Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Parashat Chaye Sara: A Young Girl Who Certainly Knows Her Mind by Yaakov Bieler

November 17, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Finding a wife for Yitzchak.

A major portion of Parashat Chaye Sara is dedicated to Eliezer’s quest to find a suitable wife for Yitzchak from among Avraham’s relatives. [1] I am particularly struck by the role that Rivka herself plays in this story with respect to deciding whether she would like to accompany Eliezer back to Canaan, and there to become Yitzchak’s wife.[2]

The context of Rivka giving her consent to marry Yitzchak and travel with Eliezer to Canaan.

Before proceeding to analyze the two verses, Beraishit 24:57-8, that focus upon Rivka’s input regarding her future, it is necessary to place them within the context of the entire story. After Eliezer concludes his initial presentation of the course of recent events to Betuel and Lavan, Rivka’s father and brother respectively, the Biblical text indicates that Avraham’s servant has every right to think that his mission is close to being completed successfully. (Beraishit 24:50-51) “And Lavan and Betuel proclaimed and said, ‘From HaShem has this matter gone forth.[3] We certainly cannot say anything to you regarding it, either for good or bad. Behold, Rivka is before you. Take her and go and let her become the wife of the son of your master, as HaShem has Spoken.” It appears that Eliezer’s attribution of the preceding events to  God  Giving an indisputable sign that this match has already been predetermined in Heaven has proven quite convincing. Starting with 24:42, Eliezer describes how he had beseeched God that his search proves successful as well as how the prayer was miraculously fulfilled in the person of Rivka. Eliezer reports that his prayer began, “And I came today to the well, and I said, ‘HaShem, God of my master Avraham, if You See fit to make my way successful that I am traveling upon it ’”; he tells how the supplication continued with a description of the test that he proposed, i.e., that he will ask the girl for water for himself, and she will unprompted respond by also offering water to his camels; and he recounts how the prayer then concluded with the following coda: if and when a woman should come along and pass the aforementioned test, (24:44) “…she is the woman that HaShem has Designated for the son of my master”. Eliezer finishes his recapitulation on behalf of Rivka’s family by saying that when their daughter and sister acted precisely in accordance with what Eliezer had hoped, (24:48) “And I bowed down and prostrated myself to HaShem, and I blessed HaShem, God of my master Avraham, Who Guided me in the true path, to take the niece of my master for his son to marry.”

Yet after Eliezer’s excited review of his experiences, and Lavan and Betuel’s apparent acquiescence to the Divine Plan and Rivka’s full participation in it, as a result gifts are bestowed upon the entire family and celebrations shared, Rivka’s relatives appear to renege, or at the very least, to attempt to slow down the process whereby Rivka would leave them to go to Canaan (24:55). Eliezer rebuffs the proposal, whereby they had said, (24:55) “…Let the girl stay with us a year or at least ten months, and afterwards she can join Yitzchak.”  Once again using God as leverage, Eliezer states resolutely, (24:56) “Do not hinder me, particularly after God has Made my journey successful. Send me forth so that I can return to my master!” The family then pulls out what they consider to be their trump card. (24:57) “And they said, ‘Let’s call the girl and ask her directly,’”[4] probably banking on the reasonable assumption that facing a choice to either stay with her family, or travelling a great distance with a strange man in order to marry someone whom she has never met, let alone even seen, the young girl would opt for the former.

It is only at this point that Rivka takes on an active role in the negotiations. The text even implies that she wasn’t necessarily present during Eliezer’s presentation. (24:58) “And they CALLED to Rivka, and they said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she said, ‘I will go.’”

Rivka’s immediate acquiescence to Eliezer’s proposal is arresting.

