The Legacy of Rivka

  • Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

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Refuah Shleima to Aaron Meir Ben Silah

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Dedicated by Rabbi Barry and Shoshana Hartman in memory of
Sarah and Gustave (Sarah and Gedalya) Hartman z”l,
Cipora and Rabbi Moshe Turner z”l

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PARASHAT TOLDOT

 

The Legacy of Rivka

By Rabbi Michael Hattin

 

 

Introduction

 

Last week, we read of Yitzchak's marriage to Rivka, his Mesopotamian cousin (once removed).  It will be recalled that she had agreed to accompany Eliezer, Avraham's servant, back to the land of Canaan in order to become Yitzchak's wife.  Only after ensuring that his son did not marry a Canaanite woman was Avraham able to go peacefully to the grave, thus ending the saga of his tumultuous life.

 

In fact, the narratives concerning Avraham and Sara, from the time that they leave Ur until their burial in the family sepulchre at Chevron, cover the better part of three complete parashiyot.  Briefly introduced at the very end of Parashat Noach, the story of Avraham and Sara continues over the length of parashat Lekh Lekha, Vayera and Chaye Sara (Bereishit 11:26 – 25:11).  The composite of episodes that emerges traces the notable events of their lives to construct a relatively complete picture.  We see their auspicious arrival in a strange and unfamiliar land, the sundry struggles that they must endure in order to build their new lives there, the eventual triumph of their spirit over self-doubt and uncertainty, and their inevitable demise and internment.  In the foreground of all of their experiences is the looming presence of God, immediate, proximal, and involved.

 

Next week we shall begin to read the complete account of Yaakov's life and his escape from his brother's wrath to distant Charan.  There, Yaakov will confront the harsh reality of living in his father-in-law's deceitful employ, as the absorbing chronicles of his life with his wives, the sisters Leah and Rachel, will painfully unfold.  The story of Yaakov and his wives occupies two large parashiyot in the Torah, Vayetze and Vayishlach (28:10 – 36:43).

 

The Uncertainty of Transition

 

In both instances, that of Avraham and Sara as well as that of Yaakov, Leah and Rachel, there is a distinct sense of episodic momentum, as if their God-guided steps are consciously delineating the formative stages of nation building.  Avraham and Sara represent the stalwart trailblazers, who introduce through the resolute strength of their character, the novelty of a theocentric conception of the world, that is predicated upon an absolute morality.  Yaakov and his wives are the concretization of that ideal, for it is through the vehicle of their many progeny and the riveting account of those children's convoluted interactions, that the possibility of a God-centered nation first emerges.

 

In between both of these large and elaborate epics is our parasha of Toldot, a section of average size that traces the lives and vicissitudes of Yitzchak and Rivka.  From a purely structural perspective, it is therefore clear that Yitzchak and Rivka, in contrast to their predecessors and successors, are more transitional figures.  Their mission is neither to smash the cherished idols of an unmindful society, nor to transform fractious individuals into the cohesive kernel of a nation, but rather to serve as the indispensable link between those two stages.  As such, theirs is a trial of trust, a test of faith, the struggle to remain steadfast even in the face of strident opposition and the ostensible unraveling of Avraham and Sara's legacy.

 

Analogous Episodes – Rivka and Yitzchak

 

The provisional nature of their mission is reinforced by the episodes that the Torah relates concerning their lives.  We first met Rivka at the well, graciously providing Eliezer and the camels with their fill of water.  She agrees to accompany him back to Canaan, there to become Yitzchak's wife.  Upon their return,

 

"the servant related to Yitzchak all the things that he had done.  Yitzchak brought her (Rivka) into the tent of his mother Sara, he took Rivka as his wife and he loved her.  Yitzchak was thus comforted after (the death of) his mother" (Bereishit 24:66-67).

