Blog: November 2006

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Chayei Sarah

Our portion recounts the wedding of Yitzchak and Rivka. It is, quite literally, a match made in heaven: Avraham sent his servant Eliezer out to find a woman of high character, Rivka exceeded his expectations, and when they returned Rivka and Yitzchak were married and loved each other. This is the first time the torah uses the word "love" to refer to a couple. They should have lived happily ever after, right?

It didn't work out that way, though. We don't know much about their relationship directly, but the torah tells us they were parents of twins who fought even in the womb, and the midrash expands on this. The torah tells us that Yitzchak favored one son and Rivka favored the other. Sibling rivalry increased, until finally, Rivka helped her favored son trick his father and then had to help him flee his brother's wrath. It seems unlikely that the rivalry between sons did not also cause tension between the parents. In short, this was probably not a happy marriage, even with what looks like a great start.

What went wrong?

Yitzchak and Rivka sought out the highest qualities in a potential spouse. This is not enough, however. Let's look more closely at the three key players here: Eliezer, Yitzchak, and Rivka.

Eliezer was there to do a job. Sent by Avraham to find a wife for Yitzchak, he sought a woman who is kind and considerate, one who goes above and beyond what is necessary. He asked God for a sign and was given one: Rivka not only drew water from the well for him but also watered his many camels. If she was so hospitable and kind to a stranger on the road, he must have reasoned, how much the moreso would she be kind and nurturing for a husband and children? Eliezer valued kindness and consideration -- chessed.

What did Rivka value in a spouse? The torah tells us that when Rivka first saw Yitzchak, he was meditating in the fields. Our sages say that he was praying. Rivka was impressed by his piety; while she knew already that her uncle Avraham followed God, she had no prior knowledge of Yitzchak. She had agreed to return with Eliezer based on Avraham's good name. When she then saw Yitzchak praying in the field, according to the midrash, she knew that he shared his father's faith and she had made the right decision.

And what about Yitzchak? He is a passive player, not participating in the search for his bride. Throughout his life things happen to Yitzchak; Yitzchak rarely takes direct action. Perhaps he was permanently scarred by the Akeidah, when his father was ready to kill him for a God Yitzchak might not have even known. It's hard to imagine Yitzchak having a warm relationship with his father after that; perhaps they did not have a warm relationship even before, and that made it possible for Avraham to agree to the sacrifice.

If Yitzchak did not have a good relationship with his father, perhaps he instead took comfort from his mother, Sarah. Sarah was now dead; the rabbis say that she died from the shock of the Akeidah. Yitzchak, still focusing on his mother, invites Rivka to move into Sarah's tent, and the midrash tells us that Rivka was like Sarah. Perhaps she was like Sarah in Yitzchak's eyes, too. It seems clear that at some level Yitzchak was looking for a mothering presence in his life, a replacement for Sarah.


Yitzchak seems to be absorbed by the past. He does not even take part in finding his wife; it is his father, not he, who sends Eliezer out to find a match. When he is presented with a wife, he views her as a maternal substitute. Later, when they have children, he withdraws, perhaps thinking of the rivalry he and Yishmael had before Sarah banished Hagar and Yishmael from the family home.

Rivka, on the other hand, actively looks to the future. She was not required to go with Eliezer; in fact, the midrash tells us that her family tried to prevent the match. She knew that if she went, she would be leaving her home and her family to go to a foreign land. When Avraham did the same thing he had the benefit of a divine command "lech l'cha"; Rivka received no such directive. Yet she decided on her own to undertake this journey into the unknown.

Rivka is the first woman in the torah who takes her destiny into her own hands. She is strong and independent, yet respectful and kind. In taking control of her future she takes a risky, uncertain path instead of settling for the familiar. She takes an active role and seems to have a goal, a vision.

What is this vision? Rivka will become part of the family of Avraham. As a matriarch of the Jewish people she will be a trail-blazer, helping to establish the future of the people. She preserves past traditions, following in the footsteps of Sarah and honoring the god of Avraham, but unlike Yitzchak, she does not dwell only in the past. She sees clearly the characters of her two sons; Eisav is more interested in wealth and earthly pleasures, while Yaakov is more interested in cultivating his mind and spirit. In a culture where many strive to nourish cravings of wealth and power, Rivka favors the son who instead nourishes his soul. Rivka sees what is truly important.

Rivka looks to the future and focuses on the soul, and in so doing she comes into conflict with Yitzchak, who looks to the past and focuses on material comforts. Rivka looks ahead to the future of the Jewish people; Yitzchak looks back to his parents and his childhood. As a result, Rivka and Yitzchak grew apart; the qualities each initially saw in the other were not enough to create a happy union with such differing outlooks.


It's important to have a vision for our lives. Without a vision we just bumble around, reacting to the past and present without considering the future.

For most of us, a vision will not emerge fully-formed without our participation. We don't get anything as clear as "lech l'cha", and I suspect most of us are happy about that. We need to think about our lives -- the past and where we've been, but also the future and where we could go. During Elul and the high holy days we thought a lot about our pasts; perhaps now it is time to think about the future. What is truly important in our lives? In our families? In our beloved community? [1] And what are we doing to nourish that?

I can't answer that question for anyone else; on a good day I can start to answer it for myself. But I know that people change, relationships change, and communities change. Change is inevitable. We can let it carry us haphazardly, or we can follow a vision. Whether we're talking about a marriage, a family, or an entire community, the key is to be on that path together, exploring and experimenting and talking about our visions. Rivka had a vision that Yitzchak didn't share and this led to difficulties. May we all be able to talk about our visions and plan paths together with those we care about.

Kein y'hi r'tzono, may this be God's will.