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A Stranger in a Familiar Land

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

The shiur this week is dedicated in honour of my dear mother, Rivka bat Gila veHaRav Pinchas, z"l. The first yartzeit of her passing is on 24th Kislev, Erev Shabbat Kodesh, parshat Chayei Sarah.

Though this week's parsha opens with the death of Sarah the parsha is nevertheless called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah.  After Sarah passes away, Avraham begins looking towards the next generation, to securing his and Sarah Imeinu's legacy. In this way, the parsha tells us how the life of Sarah continues after her death, how the values that she and Avraham held dear were internalized by her offspring and eventually their many descendants.

Following the purchase of Me'arat Hamachpela, which ensures that Avraham will be able to bequeath a piece of real estate in Eretz Yisrael to his child Yitzchak, Avraham embarks on his next project related to the next generation, the need to find a wife for Yitzchak. However, Avraham chooses to do so in what might be considered a somewhat unconventional fashion. Rather than sending Yitzchak to find his own wife, as Yitzchak later does with his own son Ya'akov, Avraham sends his trusty servant to fulfill this mission.

We may be surprised by the first thing he tells his servant:

I make you swear by the God of heaven and the God of earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan, among who I live. Rather you shall go to my land and birthplace, there you shall take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak. (Bereishit 24:3-4)

Why does Avraham begin by telling his servant what he must not do? Surely, he should first explain what he is asking him to do and only then outline the parameters of the mission.  But the positive command to his servant is even more surprising. Avraham had been told to leave his country, his home and travel to Canaan. He had been told to do so by God Himself. Surely, it was clear to Avraham, that his homeland was a place full of immoral behavior where he could not flourish and grow into the nation as God has promised him. Why, would Avraham then wish for his son to marry a girl from that very place that he had fled all those years ago? The question becomes clearer when we note the language Avraham employs in his orders to his servant - כי אל ארצי ואל מולדתי תלך - the same phrases which Hashem uses when he commands Avraham to embark on his original journey   לך לך מארצך וממולדתך.

In order to answer these questions we must consider the reason for which Avraham was commanded to go to Canaan. We assumed above that he had to leave his homeland because of the detrimental influences that existed there. While this is definitely true, and there are many midrashim which testify to the idolatrous practices in that country, if that was the only rationale behind God's command Avraham could have been told simply to leave. He would not have been instructed to go anywhere in particular. The fact that Hashem directs Avraham and his family to Canaan suggests that God wanted Avraham to fulfill a specific role in that very place.

As we know from multiple sources in the Torah, the people of Canaan were notorious not only for their idolatry but also for their immoral behavior. The Torah warns us time and time again not to perform "ma'aseh eretz Canaan", the type of actions which the Torah was particularly concerned to uproot from the world. 

It is to this evil and immoral society that Avraham was sent by Hashem to be a beacon of light in the midst of a dark and misguided people. In addition to this, for Avraham to begin a new life, predicated on a fresh set of values, it was necessary for him to detach himself from his connections to his family and his homeland. Only then would he be able to create a new outlook, independent of earlier influences. 

Let us now return to our parsha. Avraham is fully aware of the alien culture in which he and his family are living. He also understands that in order to succeed in his mission, he must not allow the Canaanite culture to influence him in any shape or fashion. For this reason, the first thing he tells his servant is not to take a Canaanite wife for Yitzchak. Better that Yitzchak remain single than allow a Canaanite into the Abrahamic tribe.

Both Rav Hirsch and Kli Yakar expound on this point by focusing on the seemingly redundant phrase found in the passuk quoted above:

"that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan, among who I live".

Is it not obvious among whom Avraham lives? Rav Hirsch explains that the influence of a Canaanite woman would be compounded by the fact that she would be living among her kinsmen. Her practices would find support in those of the local population and her family members. 

Kli Yakar elaborates on this idea and explains therefore why a woman from a distant land would be preferable as a wife for Yitzchak. But this theory would only work if Yitzchak does not stay in that distant land. For this reason, Avraham sends his servant to Aram Naharaim and instructs him to bring the intended wife back to Canaan and not to take Yitzchak there. Once she is out of her element and joins the Abrahamic tribe she will no longer be affected by the practices of her family. In addition, she will be a stranger to the local culture and therefore become fully integrated into her new family, the family of Avraham and his son.

In addition to all of the above, Avraham's servant makes every effort to find a girl with the characteristics that are suited to a daughter-in-law of Avraham. But even a young woman such as Rivka may not have flourished had she remained in the very place Avraham had been told to flee so many years earlier.

We often find ourselves in situations in which we feel that the society around us represents values which are alien to those we hold dear. How we grapple with this is a question which has troubled Jews across the ages. We would do well to learn a few lessons from our ancestor Avraham Avinu.

On a personal note, my mother, whose Hebrew name was Rivka, was not always privileged to live among strong Jewish communities. Yet, she, first as a single woman, and later together with my dear father z"l, was able to hold steadfast to her values and live as a Torah Jew till the day she passed from this world.  יהי זכרה ברוך

Shabbat shalom,

Rav Yonatan



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