 

Thus, the Torah describes Rivka's donning of the matriarchal mantle as a function of her continuing Sara's role and impact in the world.  After Sara's death, Yitzchak had felt the void of her absence and it is Rivka who is able to at last fill that vacuum.  As Yitzchak's wife, she enters the 'tent' and domain of Sara, effectively becoming her replacement.  As Rashi (11th century, France) colorfully describes it in language borrowed from the Midrash,

 

"He brought her into Sara's tent, and Rivka became the embodiment of Sara his mother.  As long as Sara was alive, a perpetual light illuminated the tent from one Erev Shabbat to the next, a blessing was upon the dough, and a cloud rested upon the tent.  When Sara died, these things ceased.  When Rivka entered that tent, they returned..." (Commentary to Bereishit 24:67). 

 

The three symbolic elements of light, dough, and the cloud are references to spiritual enlightenment, physical sustenance, and the constant presence of God, respectively.  Her tent is the protective abode out of whose folds will issue the descendents that will become the nation of Israel.

 

In other words, Sara's accomplishment is gauged in terms of her ability to create and sustain an environment conducive to the formation of the God-nation, whose physical and spiritual wellbeing will be a direct function of their relationship with God.  In this context we might draw a comparison to the cloud that was manifest upon the Tabernacle, the so-called 'Tent of Meeting' that accompanied Bnei Yisrael during the period of their peregrinations in the wilderness.  That temporary building was itself illuminated by the light of the Menorah and adorned by the ceremonial loaves of the Showbread.  Sara's 'tent' is also understood by the Sages as constituting a repository for God's teaching, as the source of a way of life that radiates outwards to transform humanity.

 

Rivka is thus introduced as her natural spiritual heir, and her mission is nothing more or less than the conservation and sustentation of Sara's life's work.  Rivka is not called upon to be an activist figure winning new adherents to the faith, nor is she to be a spiritual firebrand jealously guarding her son's rights of inheritance by banishing his rival.  Rather, Rivka is to be the preserver of a legacy that must be faithfully transmitted to the next generation, whose mission it will be to further propagate the ideal.

 

Significantly, this week's parasha traces the various tribulations of the new couple, and of Yitzchak in particular, in a similar vein.  Rivka's initial barrenness (Bereishit 25:21) parallels Sara's (Bereishit 11:30), the ensuing famine (Bereishit 26:1) recalls the drought in the time of Avraham (Bereishit 12:10), and their uncomfortable interaction with Avimelekh which follows (Bereishit 26:6-11) is an exact analog to similar events in the life of Avraham and Sara (Bereishit 20:1-18).  Yitzchak's energetic digging of wells (Bereishit 26:15-18) is described as nothing more than the excavation of Avraham's initial work, and his pact with Avimelekh at Be'er Sheva (Bereishit 26:26-31) is another striking recurrence from Avraham's time (Bereishit 21:22-34).  Animating the expansive landscape, giving it color, depth, and vividness, is God's constant promise, always expressed as a fulfillment of the oath made to Avraham:

 

"...for to you and to your descendents shall I give all of these lands, and I shall fulfill the oath that I made to Avraham your father.  I shall multiply your progeny as the stars of the heavens and give to them all of these lands, and all of the nations of the world shall be blessed on their account.  For this is because Avraham hearkened to my words, and kept My observances, commands, decrees and teachings" (Bereishit 26:3-5).

 

The Bestowal of the Blessing

 

It is therefore quite obvious that not only is Rivka presented as the continuation of Sara, but Yitzchak is cast as the loyal scion of Avraham.  It is against this backdrop that we may begin to understand the subsequent struggle of Yaakov and Esav for the birthright, and Rivka's central role in the tragic series of events that unfolds.  The Torah relates that when Yitzchak became old and his eyes dimmed, he prepared to bestow the blessing of the birthright upon his eldest son, Esav.  This blessing was not simply an expression of an aging parent's kind wishes for the child's future wellbeing, but more significantly, was a formal designation of the recipient as the faithful perpetuator of the family traditions.  Additionally, to receive the patriarchal blessing meant to acquire decisive deed to the Promised Land, in which the pageant of nation building was to be played out.

 

Certain of her eldest son's unsuitability for such an exalted office, Rivka sets into motion a hastily hatched plan to secure the blessings for gentle Yaakov, her younger son.  Reading the text more closely, we clearly note Yaakov's reluctance to undertake the subterfuge and his resultant inertia, matched only by Rivka's stern determination to see the artifice through. 

