Yeshivat Har Etzion
PARASHAT CHAYEI SARA
By Yaacov Steinman
After the lengthy description of how Eliezer meets Rivka and negotiates with her family, the Torah describes in just seven verses (24,61-67) the meeting of Rivka and Yitzchak. Rivka rides, looks, falls, and winds up in the tent of Yitzchak's mother, Sara. The question that interests us is what is the significance of this story, beyond the charming anecdote?
The central scene in this story, and the most dramatic, is when Rivka falls off the camel. The conclusion of the story is that Yitzchak marries Rivka, loves her, and she takes the place of Sara, both in relation to her tent, and in Yitzchak's heart. Immediately, the suspicion arises that there is a connection between these two foci of the story. Is Rivka's successful entry into the house and heart of Yitzchak a consequence, in some way, of the way in which they met? Is there, in fact, something special about their meeting and subsequent relationship?
Focusing on Rivka's fall from the camel, many commentators have claimed that the point is to teach us "tzniut," modesty. This is based first and foremost on not translating "vatipol me'al hagamal" as "she FELL from the camel," but rather as "she leaned over from the camel." This translation is given by the Targum and the midrash, and endorsed by Rashi. The point is that the action was voluntary and indicates that Rivka chooses to "retire" in some way. This is followed immediately by her veiling herself. The Ibn Ezra, in order to stress the connection between her leaning and her veiling, suggests that the intervening verse (65 - where she asks the servant what is the man's name) actually took place before she fell from the camel. Both the leaning and the veiling are immediate reactions to her discovering that she is about to meet Yitzchak.
There are several versions of this approach. The Ibn Ezra himself sees the "leaning" as a sort of bowing (and in fact he interprets "vatipol" as "she dismounted"). The Radak sums up the entire incident by concluding, "The Torah in this story teaches "derekh eretz shel tzniut" (proper modesty), that it is proper for a woman to be retiring (lavush) before her fiance (the leaning) and not appear before him prior to marrying him (the veiling)." The Rashbam comments that Rivka was riding the camel "like a man," since a camel is not a docile mount, and therefore she changed her position when she came close to Yitzchak. What is common to all is that Rivka is voluntarily acting according to some protocol involved in meeting her husband-to-be, and this conduct is admirable and should be imitated by future generations of her descendants. Her conduct is not rooted in the specifics of her or Yitzchak's personality, but rather is based on proper conduct between any couple, or for any woman in public.
In this regard, the role of the veil as an indication of modesty is worthy of attention. I am not questioning the application of Rivka's action to modern or even Talmudic-era life. We all know that a veil is not a halakhic expression of tzniut, but that does not interfere with our ability to learn the principle of tzniut in the relationship of couples from Rivka, given the differences in the exact expression of that principle in different cultural situations. The problem is that we have no reason to assume that women even in Rivka's time had recourse to a veil as a regular article of clothing when appearing in public. We do not find it in the attire of any of the other matriarchs, pious and modest women that they were. In fact, we find it only in one other case in the Torah. When Tamar went to sit at the crossroads, she disguises herself as a prostitute, and she "covers herself with the veil" (38,14). While Tamar was undoubtedly a pious woman, it would not seem appropriate to view her conduct at the crossroads as teaching "derekh eretz shel tzniut." In fact, some commentators think that the veil may have been the costume of the prostitute (see Ramban). While there are commentators who attempt to explain why Rivka was able to ride together with the servant without being veiled, but only covered herself when she approached her fiance, it does not appear that the habitual mode of tzniut in public would require a veil. Rather, there is something about the impending meeting with Yitzchak that leads Rivka to "hide," to conceal herself, perhaps even to disguise herself to some extent. Our task is to understand what was the cause of this reaction, and perhaps, to understand what the significance of this reaction is for the general story of the avot being told.
The Netziv, unlike the commentators quoted above, understands that Rivka FELL off the camel.
Yitzchak was coming from the well of L'chai Roee, but he dwelled in the Southern country.
And Yitzchak went out LASUACH in the field towards evening, and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were coming.
And Rivka raised her eyes, and she saw Yitzchak, and she fell off the camel.
And she said to the servant: Who is this man who is walking in the field towards us? And the servant said: It is my master. And she took the veil and covered herself.
Two introductions are necessary here:
- Yitzchak was coming from the well of L'Chai Roee, although he lived in the South. Why? More importantly, why does the Torah tell us this? Since we do not know exactly where the meeting takes place, why does this verse exist at all? What purpose does it play? The Netziv answers that the well of L'Chai Roee was the place where Hagar, Yishmael's mother, had met the angels who told her of God's promise that God would take care of her and give her a son from Avraham. The name means, "the well of [He] who saw my life." Yitzchak chose an isolated spot, far from inhabited areas, outside of his regular place of residence, in order to commune with God. He was returning from a sojourn in this spot - more importantly, he was returning from a period of isolated meditation - when he met up with Rivka.
- "Yitzchak went out 'lasuach' in the field." The verb is unclear. Some derive it from the noun "siach," meaning a bush; the verb means to wander about the trees. Yitzchak was taking an evening stroll. This seems to be a far-fetched derivation, and it is not surprising that the Sages sought another explanation. The Talmud in Berakhot claims that "lasuach" means to speak (from the noun siach, or sicha), and in this context it means that Yitzchak was praying in the field. This is the source for the well-known statement that Yitzchak instituted the evening prayer, mincha. Although this may sound like a derush, several commentators adopt it as pshat, including the Targum Onkelos, who generally inclines to a fairly literal, pshat-orientated, translation. In this case, he translates, "Yitzchak went out to pray in the field towards evening."
