Chayay Sarah by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Chayei Sarah (חיי שרה)
Torah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1 – 1:31



Scene: c. 1400 BCE, give or take a century. The interior of a stucco’d, mud-brick house in Kiryat-Arba, a suburb of the town of Hebron, a Hittite city. It is dusk; Rebecca, a young bride, daughter of Bethuel of Aram-Naharaim, the newlywed bride of Isaac ben Abraham v’Sarah—that is, the late Sarah, who is buried in the field of Ephron the Hittite, called Machpelah—is lighting an oil lamp.

She waves her hands over it, though it is not yet Shabbat, covers her eyes, and prays silently. Then, she returns to the pot she has cooking over the fire in the corner: a red-bean lentil stew for her new husband, Isaac, who will be returning very soon after a day’s shepherding the flocks of his father, Abraham the Hebrew, first to believe in the One True Invisible God.

Still, for now, Rebecca, late an idolater, is alone. She puts down the ladle and walks quietly to a bundle of blankets and bedclothes in the corner, unwraps them carefully, and takes out a small idol-figure: a clay woman with distended belly and breasts, a fertility goddess, named Inanna—a childhood favorite of hers, and a confidante. She kisses the face of the figurine—it has no features, and, even if it did, they would have worn away, by now, from an excess of kissing. Rebecca prays to Inanna, in a chanting sing-song which she learned from her grandmother, Milcah, after Rebecca’s own mother died giving birth to her:


Rebecca: “When the Sky god, An, had flown to the heavens/ And the Air god, Enlil, had settled to earth/ When the Queen of Underworld, Eresh-kigal, received her domain/ And Woman first baked bread to nourish Life,/ A Woman who feared the Sky-god An/ And revered the god of Air, Enlil,/ Saw the Tree which Enki, god of Wisdom, had planted/ By the Euphrates, for Inanna/ Mother of All,/ To rest therein—/ O make me fertile, White Goddess! Make me flower, and bear fruit/ Let not Lilith take my fruit away….

(She continues, silently, rocking back-and-forth, as Isaac enters; he leans his shepherd’s-crook in the corner.)

Isaac: Good Evening to you, Wife! Is dinner ready?

Rebecca: Oh! My husband—I was distracted (She hastily hides the idol beneath the covers, rises, straightens her robe)—sit, Husband, sit. I will bring you dinner, bread, and spiced wine.

Isaac (sits at the rough table in the corner): What a day I had! Papa is no easier to work for, now that his rheumatism is kicking in, and he comes out to fields more rarely. He is just as harsh a taskmaster as ever, nay more, for me and Chief Servant Eliezer and the boys (imitating Abraham’s voice):

“Where are taking the sheep, Isaac? That grass on yonder hillside is tainted, surely; you will poison the flock,” or, “That little spotted-and-speckled ram is growing well, but if you do not keep close watch on his frolicking, he will gambol himself off a cliff, mark my words! Break his legs, spine, his silly head, I tell ye—and then, not even them idolatrous priests of Baal or them horrible cult dancin’-girls of Inanna will buy it for a sacrifice, mark me! Watch out, watch out, you nincompoops—Adonoi’s beard, what would you do ‘thout me to keep a sharp eye on your shenanigans? Ah, the heat, the heat! Eliezer, my faithful man-jack, fetch me a nipperful of cool wine to fend off the vapors….”

Rebecca: Poor Papa Abie! He does mean well, I suppose….

Isaac: Why, whose side are you on? I was just digging up a couple of Dad’s old wells—getting the drop on those Philistines—that rabble of Abimelech and Phicol’s, don’cha know—and a pair of Phicol’s Philistinny cavalry troopers started in, charging at me! I tell you, I took to my heels, quickly—

Rebecca (gently but firmly): Philistines, Dear? Don’t you mean Hittites?

Isaac (his mouth full of bread and stew): No, they were Philistines. I’m sure of it. They wore those—those—horsehair helmet-trims, or something. Yes. I know.

Rebecca: Because there are Philistine encampments on the coast of the Great Sea, but none inland. Eliezer told me so, just the other day. None so deep inland as here. They must have been Hittites.

Isaac (nonplussed): Well—well—whatever they were, they did charge me. I say, you can see it here, yourself! Come look! (He displays a small cut on his forearm) That is where the Sergeant-Major took a piece out of me, with his lance. I was lucky to parry with my shepherd’s staff, while I was running away.

Rebecca (whispering, more to herself): I wish you wouldn’t run….

Isaac (flustered and becoming angry, knowing what she thinks of his lack of courage): What’s that, Woman? Speak up when you talk to me!

Rebecca (not fearing him): I wasn’t exactly talking to you, Isaac; I was talking to our God, our Invisible God, the one you and Papa talk to me about, all the time. I am trying to get into the habit of telling Him my problems.

Isaac (not giving up): Problems? (Sarcastically) Such as what problems, my little Aramean Princess?

