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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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Parshat Chayei Sarah – 2016

Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise, Shabbat 25th Cheshvan 5777, 26th November 2016

Today’s parsha marks the transition from the first generation of our glorious ancestors to the second, and in it we find an almost total inversion of roles.

In the two parshot about Avraham, and even in the first half of today’s parsha, Avraham is the active partner, and for the most part Sarah is passive 鈥 or we simply don’t hear from her. Avraham is told to leave his homeland and his father’s home and seemingly without a moment’s hesitation he goes, with Sarah tagging along.

Sarah does speak her mind on one matter 鈥 the children in the family. She is the one who insists that Hagar be sent out and later that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, and Avraham accedes, because God evidently knows that you cross your wife at your own risk.

Avraham is the one who goes out and fights, bargains, and in general carries out the commands he has been given, including the binding of his son Isaac as a sacrifice, about which we hear nothing from Sarah.

Today, we meet the next matriarch, the one who will succeed Sarah, and the story could not be more different. Eliezer, the servant, determines the test that will show if the young woman is worthy of Isaac, and of course Rivka passes with flying colors. She draws water for hours to satisfy the ten camels (over 500 liters is no small task). And she is pretty, which doesn’t hurt.

But the most remarkable thing she does appears later in the parsha. Her family has agreed to sell her to Eliezer, who demands to leave immediately. The family tries to stall, whether to extend their time with Rivka or perhaps to extract more gifts from Eliezer 鈥 that is not important.  They come up with an original way to solve the problem: let’s ask the girl, they say, who hasn’t been asked until now. And when asked, will you go with this man (meaning say NO!!!), she, like Avraham when approached by God, says YES, without a moment’s hesitation.

We have here a Pandora’s box of options to explain why she was so willing, perhaps even eager to leave, beyond the God-driven desire to meet her bashert. After all, she was attractive, she could have had her choice of suitors at home, but perhaps they bored her. Evidently, she was also adventurous and wanted to see the world (this sounds like an almost anachronistic reading of the text!). Perhaps she was as dazzled by all the wealth Eliezer exhibited as were her brother and family. Perhaps she was abused in some way at home or afraid of being abused (a definite possibility at any time, especially then).

But whatever the reason, which we will never know for sure, what we do see here is a role reversal. Sarah was asked, but only rhetorically, to pose as Avraham’s sister and thus save his life while endangering her own. This happened twice, in Egypt and in Gerar. She put up no resistance. Rivka, on the other hand is much more outspoken. She is the one who, when asked, tells you straight and to the point. She knows what she wants and goes out to get it.

We know very little about Yitzhak. We know that he was bound up to be sacrificed, and that he liked to stay out in the fields to walk and meditate. We will see that he tried to re-dig the wells of his father and much of what he did was a replay of what Avraham his father had done.

The new elements come from Rivka. The fact that Yitzhak takes her into Sarah’s tent is meant to tell us that she has become the most important woman in Yitzhak’s life.  In next week’s parsha we will see how she goads Yaacov into tricking Yitzhak, who is or is not tricked but goes along with the ruse, how she manipulates Yaacov and Yitzhak and basically gets everyone to do what she wants, even though the results border on the catastrophic and are not always to her liking.

Her behavior is what we would call “assertive.” And also deceitful. Some will say that she ran away from her home and her brother and family to get away from the lying and cheating lifestyle of those close to her, and, in this vein we can also say that some of that lifestyle rubbed off on her, too.

But this is not meant to detract from Rivka. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. We have to accept that she bought into Avraham’s vision to such an extent that she felt it was up to her ensure that Avraham’s blessings were directed to the correct people. And to this end she applied her home-grown skills. That she was able to manipulate Yitzhak, the person she loved, either shows how great her fear was for the future of Avraham’s heritage, or that she had the ability to keep her feelings and her actions separate.

Rivka is the only one of the four matriarchs to take an active role in keeping Avraham’s vision alive. Sarah demanded the ostracism of Hagar and Ishmael, but that was for personal reasons. Leah and Rachel bickered about who would sleep with Yaacov. It’s true that Rachel stole Lavan’s household idols, but that could have been more to retain a memento from home than from a desire to change his lifestyle.

But in each age, a person has to step up and ensure that the right thing is done. Continuity must be protected. Eliezer was impressed by Rivka’s good looks and by her caring personality 鈥 taking care of animals was almost as important then as showing hospitality. She was strong and headstrong, and she played an important role in making us what we are today.

Shabbat Shalom


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