved her. Yitzchak was comforted after the death of his mother (24:67).
AVRAHAM'S MARRIAGE TO KETURA
Though Avraham still has many good years of life ahead of him (thirty-five to be exact), the Torah now proleptically records his death in order to allow the focus of the narratives to shift to the story of Yitzchak. But prior to that premature death notice, the Torah indicates that Avraham remarries and (unexpectedly?) fathers a brood of children! While it is not unusual for a widow/widower to remarry in order to preclude the loneliness and helplessness that old age often confers, it is unusual that the Patriarch has six more sons and ten grandchildren in quick succession, whereas in all of his previous one hundred and forty or so years he had but two sons, and each of those by a separate wife:
Avraham took another wife whose name was Ketura. She bore him Zimran, Yokshan, Midan, Midyan, Yishbak and Shuach. Yokshan begat Sheva and Didan, and the children of Didan were Ashurim, Letushim and Leumim. The children of Midyan were Efa and Eifer and Chanoch, Avida and Elda'a. All of these were the descendents of Ketura (25:1-4).
The Torah is unusually silent concerning the marriage of Avraham to Ketura. The text tells us nothing about her origins and nothing about her descendents, and while some of her children and grandchildren father nations that are known to us from later passages in the Tanakh, here there is only reticence. But this much we do know: the offspring from Avraham's marriage to Ketura were numerous. Perhaps then, the intent of the Torah is to indicate that God's earlier promise to the Patriarch, vouchsafed to him at the time that the command of circumcision was introduced, was eminently fulfilled:
As for Me, behold My covenant is with you and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall no longer be called Avram; rather your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you into the father of a multitude of nations…(17:4-5)
THE SENDING AWAY OF BNEI KETURA
Of course, here we assume that the "multitude of nations" to which the text refers, is not a reference to the diverse tribes of Israel (as indeed some of the commentaries maintain) but rather to the related families that together constitute the offspring of Avraham from his children other than Yitzchak. What is perhaps more significant, however, is not the report of Avraham's remarriage and numerous new offspring but rather what transpires next:
Avraham gave all that he possessed to Yitzchak. As for the children of his concubines Avraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Yitzchak his son towards the east, to the land of the nations of the east (25:5-6).
This dual act of appointing Yitzchak as sole heir while simultaneously sending away his half-siblings, constitutes the last-reported deed of Avraham during his lifetime:
These are the years of Avraham's lifespan – one hundred and seventy-five years. Avraham died in ripe old age, elderly and fulfilled, and he was gathered unto his ancestors. Yitzchak and Yishma'el his sons buried him in the cave of Machpela, at the field of Efron son of Tzochar the Chittite that was before Mamre. It was the very field that Avraham had purchased from the people of Chet, and there were buried Avraham and Sarah his wife. After Avraham had died, the Lord blessed Yitzchak his son, and Yitzchak dwelt next to the well of Lechi Roi (25:5-11).
UPHOLDING YITZCHAK'S CLAIM
We note then that the accounts of Avraham's remarriage on the one hand, and of his subsequent death and burial on the other, are bracketed by matters that pertain to Yitzchak. It is Yitzchak's own marriage to Rivka that introduces Avraham's new marriage to Ketura, and it is Yitzchak's securing of Divine blessing that concludes the report of Avraham's death and burial. In between, of course, in the midst of the account of Ketura and her offspring, was the mention of Yitzchak being appointed by his father as sole beneficiary to his estate.
In other words, the passage that speaks of Avraham's marriage to Ketura and of the numerous children of his old age really has another objective in mind: to emphasize the exclusive singling out of Yitzchak not only as legal heir but as spiritual successor as well. As Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak, 13th century, Provençe) remarks:
Avraham distributed his wealth to Yitzchak while yet alive so that his other children not enter into dispute with him after Avraham's demise. He gave all that he had to Yitzchak in accordance with God's promise that "it is through Yitzchak that you shall have descendents" (see Breisheet 21:12)…he then sent away all of the children of his concubines so that they would not be a burden to Yitzchak or else a source of strife concerning the inheritance…(commentary to 25:5-6).
