Parashat Chayei Sarah: Transitioning to the Next Generation
[This is part five in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]
Following the creation of man and the Garden Eden in the first parasha, 20 generations had past and humanity continued to disappoint. Time and again the central characters failed to rise to the occasion and, similarly, shem in the Torah text appeared both sporadically and used improperly. Then we met Abraham at the end of the Torah’s second parasha and we learn of his selflessness and righteous use of shem.
The third parasha, Lech Lecha, began with God’s summons to Abraham and His promise of greatness in return. Abraham emerges as humanity’s hero and shem follows along. Abraham’s name is mentioned again and again in the timeless Torah text, and the word shem itself seems to be tied to him and his extended circle. Abraham’s own name is changed by God Himself at the end of Lech Lecha as a sign of his magnified name, wealth, and influence:
וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵ֥א ע֛וֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ֖ אַבְרָ֑ם וְהָיָ֤ה שִׁמְךָ֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֛י אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ׃
And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. (Genesis 17:5)
Abraham and his family stay at the center of things for the following parasha, Vayeira, then we get here to parashat Chayei Sarah and we begin to transition beyond Abraham, the father of many nations.
Though this analysis seeks to focus on explicit mentions of shem in the Torah, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Sarah. Naturally — or supernaturally — there is always something to learn from the text.
Sarah is the namesake for this parasha, the second time a parasha is named after someone (Noah previously). Curiously, though, whereas the parasha’s name means: “the life / lifetime of Sarah,” we hear of her death in the very first words.
The first major portion of Chayei Sarah revolves around Abraham seeing to the burial of his wife, Sarah. Fittingly, following Sarah’s departure from the Torah, shem isn’t mentioned for the first half of this parasha. Legacy and reputation — ingredients of one’s name — are earned by the living. “What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You, can it declare Your faithfulness?” (Psalms 30:5)
Sarah’s legacy as matriarch of the Jewish people is at stake — as is Abraham’s — as we turn to the next generation, Isaac. First, though, Abraham pays his final respects to his beloved wife (Gen. 23:2).
In the very next verse and continuing until the completion of Abraham’s negotiations to buy the land for Sarah’s burial plot (Gen. 23:3–18), the Torah and its characters refer to Sarah simply as the ‘dead,’ no name or title. Finally, after the sale in concluded and her body buried, her legacy is maintained and the text again refers to her as “Sarah, his [Abraham’s] wife.”
Abraham did his job safeguarding eternity for Sarah. Next he turns to the next generation, to his son Isaac.
In the next section we read of Abraham commissioning his servant — whom we know to be Eliezer — to find Isaac a wife.
I say ‘we know’ because his name isn’t actually mentioned here in this parasha. Instead, the text refers to him either in the diminutive ‘servant’ or the honorable ‘man,’ depending on the context. The Torah had mentioned the name of Abraham’s head servant previously, but here his name is left out. Contrast that with Abraham, whose name is mentioned 37 times in this parasha even though his actual character is absent from most of it.
In chapter 24, the longest chapter in the book of Bereishit, the reader is given lots of narrative and even records Eliezer simply recounting an earlier event in the chapter. The six days of creation take up all but 31 verses — 34 including the seventh day — yet here the Torah deems fit to have a nameless person repeat basic story details.
As the great commentator Rashi teaches: this demands to be expounded upon.
But I digress, names and the Torah of their origins and meanings is beyond our scope. Here, we’ll [try to] stay focused on appearances of shem in the Torah text.
[A simple answer to the above mystery is that the Torah focuses on humanity, not God or theology.]
shem first appears in parashat Chayei Sarah in conjunction with Laban, the future matriarch Rebecca’s older brother:
וּלְרִבְקָ֥ה אָ֖ח וּשְׁמ֣וֹ לָבָ֑ן וַיָּ֨רׇץ לָבָ֧ן אֶל־הָאִ֛ישׁ הַח֖וּצָה אֶל־הָעָֽיִן׃
Now, Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out to the man at the spring. (Gen. 24:29)
Previously the Torah had introduced Rebecca and her lineage and explicitly named her father and grandparents. “Now,” Laban bursts onto the scene, greeting Eliezer as his honored guest and offering his hospitality, and in doing so commandeers the story line ahead of his father Bethuel, the ostensible man of the house.
Laban reappears later in the Torah and emerges as an enemy of the Abrahamic legacy. So it’s the antagonist side of shem here, fittingly accompanied by boorish behavior.
Finally, Sarah’s name is mentioned once again in the parasha that bears her name. She is referenced by three separate words:
וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃
Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother. (Gen. 24:67)
Isaac marries Rebecca, ensuring the continued survival of the Jewish people and Sarah’s legacy.