How can we understand what led to Rivka’s unqualified readiness to join Eliezer in the journey back to Canaan? Even if one assumes that she was impressed by Avraham’s servant’s deportment when he met her at the well—(24:17) Eliezer says “please” when he asks for the water, (24:22) he showers gifts upon her, and perhaps most significantly, (24:26-27) he openly displays his belief in God’s Personal Intervention in his affairs, “And the man bowed down and prostrated himself to God. And he said, ‘Blessed is HaShem, the God of my master Avraham, Who did not Forsake His Compassion and His Truth from my master. I was in the way and HaShem Guided me to the house of my master’s brother’”—nevertheless, she is not marrying Eliezer, but rather Yitzchak. How is she in a position to evaluate whether Yitzchak will be a proper spouse sight-unseen? With regard to the rule cited above in fn. 4, i.e., a woman/orphan should not be married off without her being asked her opinion regarding the match, while the process of asking Rivka seems to support the practice’s premise, yet since Rivka appears not to be in a position where she can offer an informed response, i.e., how is she to properly evaluate her prospects without ever having met her proposed spouse? Shouldn’t her inability to properly evaluate the offer render her decision moot? Is Yitzchak’s impressive “Yichus” (genealogy) sufficient to convince her that Avraham’s son would make a good husband? Shouldn’t we keep in mind that Yishmael is also Avraham’s son? Is Rivka convinced the same way that Betuel and Lavan are by Eliezer’s presentation that God is Behind her having successfully met the test that the servant had proposed in his prayer, and therefore she becomes fully prepared to defer to what is apparently a Divine Plan?[5]

Was Rivka overly relying on a miraculous sign in order to determine her destiny?

Assuming that Rivka, like Eliezer, also believed that the Hand of God was guiding the events leading up to her decision to marry Yitzchak, it would seem to open her up to the same criticism that is leveled by some against Eliezer’s actions. Consider RaMBaM’s evaluation of Eliezer’s methodology in Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Avoda Zora 11:4—

One must not engage in soothsaying/divining like an idolater, as it says, (VaYikra 19:26) “Lo Tenachashu”. What are examples of divining?…And similarly one who sets signs for himself, e.g., if such and such occurs, then I will do a certain action, and if these things do not occur, I will not do the action, like Eliezer, servant of Avraham…

RaShI disagrees with RaMBaM, and does not understand Eliezer’s test as an act of supernatural divination. He writes concerning 24:14 that the test was designed to clarify the potential candidate’s personal qualities, something that in addition to determining whether or not she belonged to Avraham’s extended family, would be crucial for deciding if she was right for Yitzchak.

(By offering water also to the camels, she has demonstrated) that she is appropriate for him (Yitzchak), for she does acts of kindness and therefore is worthy of entering the family of Avraham (who is also renowned for performing acts of kindness.)

MaHaRaL MiPrague, in his commentary on RaShI, “Gur Aryeh”, expands upon RaShI’s contention.

… (What Eliezer did) in this manner cannot be considered divination. Even without the test that he formulated, it would have been appropriate for him to have taken this woman to be the wife of Eliezer. Since she engaged in acts of kindness, she was worthy of the family of Avraham. Divination is an action whereby without the action occurring, there would be no logical reason to proceed with the contingent activity. In this case, whether or not Eliezer decided upon the test beforehand, there was still reason to choose Rivka for Yitzchak…

Consequently, from RaShI’s point of view, Eliezer might feel that he senses God’s Hand not because Rivka precisely passed the test that he composed, but rather because someone like Rivka, as demonstrated by her offering to water Eliezer’s camels, came along just at the moment when he was embarking upon looking for a wife for his master’s son. And by extension, Eliezer’s quest appears to Rivka also to be “Bashert” (predestined) and indicative that greater forces than either she or Eliezer were at work in this matter.

Perhaps Rivka arrived at her decision independent of her interaction with Eliezer.

Whereas RaShI suggests that Rivka was influenced by and able to appreciate the confluence of the servant’s quest and the personal qualities she embodied and that were just what he was looking for, R. Adin Steinsaltz, in Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book (Basic Books, New York, 1984, pp. 41 ff.), attributes to Rivka, as to the other matriarchs, prophetic powers. Rivka “knows” that she has to offer Eliezer’s camels water, just as she “knows” that she is meant to accompany Eliezer and become Yitzchak’s wife, that she has to assure that Yaakov receives Yitzchak’s blessing and that she must assure that Yaakov escape Eisav’s wrath for cheating his older brother out of the blessing as well as the birthright. Paralleling God’s instruction to Avraham to listen to Sara’s directive to send Hagar and Yishmael away in 21:12, leading RaShI to comment: This teaches us that Avraham was inferior to Sara when it came to prophecy, the decisiveness that allows the women in the stories of Beraishit to act resolutely, without doubt or hesitation, often in contrast to their spouses and other members of their family, is attributed to their perception of a Divine Spirit that convinces and inspires them to act in certain ways.

