A Canaanite Wife for Yitzchak

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion






A Canaanite Wife for Yitzchak

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Avraham said to his servant, the overseer of his household, who governed all that he had: "Please put your hand under my thigh, that I may cause you to swear by God, the Lord of the heavens and the Lord of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites amongst whom I dwell. Rather, you shall go to my country and to my birthplace, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzchak." (24:2-4)


            Avraham makes his servant swear that he will not under any circumstances choose a Canaanite wife for Yitzchak, but rather a woman from Aram Naharayim. What if a suitable wife cannot be found there? Rashi (commenting on verse 8) maintains that Avraham agreed to compromise in this event, and would consent for a wife to be chosen from among the daughters of Aner, Eshkol and Mamrei. Ramban (ad loc.) disagrees: since Aner, Eshkol and Mamrei were Canaanites, Avraham would never take one of their daughters as a wife for Yitzchak, and would rely upon God "to do as He sees fit."


The text does not tell us which specific flaw Avraham detected in the Canaanite women. Perhaps his words, "I shall cause you to swear by God, the Lord of the heavens and the Lord of the earth," hint that the Canaanites did not believe in a "Lord of the heavens and of the earth." Since they were complete pagans, Avraham rejected their daughters as possible marriage partners for his son. We may also posit that the people of Canaan were influenced to some extent by the behavior of their neighbors in Sedom, who epitomized the very opposite of the trait of kindness that so characterized Avraham.  This, too, made him wary of forging family bonds with them.


Still, we must ask why Avraham was so vehemently opposed to the idea of his son marrying the daughter of idolaters, or of people not outstanding in their kindness. After all, the groom in question was forty years old, and had been educated his whole life towards service of God and the performance of acts of kindness on the highest possible level, as practiced in Avraham's house. We are also speaking of a person who experienced personally the dramatic, selfless submission of the "akeida." There can be no doubt that both a firm faith in God and a commitment to kindness were deeply rooted in him. Could Yitzchak not be relied upon to establish a worthy Jewish home? Was not the fear that his wife would exercise a negative influence somewhat exaggerated?


The answer to this question may lie in an event that had taken place in Avraham's household many years previously:


Sara saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, making sport. (21:9)


In the Tosefta on Sota (6:3), the Tannaim debate what it was that Sara saw:


Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Rabbi Akiva expounded four things [that Sara saw], but my opinion is more plausible than his…

Rabbi Akiva explained: … The "sport" referred to here means idolatry, as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they arose to make sport" (Shemot 32:6). This teaches us that our matriarch, Sara, saw Yishmael building raised altars and catching locusts and offering them sacrifices and incense to idols.

Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Yossi ha-Gelili, contends: The "sport" referred to here means sexual immorality, as it is written: "The servant came to me… to make sport of me" (Bereishit 39:17). This teaches us that our matriarch Sara saw Yishmael trespassing into others' fields and raping the women [working there].

Rabbi Yishmael taught: The word "sport" refers to shedding blood, as it is written: "Let the young men arise and make sport before us… and each grasped the head of his neighbor, and plunged his sword into his neighbor, and they fell together" (II Shemuel 2:14-16). This teaches that our matriarch Sara saw Yishmael taking up a bow and arrow and shooting them at Yitzchak…

And I say, heaven forefend that such things could go on in the house of that righteous man. Is it possible that someone of whom it is said, "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of God, to do righteousness and judgment" (Bereishit 18:19), would have idolatry and sexual immorality and bloodshed in his house? [Surely not!] Rather, the "sport" mentioned here refers only to the matter of the inheritance [i.e., claiming that he would get the double portion of the firstborn].


            Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai refused to believe that idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed could be found in Avraham's house, but according to the other Tannaim, these sins are exactly what Yishmael was engaged in. According to them, Yishmael's behavior was evidence of a serious educational failure: despite all that Avraham and Sara had taught him, he took to evil ways and committed the most reprehensible of sins. Moreover, even after Yishmael had sunk to such a low level, Avraham was unable to recognize this. It was Sara who noticed and drew Avraham's attention to it. Avraham discovered, to his horror, that he was raising a child who had rejected his entire education and was committing the most heinous crimes imaginable.


This must have been a most traumatic experience for Avraham. He discovered the hard way that even the finest education offers no guarantee that children will grow up properly and not turn to evil ways. He grasped too late that when it comes to education, one must constantly be on guard and ensure that children are behaving properly.


Following such a trauma, we can understand why Avraham was so afraid of the possibility that Yitzchak would marry a Canaanite wife. Bitter experience had shown him that a good education is not to be taken for granted, and that even the best education is not enough to guarantee avoidance of sin. Therefore, Avraham decided not to take the chance of matching his son with a woman with negative beliefs or traits and relying on him nevertheless to establish a proper Jewish home.


In retrospect, it seems that Avraham's concern was not unfounded. Yitzchak had two sons: one was a righteous "dweller of tents" (a Torah scholar), while the second was a hunter. Yitzchak, apparently, did not altogether discern his sons' respective natures, and he favored the hunter as his spiritual successor. It was only thanks to the resourcefulness of his wife, Rivka, that Yitzchak ultimately gave this blessing to Yaakov. Who knows what could have happened, had Yitzchak been married to a Canaanite wife rather than to Rivka? He may well have maintained his mistaken view until the end of his life!


            On the verse, "And it was, after Avraham's death, that God blessed Yitzchak, his son" (25:11), Rashi comments:


Although God had given the blessings to Avraham, [Avraham] was fearful of blessing Yitzchak, for he saw that Esav would emerge from him. He said: Let the Master of blessings bless whoever is worthy in His eyes.


            Since the debacle of Yishmael, Avrahram had lived in constant anxiety concerning the guidance of his family. He was constantly aware that even in his own family there could be children who were turning to bad ways.


"And you shall come to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a ripe old age" (15:15) - God told him that Yishmael would repent during his lifetime; also, Esav did not turn to evil ways during his lifetime. (Rashi, ad loc.)


Perhaps living until such an old age was reward for Avraham learning his lesson from what had happened to him. The example of Yishmael taught Avraham to be far more careful in everything involving the education of his family, and therefore he merited to see this education bearing fruit.


We, too, must learn the lesson from this story: there are no guarantees in education! A parent must always be on guard and ensure that his or her children are behaving properly. Sometimes even the best homes nurture children who go on to commit the most serious of sins.


[This sicha was delivered leil Shabbat, parashat Chayei Sara 5756 (1995).]