 

"Rivka heard Yitzchak's words to Esav...Rivka said to Yaakov her son...'listen to my words, to that which I command.  Fetch from the flock two good kids...bring them to your father to eat, so that he will bless you.'  Yaakov remonstrated with his mother saying 'Esav my brother is full of hair, while my skin is smooth.  If my father should touch me and realize that I am an imposter, he shall curse me and not bless me!'  His mother said: 'May the curse then be upon me! Now listen to my words and fetch the kids.' ...She prepared savory food.  Rivka then took Esav her eldest's fine garments that were with her in the house and dressed Yaakov her younger son in them.  She placed the goat hides upon his arms and upon the smooth of his neck, and she gave him the savory food that she had prepared..." (Bereishit 27:5-17).

 

Rivka's Role

 

The Torah makes it abundantly obvious that the main role in this drama is not at all played by Yaakov, but rather by Rivka!  She overhears Yitzchak, she commands Yaakov, she prepares the kids, she dresses Yaakov in the garments of the deceiver, she places the savory food in his hands, and SHE ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE CONSEQUENCES!  "May the curse then be upon me!" are her impassioned words, knowing full well that the fallout from her plan will not leave her unscathed.  What is her motivation for such conduct, what frightful vision so inspires her act that she cannot turn back? 

 

Consider our analysis above, concerning the subtle but unmistakable linkage that the Torah establishes between Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka.  In light of that analysis, it is clear that Rivka here acts in her capacity as a transitional (and transmissional!) figure, bearing upon her slender but stout shoulders the awesome burden of eternity.  She must see Yaakov selected not because of some shallow and superficial preference for one son over the other, but because, blessed with unfailing intuition and profound insight, she can see that to which her husband is woefully blind.  The future nation will be a reflection of its progenitors, and only one of the sons is truly able to realize the noble mission of Avraham and Sara. 

 

A Covert Act

 

Rivka's role in driving that process forward is not the very overt and dynamic display that had to be the way of her pioneering in-laws, but it is equally effective.  HER act of deception (for a careful reading makes it clear that Yaakov is only a passive vehicle for the realization of her plan) is the only possible response to her husband's self-deception, for no rational arguments will sway him from the error of his way.  Insofar as all outward appearances are concerned, it may indeed seem that Esav is more suited for the onerous task of nation building, but insightful Rivka knows otherwise (for a fuller treatment of this episode and the employment of deception, see last year's article on Parashat Toldot).

 

The employment of covert means does not reflect a character deficiency but should rather be understood as a tragic act of self-sacrifice.  Risking the loss of her husband's trust, losing forever her eldest son's love, sowing seeds of enmity that would take decades to heal, Rivka submits to the judgement of history in order to preserve the legacy of Avraham and Sara, for that is her most august goal.  We note with pitiful dismay that this Parasha is the last time that we shall hear of Rivka, for in striking contrast to Sara, no mention is made in the Torah of her death or burial.  Only a fleeting allusion is preserved, from a passage that describes the triumphant return of Yaakov and his now-substantial household to the land of Canaan, more than twenty years after he had tearfully left his mother's embrace to submit to the rule of his imperious father-in-law Lavan. 

 

Rivka's Death and Burial

 

"Yaakov came to Luz, now Bet El, which is in the land of Canaan, accompanied by all of his people.  There he built an altar, calling the place 'God of Bet El,' for there God had appeared to him when he had fled from his brother.  Devora, the nursemaid of Rivka, died there, and was buried under the oak tree below Beit El, and they called the place 'the Oak of Tears'" (Bereishit 35:6-8). 

 

The Ramban, quoting earlier sources, explains:

 

"The curious placement of this verse substantiates the tradition of our sages that it also refers to the death of Rivka, and therefore the place was called the 'Oak of Tears'...for Yaakov cried and mourned the loss of his righteous mother who loved him so and therefore sent him away to Aram, but did not merit to see his return...This explanation is supported by the fact that later the text relates how 'Yaakov arrived at Mamre, that being Kiryat Arba, to his father Yitzchak' (Bereishit 35:27), for had Rivka been alive at the time of his return, the text would have mentioned her.  After all, had she not been the one to send him away?