THE PARALLEL OF HAGAR AND YISHMA'EL
As it turns out, Radak's quote from 21:12 constitutes a powerful parallel to our account here. Recall that in Chapter 21 of Breisheet, Sarah was blessed with a child in her old age, just as God had promised. Baby Yitzchak was a source of special joy to his parents, and when he was weaned they prepared a festive banquet in his honor. At that feast, however, Yishma'el his older half-brother made mirth, and Sarah's wrath was aroused. Angrily, she bid Avraham to banish Yishma'el and his mother the maidservant Hagar from the household, and although the Patriarch had painful misgivings about driving out his own son, he complied, just as God had indicated to him: "The Lord said to Avraham: be not troubled concerning the lad or the maidservant. All that Sarah has said to you, you shall hearken to her voice, FOR IT IS THROUGH YITZCHAK THAT YOU SHALL HAVE DESCENDENTS. As for the son of the maidservant, I shall make a nation out of him, for he is your son" (21:12-13). On the morrow, Avraham awoke early, gave bread and water to Hagar, and sent her and her son Yishma'el away (presumably towards Egypt her ), but they became disoriented and instead wandered in the wilderness of Be'er Sheva. Though almost struck down by thirst, God intervened to save them and they made their way southwestwards to the wilderness of Paran.
In both episodes, then, the former from Yitzchak's early years and the latter from his adulthood, half-siblings are banished or otherwise sent away by Avraham. Yishma'el his son from Hagar and the numerous children from Ketura are all sent away, the one to the west and the others to the east. In both cases, Avraham seeks in so doing to solidify the supremacy of Yitzchak as true heir and successor. In both events, there is a statement of Divine approval appended to the proceedings – in the case of Yishma'el that approval is communicated on the eve of his banishment, and in the case of the children of Ketura it is communicated in the form of a "Divine blessing" that, although it takes place much later temporally (after the death of Avraham), is nevertheless mentioned by the Torah in the context of the episode. In both cases, Sarah's influence is also strongly felt – it is she who demands the expulsion of Yishma'el and it is her potent memory that serves as the backdrop for the sending away of Ketura's children. And in both episodes, it is a "coming of age" event in the life of Yitzchak that precipitates the expulsion: first Yitzchak's weaning as he leaves infanthood behind and begins his formal induction into the teachings of his parents, and later his marriage to Rivka, as he prepares to take on Avraham's role as progenitor of the nation that will make God's service their banner.
Considering the matter in totality, then, it is clear that the Torah's aim is to draw our attention to the similar dynamics at work in both episodes. It is Yitzchak the son of beloved Sarah and Yitzchak only, who has been Divinely selected to fulfill a special mission in the world, to propagate and to perpetuate the legacy of his father and of his mother. The ethical monotheism that they championed will not die, as long as Yitzchak and Rivka transmit it to their own children and to the nations. The precious teachings of justice and righteousness, compassion and kindness, practiced and honed by Avraham and Sarah during their long and turbulent lives of trial and challenge, will alter the course of human history by introducing the idea of an absolute but caring God to a skeptical and jaded world perpetually on the brink of self-destruction. And it is Yitzchak and Rivka and only they who will effectively transmit those teachings.
But there will be others who will try mightily to usurp Yitzchak's special role in the world, claiming the mantle of being the "children of Avraham" while at the same jettisoning his stern demands for personal and national moral responsibility in favor of more convenient and self-serving doctrines. The children of Yishma'el and Ketura, those to the west and those to the east, archetypes all of those that don Avrahamic trappings without internalizing the Patriarch's core message of justice and compassion for all humanity (even the people of Sodom!), will call Yitzchak's mission into question, claiming for themselves God's special attention while simultaneously neglecting His charge. But they will not prevail. Just as Avraham, first at Sarah's behest and then in deference to her memory, perceptively sent their ancestors away in order to buttress Yitzchak's rightful prerogative, so too the descendents of Yitzchak – the people of Israel – will one day successfully complete their mission and finally secure humanity's recognition of their remarkable destiny: "to perfect the world through the service of the Almighty".