The Sages viewed the matriarchs as having prophetic powers, superior to those of the patriarchs; and Rivka did indeed act as a prophet, in response to a perception that pierced the veil of the present. Hers was a condition not of constant prescience, but of flashes of exalted clarity, consistent with RaMBaM’s description of prophecy as a stroke of lightning revealing the route to be taken. In this sense, in all the crucial moments of her life, Rivka had a clarity of vision greater than that of those around her.

It would seem to me that R. Steinsaltz’ hypothesis allows for the idea that Rivka may have been only three years old at this time (see fn. 2) to gain more credibility. In contrast to saying that Rivka made an intellectual decision with regard to whether or not to accompany Eliezer and marry Yitzchak, a position that would encourage the acceptance of the assumption that she was older and therefore able to think for herself, if in fact HaShem was communicating with her and giving her direction, as in 25:22-23, then why must we assume that she was of any particular age or specific level of personal development and maturity?[6] The story of Rivka and Eliezer would then also parallel the account of the meeting between Moshe and Aharon in the desert, prior to Moshe’s return to Egypt in Shemot 4:14, 27. While Aharon hadn’t seen his brother for many years following Moshe’s assassination of an Egyptian taskmaster (2:11-12) and his subsequent flight to Midyan (2:15), he “somehow” knew when Moshe would be coming back to Egypt, and where to find him before he gets there.

So how did Rivka make up her mind and what lessons can be learned from her example? Yet another puzzle for us to at least think about, if not actually solve.


[1] In Beraishit 24:4, all that Avraham says to Eliezer is, that as opposed to choosing a local Canaanite wife for Yitzchak, he is to go “to my land, my birthplace”. However, it is possible for a Canaanite woman to be living in Aram Naharaim, and Avraham does not seem to explicitly negate such a choice on Eliezer’s part! During the servant’s recounting the entire story to Rivka’s family, in an effort to convince them to allow Rivka to go with him back to Yitzchak, he does attribute to Avraham the sentiment, (24:38) “…To the house of my father you will go, and to my family, and you will take a wife for my son”. However it is possible that in order to make the “sell”, i.e., that the family would be flattered to know that Avraham held them in such high esteem that it was only to them that he sent his servant on this mission, he embellished upon his employer’s instructions. RaShBaM on 24:4 feels that “Moladeti” (my birth place) is a sufficient indication that it is to Avraham’s family that Eliezer was meant to turn. But Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra understand the word as no more than a reference to a land or a  city.

[2] Admittedly, there is a tradition that Rivka was only three years old at the time that the story takes place. This supposition is based upon the juxtaposition of the Binding of Yitzchak (22:1-19) and the text in which Rivka’s birth is reported (22:23), the assumption being that Rivka was born at the same time that Yitzchak was almost slaughtered. A second textual juxtaposition that enters into this calculation is the description of the death of Sara immediately after the Akeida took place and the recording of Rivka’s birth (23:1). If Sara was ninety when Yitzchak was born (17:17; 21:5), and she was 127 at the time of her death, then Yitzchak was thirty-seven at the time of his difficult trial. Finally, we learn that Yitzchak was forty when he married (25:20), resulting in the proposition that there were only three years between the Akeida and this event, and that Rivka was the age of three when everyone asked her to decide whether or not to travel to Canaan with Eliezer. However, to insist upon this position in light of our contemporary experience concerning children’s rate of development and levels of maturity, while it may be possible for a young child to be a protégé with respect to certain intellectual qualities, it is more difficult to imagine that a three-year-old, however gifted, would be able to appreciate and make a responsible decision regarding marriage. Consequently, Tosafot’s contention (Yevamot 61b) that Rivka was fourteen at this time is certainly more amenable to our modern sensibilities and empirical experience.

