Friday, November 2, 2007

In Search of a Matriarch

In this week’s parsha, Avraham decides it is high time for his son to get married. After all, Yitzchak is pushing forty. Instead of doing the Jewish thing and yelling at him to get married already or introducing him to a nice Canaanite girl, Avraham sends his butler Eliezer off to his old hometown of Charan to find Yitzchak a wife.

Eliezer is understandably confused. He asks the obvious:
What if the girl does not want to come back with me to this land? Shall I bring your son back to the land that you left?
Bereishit 24:5
Before he schleps across the Middle East on a camel, Eliezer wants to make sure he’s not wasting his time. He knows it would be a whole lot easier to make a shidduch if the girl could just meet Yitzchak first. Who is going to agree to marry a man sight unseen? Eliezer makes a reasonable request. Let me take Yitzchak along.

Avraham says no. And he explains why.
“Be careful! Do not bring my son back there! God, the Lord of the heaven, took me away from my father’s house and the land of my birth. He spoke to me and made an oath. ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ He will send His angel before you and you will take a wife from there for my son.
“If the girl does not want to come back with you, then you shall be absolved from my oath. But do not bring my son back there!”
It's a passionate speech, but what does it mean? Is Avraham saying that Eliezer is guaranteed success because God will intervene and send an angel? No, Avraham didn’t say that. In fact, after mentioning the angel, Avraham’s very next sentence is this: “If the girl does not want to come back with you, then you shall be absolved from my oath.” Clearly then, there are no guarantees. So what exactly is this angel going to do? (cf. Rashi 24:52) And why can’t Yitzchak go to Charan? In short, how has Avraham responded to Eliezer’s legitimate concern?

In order to understand Avraham’s response, we need to think again about Eliezer’s question. Eliezer was worried that the girl will not agree to come back with him to Israel; but the truth is, there is a bigger question that needs to be addressed first. What kind of girl are we looking for? How is Eliezer to decide who is right for Yitzchak? All Avraham said was to find someone from “my land and my birthplace” (24:4). No further instructions were given. How will Eliezer choose?

This problem does not seem to concern Eliezer. Eliezer is confident in his ability to find the right girl, for he has devised a little test that he implements as soon as he arrives in Charan:
He prayed, “O God, Lord of my master Avraham: Be with me today and grant a favor to my master Avraham. I am standing here by the well, and the daughters of he townsmen are coming to draw water. If I say to a girl, ‘Tip over your jug and let me have a drink,’ and she replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ she will be the one whom you have determined for Your servant Yitzchak.
The very first girl that Eliezer approaches is none other than Rivkah herself and, to Eliezer's amazement, she passes his test with flying colors (24:15-27). If you think about it, this test, which was Eliezer’s idea, was entirely unnecessary. Avraham was right. God’s angel saw to it that Rivkah was the first girl Eliezer met. There was no need for a test to find the right girl.

This is what Avraham was telling Eliezer. You will find the right girl immediately. Forget about your test. There is something else we need to look for.
“God, the Lord of the heaven, took me away from my father’s house and the land of my birth. He spoke to me and made an oath. ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ He will send His angel before you and you will take a wife from there for my son.”

God didn’t really “take” Avraham away from his father’s house. God told him to go and Avraham chose to listen. Avraham listened even though he did not know where he was going: “Go… to the land which I will show you” (12:1). Avraham had faith and Avraham went, and in the merit of that mitzvah God said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
The path that Rivkah must tread is the one that Avraham and Sarah had traveled – the road that they journeyed in following the will of God. It was that path that led to their destiny as the chosen people and is therefore the road that leads Rivkah to that same destiny.
R. Yitzchak Twersky, Amittah Shel Torah, pg. 94
In other words, what Avraham is saying here is that in order for her to merit the blessing of Israel in her own right, Yitzchak’s wife-to-be must pass the test of Lech Lecha. Now we understand why the local girls are out of the running.

This is no ordinary marriage. To enter Avraham’s family and become a matriarch, Rivkah must sacrifice all on the altar of monotheism. Her love for the One God must drive her to abandon her pagan family forever for an unknown fate with an unknown man, just like Avraham abandoned that same pagan family many years earlier for an unknown land. All Rivkah knows is that Yitzchak fears God. That should be enough. If the heroic Yitzchak were to show up at her door in person, there would be no test here at all.

Eliezer and Avraham were looking at this shidduch project from very different perspectives. Eliezer thought it was his job to find the right girl and bring her home, and he just couldn’t figure out how he was going to convince someone to marry a man she never met. But Avraham knew that God, not Eliezer, would find the right match for Yitzchak. Whether or not she would come to Israel had to be Rivkah’s choice, uninfluenced by anything other than the faith of her own heart. Even Yitzchak himself could not be the determining factor.
God orchestrated events and took the Jews out of Egypt only because of the merits of Sara, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah… [The Exodus was] a reward for Rivkah, who, when asked if she wanted to go with the man [Eliezer], said, “I will go!” (24:58).
Eliyahu Rabba 25
It is understandable that Eliezer, the faithful student of Avraham, was looking for a woman of chesed, loving-kindness (cf. Rashi to 24:14; compare 24:44). Avraham, however, was searching not for a chavruta for himself but for a wife for his son Yitzchak. Avraham wanted to see gevurah, strength, determination and sacrifice. While it turned out that Rivkah had plenty of both chesed and gevurah, ultimately, Avraham was right. Rivkah’s legacy to her people is not her chesed to camels but her gevurah for God. She is the paradigm of a woman who has the inner strength to drop everything and say, “I will go!”


  1. rabbi, does this mean that without the without the woman's combinaion of chesed and gevurah, that a "bayis ne'eman beyisrael" is destined to be a failure?
    --aaron frager

  2. Avraham and Sarah were known to have a very close and special relationship. However, it seems to me they did not have similiar personalities. Avraham was all chesed and compassion, while Sarah was more inclined to din (judgement). Sarah pushed Hagar away and she also decided Yishmael needed to be sent out of the house. Even with these differences, we know that Avraham and Sarah's marriage had kedusha (holiness). Why then is it so important that Yitzhak and Rivkah have the same qualities?
    Sandy Gordon

  3. Aaron-
    People don't come black or white. Everyone has both chesed & gevurah. Avraham had the gevurah for the Akidah and Yitzchak had the chesed to tolerate Eisav. The question is which characteristic is more dominant in your personality.
    As for a shidduch, I really don't know how to pair people up. My Bubby used to say that there are flowers and there are gardeners. Flowers can marry flowers and a flower can marry a gardener. But gardeners shouldn't marry gardeners. I figure gevurah people shouldn't marry each other either.

    I don't know why Avraham thought it crucial that Rivkah have gevurah. But it does seem that way. As for us, it is hard to say what's best. See what I wrote in response to Aaron.

  4. Rabbi Gordon,
    Your whole parsha post was about Rivkah needing gevurah. Why then did you write to Aaron that you don't recommend two people with gevurah to marry each other?

  5. Anonymous-
    You got me. I contradicted myself.

  6. A very nice drasha, yashar koach; however: if the test of lech lecha was so important for Riva, why then does Avraham tell Eliezer that if "the girl" won't go with him, he is absolved of the oath? Why not tell him to find another girl from Haran who will pass the test?

  7. Rabbi Gordon-
    I really like your explanation of the story. However I'm having much difficulty understanding how it belongs on a blog that claims to be relevant. I have no idea what this has to do with "you and me today".

  8. Rabbi Apt - I don't understand your question. Unless you mean that since you are already married or because you are not a woman it's not relevant. Because I understood the Chaver's point to be that an Eishes Chayil should have some measure of gevurah along with her requisite chesed. In other words, we like to tell our sons, see, look at Rivka for your model on what to look for in a shidduch. Well, what exactly does Rivka look like? R. Gordon has expanded that image for us.

  9. Rabbi Seinfeld-
    You asked: "If the test of lech lecha was so important for Riva, why then does Avraham tell Eliezer that if "the girl" won't go with him, he is absolved of the oath? Why not tell him to find another girl from Haran who will pass the test?"
    That's the best question Iv'e been hit with yet. I guess Avraham knew there was only one girl in the running.

    Rabbi Apt-
    I refer you to R. Seinfeld's exquisite defense of the relevancy on my post. I would add another point. The chiddush here is that certain things must be surrendered to God, especially when it comes to Shidduchim. You just can't test for everything. Two things, however, must be checked: (Jewish) lineage and (religious) commitment.

  10. Your subtitle notwithstanding, perhaps a little Kabbala could be helpful here. The relevance of the commitment of "lech lecha/lach" is the concentrative quality of KETER as it says in the opening of Tomer Devorah, "ראוי שיתדמה אל פעלות הכתר…’ which is pure chefetz like the chefetz of HaKadosh Baruch Hu before the Briah, the Avos must have this mida. Rivka had to exhibit not simply חסד but חסד של אמת . See Michah 7:18-20.
    With apologies.

  11. excellent writing- very refreshing and enjoyable.