 

"...It would appear that Rivka's death and burial was concealed by the Torah, for she did not enjoy a glorious end. Yaakov was not present at the time of her death, Esav hated her for what she had done and did not attend, and aged Yitzchak was blind and confined to his house.  The Torah did not want to highlight that the Hittites had buried her at Machpela..."(commentary to Bereishit 35:8).

 

What an ignominious end to such a noble figure!  It is only comprehensible as an emphatic expression of the fact that Rivka acted with selflessness and impartiality, gladly accepting her cursed fate of anonymity so that the nation might live on through Yaakov's election.  The Torah's cryptic intimation of her death thus is transformed into a burnished epitaph.

 

Conclusion

 

We first met Rivka at the well, where she had so innocently and kindly provided the stranger and his thirsty camels with water.  Without calculations of self-gain or hopes for reward she had willingly accepted the daunting task of drawing much water, only so that the thirst of the tired stranger and his animals could be quenched.  Returning with him to Canaan, she promptly and unquestioningly took on the role of Sara, recognizing the awesome significance of the spiritual bequest that had been entrusted to her able hands. 

 

Her demeanor, however, was not that of Sara, for Sara had been a brave pathfinder who left the less intrepid reeling in her wake.  Rivka, in contrast, had the more subdued but equally vital mission of persevering and preserving, so that the nation of Israel could be established on firm ground.  It is indeed telling that from the time Rivka arrives in Canaan until the episode of the blessings, the Torah records not a single utterance on her part.  Her unassuming acts and deeds of kindness were rather all colored by a single hushed trait that lent them their air of majesty: self-sacrifice.  Can we not speak of Rivka's Akeida to parallel that of her husband Yitzchak, for were not both ready to surrender their personal future for the sake of God's word?  In the end, however, unlike her husband, Rivka did sacrifice herself, for her life ended with her tragic estrangement from one son and her painful separation from the other.  Her legacy and her memory, however, lived on, for it was through her noble efforts that Yaakov founded a people. 

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

For further study: see the troubling Mishna at the end of the second chapter of Tractate Shabbat that relates that: "Women die in childbirth for three transgressions: for not exercising care with respect to the laws of menses, the taking of the dough, and the Sabbath Lights."  Besides being empirically impossible to substantiate, the Mishna draws a disturbing connection between death in childbirth and transgression of these rituals, a connection that seems unfounded.  The relevant Talmudic passage suggests that childbirth is a dangerous event and that being in danger invites scrutiny of one's merits or lack thereof, but there may be a more integral connection.  It seems to me that the Sages had a different idea in mind, and Rashi's Midrash concerning Sara's tent (quoted above) sheds much light on the matter.

 

Recall that Sara's proverbial tent had three remarkable features: a perpetual light from one Sabbath Eve to the next, a blessing upon the dough, and a cloud that rested above it.  Two of these items find their direct parallel in the Mishna from Tractate Shabbat, for the Sabbath Lights parallel Sara's perpetual light and the mitzva of taking Challa (the 'first dough') parallels the blessing in the dough.  The third thing, the laws of the menses, must therefore be parallel to the cloud above the tent, and this is immediately comprehensible if we understand the cloud as a manifestation of Divine involvement, as I think it surely is within the Torah's frame of reference. 

 

The laws of the menses are at their core an idea of God's involvement in the life of the couple, for His presence is to be experienced in even the most private and personal aspects of their life together.  These laws impact in a very real way on sexual intimacy.  They make it quite clear that no facet of our life is beyond God's purview and His incessant invitation to strive for sanctity (see the Raavad's [12th century, Provence] introduction to his 'Baalei HaNefesh' where he makes this very point).

 

Taken together, the three things mentioned in Tractate Shabbat become idealized expressions of the fundamental building blocks of the home environment.  They encompass physical sustenance as a function of God's providence (dough), spiritual enlightenment as function of studying His Torah (candles), and the overarching presence of God Whose sovereignty must be acknowledged (menses).  The Sages perhaps are saying that a household that does not take care to develop all of these elements is in danger of being unable to sustain continuity (childbirth), for the tradition will surely die if they are overlooked.