Rebecca (losing her temper): Such as being married to a man who feels the need to hide away whenever a—a—conflict takes place. Or run to his father. I don’t know you very well, Isaac son of Abraham, but where I come from—Aram between the Two Rivers, a country of courageous men—men are not so quick to fight. They talk. And they make peace. Or, at least, they don’t run away from a confrontation, and go crying to their papas to fix things for them.

Isaac (sputtering with rage, and shaking his spoon at her): Why, you—you—what do you know about me, you little snip of an Aramean hillbilly? My people come from Ur of the Chaldees, the mightiest city of our day, the—

Rebecca (coolly): …which you yourself have never seen, but which your dear, departed Mama Sarah used to tell you bedtime stories about, when she wasn’t spoiling you to death (he begins to cry)—Oh, Isaac, I’m sorry.

Isaac (sobbing): What do you care? Your mother isn’t dead (Rebecca begins to cry)—oh, wait, she is, too!

(They hug, trying to comfort one another)

Rebecca: Well, there’s no getting around it: we are a pretty pair.

Isaac: Yes, thrown together by Destiny.

Rebecca: Or our fathers. Or your father’s chief servant, Eliezer, my savior with the dozen camels, the boxes of gold jewelry for bribing a little Aramean hillbilly princess (he smiles at her teasing) and the deep voice. ‘Will it please you, Little Girl, to come to accompany me, to marry my Master Isaac, whom you have never met, in a land you have never seen? Harrumph, harrumph.’

(They are both laughing now, at the memory.)

Isaac: But, my little dove, my sweetest Becky, when I first saw you! There, in the sunset—

Rebecca: Yes: you were wearing a golden tunic and cloak, and wearing an ornamental sword—you looked like my tall, dark Desert Prince. So handsome. Whose sword was that, anyway? I have never seen it, since. (Teasingly) Was it a rental, from Shomerbaal in the Hebron Shuk? Or did you borrow it from some mighty sheikh?

Isaac (proudly, yet knowing she is still teasing him, refusing to get angry or take the bait): That sword is my father’s—he wore it when he married my mother.

Rebecca: So, Sheikh Isaac—where was it, at our wedding?

Isaac: Well, you know me, Becky—I had lost it, or misplaced it, or something. Never fear: it will turn up, when I’m—

Rebecca (finishing his sentence for him, as loving couples do): …looking for something else. Yes, My Isaac, I know you, far too well. I—oh, wait—I feel dizzy—(She starts to grow limp in his arms)

Isaac (alarmed): Becky—what’s the matter? (He struggles to hold her up) Rebecca—please don’t—don’t die! I love you! (Calling for help, loudly) I say—alarm! Alarm! Servants, ho! Eliezer, Anat! Come to me, Isaac, your master!

(Enter Eliezer and his wife Anat, half-dressed, but alert to any signs of danger in their young master’s home)

Eliezer: What is it, Master Isaac? What ails young Mistress Rebecca? Anat, my dear wife—let us attend to her….(They carry Rebecca, half-fainting, to a bed in the corner of the room, and Anat begins to gently pat her cheeks. Other servants, young and old, enter; they see Rebecca prostrate, and cluster around, concerned and worried.) Stand back, ho! Give her air—and fetch the strong drink—is there any honey mead about?

Anat (kneeling, after a quick examination of Rebecca’s face and body): My Young Master Isaac, has Mistress Rebecca eaten today?

Isaac (concerned, but somewhat crossly): Why, Anat, how should I know? I rose while still ‘twas dark, and have been out in the fields since ‘way before sunup—

Kigalla (another servant, just a bit younger than Anat, stepping forward): Begging your pardon for interrupting, Sir—my Mistress Rebecca did not summon me to bring her breakfast this morning, Senior Servant Anat. When I queried her why, she said, ‘I cannot seem to keep anything down, Kigalla. I will have only herbal tea and a tiny bit of barley bread, today.’ (She and Anat nod at one another, wisely.) Praise to Inanna—I mean, to Shekhinah! She is—must be—

Anat: Silence, Old Friend and Fellow Midwife Kigalla—(In a loud voice, to the crowd) All men out! Out, you rabble, hairy, smelly, useless men! Out! (Eliezer begins to protest, sees his wife’s face, thinks better of it—but Anat grabs hold of Isaac’s arm, and nods to her husband, Chief Servant Eliezer, to remain; he does so, with a firm grip on Isaac’s slender shoulder) You, Sir, Young Master Isaac, you stay right here—with my husband.

Isaac (puzzled, as the room empties quickly): What? Why? What—what’s happening?

Anat (As the room is now empty, she strokes Rebecca’s cheek, and Rebecca opens her eyes): Young Master—what’s happening, is that you are about to become a father (glances at Rebecca’s slim form, presses her belly)—of twins, I should say. Praise to the Heights! Our tribe increases! Good stars and constellations to our dear, sweet mistress and master! (Speaking and pointing with her thumb to a young maidservant) You, little Avdiella, run and summon Old Master Abraham—he will be so, so happy! Mazel Tov! (All clap and cheer)

Eliezer (hitting Isaac a stunning blow on the back, so that he nearly stumbles): Mazel Tov!

(Laughter; the sound of flutes, drums, and timbrels)


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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