Making meaning through midrash: A d’var Torah for Chayei Sarah

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Photo: Sean Locke

Rabbi Rachel K. Bearman

This week’s Torah Portion, Chayei Sarah, introduces us to Isaac and Rebecca’s love story. I have always been interested in Isaac and Rebecca’s relationship, and a few years ago, I used the medium of midrash to dive more deeply into their story. Midrash is a genre of sacred literature which includes thousands of years of stories written about biblical figures and events. To create a midrash, you just need to ask a question about the biblical text and then provide your own answer.

In addition to writing my own, original midrashim, I am the co-creator and co-author, along with Rabbi Paul Kipnes, of Midrashic Monologues, a project dedicated to using midrash to excavate the voices of biblical figures who have been forgotten or silenced.

I find that writing and reading midrashim allows me to see our ancient ancestors as more complex, and full human beings. The Torah captures moments in our ancestors’ lives, but it’s incredibly freeing and exciting to think of the stories and people that might have existed in the background of the moments that we’ve read about so many times.

I wrote the following midrash, “How Do You Know,” for Midrashic Monologues. It comes from my asking and answering these questions:

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  • What was Isaac and Rebecca’s relationship really like? And, how did it change over the years that they were together?
  • How did they think about the events that are captured in this week’s Torah portion?
  • How did the love that began in Chayei Sarah shape their relationships with their sons, Jacob and Esau?
  • What kind of interactions can I imagine that will build on (without contradicting) the stories about them that were preserved in the Torah?

“How Do You Know” is written from Rebecca’s perspective. I hope that you enjoy reading this midrash and that it inspires you to ask your own questions and imagine your own answers.

How Do You Know: A Midrashic Monologue

It happened when we gathered for our evening meal.

I was ladling stew into everyone’s bowls when I realized that Jacob and Esau were having one of their “twin conversations,” silently communicating with narrowed eyes and fluid eyebrows.

I looked at Isaac and saw him watching our boys with an amused smile on his face. He met my gaze, and we grinned at one another, knowing that our evening would be entertaining at the very least.

Finally, Esau sighed and turned to us. I wondered if he had won or lost the silent conversation.

“Abba… Ima,” Esau began seriously.

I matched his tone, “Yes, my son?”

“We wanted to ask you a question.”

“Of course. Ask anything that you like. Your father and I will do our best to give you an answer.”

At this, Esau looked back at his brother. Jacob nodded enthusiastically in response to his telepathic question. Esau seemed to be gathering his courage as he turned back to us. When he opened his mouth to speak, the words tumbled out, wrapped around one another.

“Howdoyouknowwhotomarry?

Isaac tried to calm him, “Once more, Esau. This time, a little slower, please.”

Our firstborn took a deep breath and said slowly, “How do you know who to marry?”

Isaac sat back a little. I recognized the mirth dancing in his eyes, and I knew that he was working very hard to stop himself from laughing at the earnest and somewhat pugnacious expression on both boys’ faces. “What an interesting question,” he said. “Can I ask what made you think of it?”

This time, it was Jacob who answered. “Well, we’re nearly men now,” he said. “And, it seems like something we should know.”

Isaac squeezed my hand, expressing camaraderie, joy, and humor. I knew that this would be a moment I would always remember- sitting together with my husband as our boys, who had only just celebrated their twelfth birthday, asked us for the answers that they thought men needed to know.

I cleared my throat and said, “Boys, I’m glad that you are thinking about this. Choosing the right partner is one of the most important things a person can do in their lives. You are right, you will soon be men, and it makes my heart happy to know that you are already considering this life-changing decision.”

I watched as our boys, tall and gangly with youth, puffed up at my praise. I wondered for the millionth time about the men they would become someday.

I nudged Isaac with my shoulder, indicating that it was his turn to talk.

“Jacob, Esau, I met your mother when I was in a very dark place. My father and I had become estranged. My mother had passed away. I felt very alone in this world.”

Now I squeezed my husband’s hand- remembering the shadows that had been etched into his face, the deep pain and grief that he had carried in the stoop of his shoulders.

He smiled at me reassuringly and continued, “When your mother came into my life, she brought light with her. I knew that I should marry her because she made me feel that life was joyful and full of possibilities.”

The boys nodded their heads, looking as if they were filing away information for future use, and then turned to me.

I smiled and began my answer to their question, “I didn’t know your Abba when I agreed to be his wife. I was at the well in my village when I met Abba’s servant, Eliezer. He had been sent to find your Abba a suitable wife and was bursting with stories about his master. Eliezer and I must have sat by that well for half a day, talking about Isaac.” I smiled at my husband, thinking that I had been lucky because Eliezer had spoken the truth.

“Eliezer told me about a kind young man who had lived a difficult life and whose heart was bruised but not broken. After speaking with him for hours, I realized that your Abba and I were matching pieces of a puzzle.

“Your Abba had been left without a family, while mine was large and ever expanding.

He can see clearly what people are feeling, while I, all too often, get stuck on the practicalities.

He is sometimes reluctant to make decisions, while I always trust my instincts.

He is not afraid to share his heart, while I worry about being hurt.

He is sometimes shy and retiring, while I am always happy in large crowds.

“You see, boys, we fit one another. My experiences had shaped me into the person your Abba needed, and his experiences had made him into the one I was looking for. Once I realized that, it was easy to agree to be your Abba’s wife, and so I did. I ran home, packed everything I needed, said goodbye to my family, and followed Eliezer to meet my new husband.”

Jacob looked thoughtful as he asked, “Were you worried that you wouldn’t like him when you saw him for the first time?”

“A little,” I replied, “But he turned out to be exactly the person I had been promised.”

I leaned toward the boys and whispered conspiratorially, “Plus, he was very handsome. The first time I saw him, he was walking in the field, and I knew he was the one for me.”

Esau smirked and said, “He was so handsome that you knew right away?” He turned to his father and teased, “Wow, Abba! What happened to you since then?!”

I laughed and looked at my husband, saying, “Hmmm… maybe I’m mistaken. Were you as handsome as I remember you being?”

Isaac tried to look stern and indignant, two things that he could never quite accomplish, before replying, “Boys, I’ll have you know that I was so handsome that the first time your Ima saw me, she fell right off her camel.

Both boys turned to me with open mouths and wide eyes.

I put my head on Isaac’s shoulder, thinking of that long-ago meeting, “I can only pray that God gives you both a sign that is as clear as the one I received that day.”

Isaac nodded and said, “Esau, Jacob, we hope that you will choose people who will be true partners to you, who will bring balance to your lives and make you feel like the world is full of possibilities.”

Both boys nodded seriously, as if accepting a formal instruction.

For a moment, the four of us sat in contemplative quiet, enjoying dreams of the future, but then our thoughts were interrupted by Jacob’s stomach rumbling.

I laughed and said, “Unless either of you is hoping to become betrothed this evening, I think we should bless our meal and enjoy it. Jacob and Esau, since you have reminded us tonight that you are both almost men, why don’t you offer the blessing?”

After another, quick, silent conversation, Jacob began,

“We thank You, Holy One, for the delicious food that we will eat tonight.

And we thank You for our family and the chance to be together.”

Esau jumped in, completing Jacob’s thoughts,

“Thank you for our parents and for making them so right for one another.

We hope that when we find our own partners someday, we’ll know for sure that they’re the right ones for us.”

Jacob snickered before concluding, “Holy One, please don’t knock us off any camels though. We promise we’ll be paying attention.”

At my raised eyebrow, both boys hastily concluded,

“And we say together, Amen.”

Rabbi Rachel K. Bearman is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah.