Table for Five: Chayei Sarah
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And they summoned Rebecca, and they said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” -Gen. 24:58
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
The challenge of life is always a journey.
Judaism begins with Abraham having to choose if he will go with God – to leave his birthplace and pursue his spiritual dream in the divinely promised new land. Rebecca faces a comparable test. It is one that all of us must decide in our lifetimes: Should we “go with this person”? Is this the one with whom we are destined to fulfill the vision of our family and our future?
How could Rebecca possibly know? How could any of us ever make that decision? The Talmud tells us that forty days before we are born a heavenly voice goes forth and proclaims “so-and-so to so-and-so”. Why the celestial rush? Why doesn’t God wait until the groom is handsome and the bride is beautiful before he makes his matrimonial decision?
The mystical answer is that marriages are made in heaven – and God doesn’t make his decree based on physical bodies that appear later in life; God matches up souls which precede our birth.
Great marriages are based on more than appearance. Inseparable souls find a love which transcends the superficial qualities that so many people consider the keys to happiness. Souls seek the kind of companionship which comes from similar character, values and the search for meaning to life.
Even before Rebecca met Isaac her soul knew that together they would be blessed to become founders of the family of Israel. Because the Torah does believe in the idea of soulmates – and so should we.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am, Senior Rabbi
Every choice is a sacrifice. Every “yes” to something, or to someone, implies a “no” somewhere, too. This truism used to paralyze me when ordering food on a menu. I did not struggle choosing what I wanted–I struggled to determine what, among the good options, to reject.
Though there are reasons to offer a “sacred no” in many situations, it is only through a determined effort to say “yes” that progress happens, in life and in society. It is through “yes” that we live a life of meaning and adventure.
According to multiple commentaries, Rivkah made similar calculations while seeming to make a split-decision that impacted the rest of her life. Does she stay with her family, among the familiar? Or does she follow this stranger and forge a life elsewhere? Rashi believes that Rivkah said yes, even over her family’s objections. She was determined to make her life, rather than wait for it to happen to her. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, reads Rivka’s “yes” as being willing, even if the quick decision surrendered a more valuable trousseau that might have come to her otherwise. The 19th century sage the Netziv comments that she went despite her fear. Of riding on a camel. Of journeying towards the unknown.
Rivka said yes, despite the many reasons to say no. And thus joined, and crafted, our people’s history. We’ll never know what quantum realities she surrendered in that choice. At any juncture, all one can do is choose wisely, and then work to make the choice as right as possible.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
As Dr. Tammi J. Schneider explains in her work, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis, we can analyze the female characters in Genesis through the categorization of object and subject. In doing so, we can easily recognize that Rebecca is the subject of many verbs. Meaning to say, she is not only an object. Rebecca is a catalyst for action. Rebecca determines her own path.
In many ways, Rebecca can be more closely identified with the attributes of Abraham and Jacob than her husband Isaac. Unlike Isaac, Rebecca must undertake a physical (and spiritual) journey to another land. Unique among the matriarchs, Rebecca converses directly with God. Here in Rebecca’s decision “I will go” (Gen. 24:58) the Torah acknowledges a multiplicity of models of leadership, parenting, and partnership. Female and male, strong and soft-spoken, seekers and those content amongst us, we can all find very human role models in the Book of Genesis with all of their strengths and flaws. This is the beauty of the book.
The challenge of the book is to not be satisfied with finding the matriarch or patriarch that we most resemble, but rather to adopt positive attributes from those to whom we can least relate. For example, if we often feel like Isaac, then how do we adopt Rebecca’s characteristics and act more like her? All of us will be objects and subjects at times in our lives. Rebecca teaches that none of us should be objects all of the time.
Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash, Sephardic Educational Center
Rebecca answers her family decisively: “I will go.” Her response echoes God’s call to Abraham, “Go forth,” which reveals her as a female counterpart to Abraham, ready like him to set out on a life-changing journey. Abraham sends his servant to bring his son Isaac a wife from his homeland, and later Rebecca harshly derides the Hittite women and sends her son Jacob to her father’s house to find a wife. Rebecca and Abraham each play their part in building the first family of Jewish believers.
Rebecca’s “I will go” is echoed in the words of two other women who play decisive roles in stories of redemption. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the Nile, Miriam asked her, “Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse?” Miriam was a courageous woman, who was determined that the prophecy that Moses would deliver Israel must be fulfilled.
Ruth said to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go,” and accompanied her as an impoverished foreigner to a strange country, where she became the ancestor of King David, and eventually of the Messiah.
All four confronted an unknown future with trust and faith and shaped the destiny of the Jewish people: Abraham and Rebecca left their homes to travel to a new country; Miriam and Ruth each confronted the unknown in her own way, and perhaps it is thanks to this that they played their parts in the deliverance from Egypt and in the redemption at the End of Days.
Tova Leibovic Douglas, Rabbi, spiritual counselor and educator
It is difficult to imagine being Rebecca; a young woman in antiquity, in a time where her rights, thoughts and decisions were explicitly and implicitly dependent on men. The scene is set and she is posed the question of her life:
Will you leave everything you know and go with this man you do not know to meet your future husband?
One might expect the answer to be a resounding no, or perhaps, “I need more time to process this.” However, in this moment Rebecca displays the intuitive and strong matriarch, some even say prophet, that she ultimately becomes.
I wonder how much of a pause there was between the question and answer. Did Rebecca instinctively know that this was the right choice for her? Did she sense her purpose in this question before the question was even asked? Rebecca seems to have used that great gift of intuition to get to her answer of yes.
Today we live in a world reliant on rationalization, categorization and dependent on objective truths – each one important for civilization to work. Yet we know that there are moments in our lives where such thinking will not serve us. Rather, it is our intuition, senses, feelings and being, that allows us to listen to the stillness beneath our pro-con list and invites the call of faith to inform us. Sometimes, we have a deep sense for the moment of “I will go,” and like Rebecca, we will go.
With thanks to Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, and Tova Leibovic Douglas.
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