The combination of these two verses, setting a picture of the moment just prior to Rivka joining the scene, is that Yitzchak had just completed a period of intense private meditation in the desert, and, at the very moment that Rivka caught sight of him, was engaged in prayer out in the field, as the evening drew close.
The Netziv explains that the sudden sight of Yitzchak, clothed in spirituality, immersed in sanctity, in the very act of prayer, when his soul entwined itself in the light of the Presence of God, simply knocked Rivka off her perch. Yitzchak was so obviously different than any other man she had ever met, the spiritual other-worldly grandeur of his personality so overwhelming, that she literally was unable, in the first second of encounter, to maintain her equilibrium. In other words, Rivka's initial meeting with Yitzchak was an overwhelming shock, which caused her to lose her composure, and - the Netziv adds - her self-confidence. She did not tilt, nor descend from the camel; she fell off, as the simple reading of the text indicates.
With this, the Netziv expthe entire nature of the subsequent relationship between Rivka and Yitzchak. Rivka was not a particularly meek or passive person. She, in one word, decided to uproot herself from her family to follow a servant to an unknown husband (according to Chazal, at the age of three!). When she has problems in pregnancy, she goes herself to question God (25,22), rather than complain to her husband (as Rachel did - 30,1). Most importantly, when she thinks her husband is making a mistake in choosing Eisav rather than Yaacov, she does not hesitate to manipulate his blindness to ensure that her choice for a heir is preferred. Why then, does she not simply tell Yitzchak directly that he is wrong and prevent him from making a mistake? Why does she utilize subterfuge when dealing with her own husband? The Netziv answers that first impressions leave powerful results. After Rivka met Yitzchak the way she did, in any direct confrontation with him she was overwhelmed. It is not that she accepted his superiority, assuming that "Yitzchak knows best." On the contrary, she is quite sure that she knows better than he what the situation in the real world is. But when addressing him, when encountering him directly, Rivka returns to the young girl who catches sight of her husband-to-be wrapped in the dying lights of late afternoon, his arms stretched out, the Presence of God resting on him, and she is once again knocked off her camel. Hence, she has to work behind his back, not hesitating to manipulate him, but unable to directly confront him.
I would like to expand this approach. In our story, there are two reactions of Rivka, the falling and the veiling. The first takes place after she catches sight of Yitzchak, before knowing who he is, and is, according to the Netziv, involuntary. The second takes place after the servant tells her who the man is, and is obviously a voluntary action. The first is an instinctual reaction to the sight of "the man," who appears to her as a manifestation of spiritual greatness from another world. The second is a calculated reaction when she learns that this man, who has knocked her off the camel, is to be her husband. It is not an act of social modesty, but one of self-protection. In her married life, Rivka will maintain a certain degree of distance between herself and her husband as an act of self-defense, to protect herself from being consumed by the intense spiritual fire that is Yitzchak. Rivka is unable to have an open, sharing relationship with Yitzchak, unable to open herself to him unreservedly. Discovering that she is to be joined with a man whom she cannot face directly without losing her composure, she shields herself with a veil. To some extent, she will wear this veil the rest of her life, dissembling her true intentions (see 27,46, for example). This is very similar to the veil of Tamar, who needs to shield her true intentions from Yehuda. (And even according to the Ramban, who suggests that the veil is the regular garb of a prostitute, it may be that she is shielding her true inner personality from the sexual encounter in which she is engaged.)
One further note that is usually overlooked - at least I could find no one who commented on it. Before Rivka looked up and saw Yitzchak, with the resulting fall, the verse states that "he raised his eyes and saw, that behold, camels were coming." Notice that in the next verse, we are told that Rivka "saw Yitzchak," whereas Yitzchak at this point saw camels. Now we know why it is important to tell us that Rivka saw Yitzchak, since that explains why she fell from the camel. But why is it necessary for us to know that Yitzchak saw the camels approaching?
The answer is that we should realize that Yitzchak, looking at the camels saw Rivka falling off. The impression that this encounter left on Rivka was shared by Yitzchak; that is, Yitzchak is aware, at least subconsciously, of Rivka's inhibitions. In his case as well, the first impression - his future wife falling off the camel at the sight of him - leaves a lasting effect, which will color their relationship.
The result of this first encounter between the couple is that "Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sara his mother, and he married Rivka and she became his wife, and he loved her; and Yitzchak was consoled from his mother" (24,67). The psychological implications of this verse are obvious, and indicate the converse of the relationship of Rivka to Yitzchak that I have described. I leave it to the reader to work this out. I wish to stress that I do not think that the Torah is here presenting a negative picture, implying that Yitzchak and Rivka's relationship was flawed. On the contrary, the Torah stresses that their relationship was successful. This relationship was perhaps unusual, but Yitzchak and Rivka were unusual people.
Just as each forefather is a unique personality and spiritual type, so each of the marriage relationships represents a unique model. Avraham and Sara are presented by the Sages as an example of a mutually sharing relationship, both working together for the same goals, with the same methods, consulting each other and relying on each other, (see Bereishit Rabba 39:11, where Avraham's coin has them appearing as a couple, and Rashi 12:5, where they both act in a parallel manner.) The relationship of Yaakov and his wives is clearly different, and Yitzchak and Rivka present a third, based on their unique personalities.
This aspect of the relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka should be seen against the background of Yitzchak's personality and his career as a forefather in general, how he related to the world and how he effected the lives of others in his family and surroundings. But this will be the subject of next week's shiur.
To receive the parsha shiur every week, write to: With the message:
This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.
Make Jewish learning partof your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion
Yeshivat Har Et
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433