וַיֹּ֧סֶף אַבְרָהָ֛ם וַיִּקַּ֥ח אִשָּׁ֖ה וּשְׁמָ֥הּ קְטוּרָֽה׃
Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. (Gen. 25:1)
Enigma. This is one of those THIS DEMANDS TO BE EXPLAINED situations.
Who is this, Keturah? Why did Abraham marry her? Why do they suddenly have many children together after Abraham’s progeny was limited to just Ishmael and Isaac?
Our Sages teach us that Keturah is actually Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant who became Abraham’s spouse and birthed Ishmael at Sarah’s request, explaining: “Look, the LORD has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have be built up / have a son through her” (Gen. 16:2). But then, after Sarah miraculously birthed Isaac, Sarah saw that Ishmael was not a fit companion for Isaac. Ishmael’s instigation is unclear from the text — interestingly a conjugation of Isaac’s namesake’s root word — but Sarah’s motivation is quite clear: “…he shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” (Gen. 21:10). Legacy, as always, is central to our story.
Regarding Hagar, as to her reappearance in Abraham’s life after he sent her away, the Sages teach: ‘A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds for the better’ (Rosh Hashana 16b). It fits, then, that this mysterious Keturah is actually a rehabilitated Hagar.
As to why all the children, one answer is that Abraham was promised to be a father of many nations so this is in fulfillment of that.
But he is careful to make a distinction before his death:
וַיִּתֵּ֧ן אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֖וֹ לְיִצְחָֽק׃ וְלִבְנֵ֤י הַפִּֽילַגְשִׁים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם נָתַ֥ן אַבְרָהָ֖ם מַתָּנֹ֑ת וַֽיְשַׁלְּחֵ֞ם מֵעַ֨ל יִצְחָ֤ק בְּנוֹ֙ בְּעוֹדֶ֣נּוּ חַ֔י קֵ֖דְמָה אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ קֶֽדֶם׃
Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac. But to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East. (Gen. 25:6)
Echoing the earlier episode when he sent away Hagar and Ishmael, here Abraham ensures that his primary legacy passes through Isaac. Just as Sarah requested.
We then hear of Abraham’s death, signalling the conclusion of his story in Genesis. Technically, he is still alive for the beginning of the next parasha, but the Torah is sometimes written thematically rather than strictly chronologically. In ending his story here the Torah paves the way for the next generation. Abraham’s legacy is to live on through his children.
shem’s final appearances in this parasha are linked with Ishmael:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל בִּשְׁמֹתָ֖ם לְתוֹלְדֹתָ֑ם בְּכֹ֤ר יִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ נְבָיֹ֔ת וְקֵדָ֥ר וְאַדְבְּאֵ֖ל וּמִבְשָֽׂם׃ וּמִשְׁמָ֥ע וְדוּמָ֖ה וּמַשָּֽׂא׃ חֲדַ֣ד וְתֵימָ֔א יְט֥וּר נָפִ֖ישׁ וָקֵֽדְמָה׃ אֵ֣לֶּה הֵ֞ם בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ וְאֵ֣לֶּה שְׁמֹתָ֔ם בְּחַצְרֵיהֶ֖ם וּבְטִֽירֹתָ֑ם שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר נְשִׂיאִ֖ם לְאֻמֹּתָֽם׃
These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the first-born of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedmah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names by their villages and by their encampments: twelve chieftains of as many tribes. (Gen. 25:13-16)
The Torah goes out of its way, so to speak, pointing out that Ishmael’s sons numbered 12, exactly as prescripted and promised by God earlier. This is clearly in fulfillment of God’s earlier promise to Abraham: “As for Ishmael, I have heeded you, I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.” (Gen. 17:20)
Similar to Abraham’s death, the Torah recounts Ishmael’s legacy here even though this flourishing of his descendants must have taken place over some period of time. In doing so, the Torah simultaneously closes the Ishmael story and depicts God keeping His promise to Abraham.
Names have great significance, in the Torah and in life. Sometimes they are bright and loud, other times shrouded in mystery.
Chayei Sarah, a parasha whose name speaks of life but begins with its namesake’s death. And Eliezer, the faithful servant whose journey is documented and recounted in the Torah yet he himself remains nameless in the text. So much to uncover and explore, but that is beyond the scope of our shem analysis.
This parasha acts as a transition in which Abraham says goodbye to the previous generation — his generation — and paves the way for Isaac to take over as torchbearer of God’s mission. We will see shem follow along.