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Are we ever the Wandering Jews! And where did it all start? With Avraham, of course. Lech lecha – get thee going. And he went. And then went some more. And when he stopped ‘wenting’ and settled down, he still felt like he was just taking a breather. We read in this week’s parsha, as he seeks a burial site for Sarah, that he calls himself a “resident foreigner” – an oxymoron. Like old olim to this country today, despite his many years in Canaan, Avraham felt like an outsider, a foreigner who happened to be residing there at the time.
How do we become a part of the society we join as olim, as foreigners who take residence? We try to fit in by speaking the lingo, and if we have a family, perhaps our children will marry a local-born sabra, and that will help US to fit in. And our kids for sure.
What about Avraham? He realizes that Yitzhak (who is not talking to him since the akeida fiasco) does not seem in any hurry to take himself a bride. And what worries Avraham even more is that if/when he does – he will take a local girl. And that would be disastrous for Avraham’s plans for a God-fearing nation as multitudinous as the stars in the sky.
So what does he do? He sends his trusty servant Eliezer back to the old land to pick out a bride for Yitzhak. What’s the advantage? If you bring in a Sears and Roebuck bride for your son, he will remain as much an outsider as you were! And that seems to be what Avraham wants.
For one thing, he wants an outsider so that the local in-laws won’t be able to pressure Yitzhak to change his ways especially in religion. If the bride is local, she has a whole support system that will try to bend the newcomer into accepting local customs. Yitzhak, who has a passive side to him, may not be able to withstand such pressure.
A bride from abroad is another story. She is dependent on her husband and HIS family for everything. Her family is far far away.
That brings us to Rivka, arguably the ultimate helpmate in the Torah. She fits into Yitzhak’s life seamlessly. Yitzhak takes her to Sara’s tent, we are told, and from this we are to deduce that she accepted the mantle of the matriarch in Sarah’s mold – except bolder and more determined. But that’s next week’s story.
The question here is somewhat different. On the one hand, the picture we are given of her at the well is of a pretty, helpful and eager young woman (I won’t even go into the midrash that says she was three years old at the time). A good match.
On the other hand, why was she so amenable to leaving her family? When her mother and Lavan want Eliezer to stay for a week or month or longer before setting out, he refuses. So they suggest asking the girl (very considerate), and her immediate reply – we get the impression that she answered almost before the question was out of their mouths – was “I’ll go.” And off they went.
Why was she so eager to get out of there? Some of the explanations given by commentators and Chazal are surprising, even shocking. They are based on the sentence that describes Rivka as “a virgin, and no man had known her.” Duh. If you are a virgin no man has known you. Rashi hints at some sexual deviance. The Maharam of Rothenburg, Germany, says that Bethuel, Rivka’s father, used to sleep with his virgin daughters just before they married. Based on other sources in the Bible, “Man” refers to the father. Thus, she was a virgin AND even her father had not gotten to her yet. We’re talking incest.
Shocking, isn’t it? Bethuel, Rivka’s father, had not yet gotten to our sweet Rivkele. And she wanted out of there as soon as yesterday. In other words, wherever she went could not be much worse than where she was.
This does not detract from her good qualities a bit. She was good – we saw that at the well and we see that as soon as she gets to Yitzhak. She knows what bad family life is like, and wants something better for herself and her children.
So here we have Avraham living as a resident foreigner. Rivka is also a resident foreigner. Her son Yaacov will emigrate to Haran and eventually come home, as a resident foreigner. However you look at it, our DNA is filled with wandering. Which may explain (along with the pressures of life here) why so many Israelis travel so often to so many different places.
But with all the transience that we seem to find in the stories of our biblical ancestors, Canaan, Israel, has a pull that Jews who are proud of their Jewishness find hard to resist.
In the musical “Milk and Honey” which appeared on Broadway in 1961, there’s a musical dialogue between two characters. “This is the land of milk and honey,” sings the one, to which the second character comments, “the honey’s kind of bitter and the milk’s a little sour.” And the last line is, “But this lovely land is mine.” Foreigner, resident, sabra, it makes no difference.
To which we can only say, Amen.