[3] While Betuel and Lavan use the Tetragrammaton (24:50) when they state that everything that has taken place is clearly of Divine Origin, one has to wonder what the nature of their religious belief was. Despite the family being  together both in Ur Kasdim and Charan (11:28-31) at the time that according to the Rabbis (see e.g., Beraishit Rabba 95:3) Avraham became certain of the existence of one God, it is unclear whether there were any “fellow travelers” in terms of Avraham’s monotheistic beliefs among the rest of Avraham’s family members. According to the Midrash describing how Haran met his end quoted by RaShI on 11:28, as well as the difficulties that Lot appears to have had while living in the same place as Avraham (13:6) as well as his choices of where to relocate (13:13; see RaShI on 19:17-18) and whom to marry (19:26) (see the essay on Parashat VaYera at http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-vayera-you-can-take-her-out-of-sodom-by-yaakov-bieler/), it would seem that these individuals did not share Avraham’s values or beliefs. The Rabbis suggest that Terach eventually repents from his idolatrous ways—see RaShI on 15:15—but it is unclear that his recanting would necessarily have had an influence on the rest of the members of his family. The “smoking idols” are Lavan’s Terafim (31:19 ff.) which Rachel liberates from him before Yaakov’s family runs away, hardly indicative of monotheistic belief. Consequently, these observations would lead one to believe that Betuel and Lavan were not terribly sincere when they invoke HaShem’s particularistic Name, and were merely mouthing the term that had been mentioned to them by Eliezer (e.g., 24:35), thereby trying to humor Avraham’s servant by doing so.

[4] It is interesting to note that this verse is invoked in Halachic sources as the basis for the principle: “Ein Meisi’in Et HaIsha Ela MiDa’ata” (One does not marry off a woman without her consent)—see e.g., RaShI, based upon Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Chaye Sara #109. The glaring inconsistency between the textual context and the Halacha is striking. Whereas the principle is being presented in Rabbinic literature as a standard for normative practice, Lavan and Rivka’s mother unambiguously appear to be simply attempting to delay the proceedings. It is probably more appropriate to refer to a homiletic interpretation such as this as an “Esmachta” (a thin reference, an allusion) rather than an actual Tora source.

RaShI’s commentary is similar to what appears in the Midrash Rabba, but with a significant change. The text in Beraishit Rabba 60:12 reads, “One does not marry off an ORPHAN without her consent.” According to Gur Aryeh, the MaHaRaL’ s commentary on RaShI, a distinction is to be made between a girl below the age of twelve whose father is alive and therefore can accept a marriage proposal on her behalf, and a girl who is bereft of a father. When the latter girl’s mother and/or siblings marry her off, the marriage does not take effect fully until after the girl reaches twelve, and at that point, if she wishes, she can negate the marriage and walk away from it (“Mi’uhn”). Consequently, even if she wasn’t asked regarding her marriage partner, since there will be an opportunity at a later point to leave the marriage, we are less concerned about making a mistake at the outset. This is in contrast to when a father accepts marriage on behalf of his daughter. Under those circumstances, the marriage will remain in place until either death or divorce takes place. Since the marriage is so much more final, it is appropriate that she be consulted before such an important decision directly affecting her life, be made.

[5] Such thinking on the part of Rivka is consistent with her approach to trying to understand why her pregnancy with twins proves so difficult. In 25:22, Rivka not only “goes to inquire of HaShem”, but receives prophecy to the effect that while her children will be the progenitors of great nations, the younger will end up dominating the older. Rivka’s confidence in Divine Signs and Revelations is so strong in this instance that she decides to personally intervene in order to assure that Yaakov receives what she thinks is the special Beracha which he in turn had been blessed by Avraham. Ironically, it turns out that Yitzchak never had intended to give Eisav the key blessing, as is demonstrated in 28:4, where in addition to the blessing that he had already received from his father, Yaakov is given a second Beracha. If Rivka misunderstood the implications of a prophecy, could she also have misunderstood the nature of what transpired between her and Eliezer at the well?

[6] There is a similar Rabbinic debate regarding Avraham’s age at the time that he perceived the existence of God:

Beraishit Rabba 64:4

R. Yochanan and R. Chanina, both said that Avraham was forty-eight when he recognized his Creator. Reish Lakish said Avraham was three when he recognized his Creator…

Incorporating both points of view, RaMBaM, in Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim U’Mazalot 1:3, posits that Avraham began to think about the problem at three and reached a final conclusion at forty.

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