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Parshat Chaye Sara 2018
Which woman in the Torah had the greatest influence on us as Jews? Sara? Miriam, Moshe’s sister? How about the midwives in Egypt who defied Pharaoh? Or the daughters of Zelofchad who demanded the right of daughters to inherit if there are no sons? A strong case can be made for the woman who enters the story in today’s parsha and later helps to ensure that we become Israelites forever and not Esau-ites. Rivka. Rebecca.
Women are scarce in the Torah. Women with power are even scarcer and whatever power they have is downplayed, described in a few sentences and swept under other events. Cases in point: Miriam and the midwives. Not so Rivka. From the moment she enters the scene she radiates all the good values that we would like to see in our women – and truth be told, in our men as well.
What kind of a woman do you want? A strong shtarker? Rivka is the one who drew water and lugged it for a whole caravan of camels – we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of liters. You want a headstrong woman, an assertive woman who speaks her mind? That’s Rivka. Her family wants to keep her at home for a few weeks or months or maybe years before she goes gallivanting off to marry this guy Yitzhak. They ask her, will you go with the servant? And she says, YES. (Of course, we don’t know what life was like with Betuel her father and Lavan her brother). She knows her own mind.
Do you want a woman who is modest, even if she is headstrong? Well, that’s also Rivka. She is on the road, and she sees a man walking in the field, and when she finds out he is her bashert she immediately covers her face with the veil.
Do you want a woman who knows how to keep house and cook and make sure things go as they should? That’s Rivka too. She made foods that Yitzhak loved, and she took care of her husband with kid gloves.
The fact is that some of our wedding customs come from this story. For example, putting on the veil. For example, asking the woman if she wants to marry the man (it’s not decided only by the man).
Of course, the qualities of a wife also have to be suitable to those of the husband. And here, perhaps, we understand the chemistry that made this marriage so good. Yitzhak was no match for Rivka in the world of everyday affairs. He needed someone to navigate the real world because he seemed to be enveloped in a more spiritual or perhaps esoteric world.
Of course, this analysis is total conjecture, culled from what is said and what is not said in the Torah. Let’s face it: what do we know about Yitzhak? That he had a half-brother Ishmael who was 13 years his elder? That he was almost sacrificed by his father to their God? And now that he walked the fields in the afternoons (which the sages say was his saying the afternoon Mincha service)? That he spent many of his years retracing his father’s steps in Canaan, redigging wells that the locals had stopped up with earth?
It’s what he doesn’t do that makes an impression on us. After Avraham, with all his peregrinations and adventures and his tempestuous wars with kings and challenges to God and finally, almost sacrificing his son –Yitzhak is an anticlimax.
Penny psychology might say he was so traumatized by his near-death experience that he suffered from PTSD for the rest of his life. We might say that (next week) he preferred Esau because that was the type of person who would never agree to let his father put him on the altar as a sacrifice!
Or we could say that like the children of many other famous figures, Yitzhak was overwhelmed by his father’s accomplishments or was left without proper supervision by a father who had other pots to stir. The same holds true for the children of Moshe, Samuel and dozens of other leaders. Just look at today’s haftarah and King David’s problems with his kids.
Whatever the reason, Yitzhak is able to deal with kings but when it comes to matters such as ensuring the continuity of his religion, Rivka must take the lead. Yitzhak is blind, in more than one way.
According to some of the sages, Rivka was in such awe of Yitzhak’s spiritual nature that she could never open up and tell him what she was feeling or even what she was planning to do. She felt that it was not her place to give him such trivial (and not so trivial) information. On the other hand, we are told that Yitzhak loved Rivka. This is the first time we read this. There is no love mentioned regarding Avraham and Sara. Yaacov will love Rachel but not Leah. Moshe doesn’t love Zipporah, Yosef doesn’t love Osnat. A wife is an appurtenance for them.
Not for Yitzhak. He loved Rivka. She made his life complete. She replaced Sara, whose death had left a big gap in Yitzhak’s psyche. She filled it. She revived him. She allowed him to flourish. And because he flourished, Rivka did too. She kept doing what she wanted, what she felt she had to, even if it was behind his back.
Isn’t this a description of the kind of match we’d like to see for our kids? That’s what makes this parsha, and even next week’s, which is the only one devoted to Yitzhak and Rivka, such sleepers that surprise us with the insights they offer as to what it takes to make a happy marriage.
Mutual trust and affection. So mundane. So strong. So rare.