By: Mark Silverstein
Genesis 25.19 to 28.9
November 21, 2020
Possibly the most amazing thing about this parsha is its timing. Like the hundred-year plague we’re experiencing now, the thirteenth month or certain people admitting they’re wrong, the stars must be perfectly aligned for a parsha to match the one we are currently discussing in Torah Study. Those of you who Zoomed in last week for our virtual discussion will recall that Toldot follows a familiar theme, sibling rivalry.
Like Cain and Abel, and Isaac and Ishmael, we find Jacob and Esau at odds with each other. Their conflict began in the womb and continued out in the world when a famished Esau sold his birthright to the younger Jacob for a bowl of lentils. Then, Jacob deceived their father, Abraham, who has lost his sight, in order to secure his father’s deepest blessing. Jacob, then fled to Haran to avoid the fury of Esau and later followed his parents’ instructions to go to Paddan-aram to find a wife.
In between these conflicts, the parsha reveals how Isaac went to Abimelech in Gerar during the famine. Like his father Abraham, he claimed Rebecca was his sister and not his wife. He dug numerous wells after the Philistines plugged the ones Abraham had dug. Finally, he grew so wealthy that eventually, Abimelech sent him away.
Rather than focus on the growth of Isaac’s empire, his taste for game that led him to favor Esau, or whether he may have been complicit in the bestowing of his blessing on his younger son, and rather than exploring the many aspects to the fraternal relationship that Jacob and Esau shared, including how it foreshadows the contentious relationship of Jacob’s twelve sons, I’ve decided to focus on the character I believe held the destiny of the Jewish people in her hands.
In her article, Parashat Toldot: Opening the Conversation, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, senior rabbi at Temple-Emanu-El-Beth-Shalom in Montreal, notes that Rebecca becomes the first person in the Torah to start a conversation with God. While Abraham confronts God about Sodom and Gemorah, it’s only after God has revealed his divine plan to him. Whereas, when Rebecca wonders what purpose her suffering through a difficult pregnancy serves, she goes straight to the source.
In his article, Rebecca’s Spiritual Crisis, Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, claims Rebecca serves as a model for how to behave in a spiritual crisis. Rabbi Cohen compares how Moses exhorts God to let him die rather than put up with the constant complaints of the Children of Israel to Rebecca’s questioning her existence. He further notes that scholars have disagreed over the meaning of her words, “Im keyn, lammah zeh ‘anokhi,” which usually translates to something like, “If so, why do I exist?” Rashi expanded her words to mean, “If the pain of pregnancy be so great, why is it that I longed and prayed to be pregnant?” This interpretation makes it appear that Rebecca considered herself naïve. Her desires falling into the category of, “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.”
But unlike those who when faced with a crisis question their faith in God, Rebecca recognizes her pregnancy as part of a divine plan and so turns to God. Rabbi Cohen points to the text, L’drosh, which means to inquire, but further means to challenge or struggle. Rather than ask God why he’s putting her through such anguish, she wants to know what purpose the experience serves.
God’s answer, while not remedying any of the physical struggle Rebecca has to endure, helps her recognize the important role she holds as mother of two nations and gives meaning to her future actions to ensure God’s intention to have the older serve the younger child. Rebecca was worried about her children, about her own life and about her struggle, but she didn’t turn to a prophet or a scholar, she went straight to God with her question. “Like so many women after her,” Rabbi Grushcow stated, “she is misinterpreted and misunderstood. But God understands her, and God responds.”
In the previous parsha, Chayei Sarah, we learned that when Abraham’s servant approached, Rebecca not only looked after the needs of this stranger, but she also fetched water for his animals. However, controversy arises from the passage in this parsha that reads: “The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin (Genesis 24:16).
Pinehas Halivah, founder and director of Ashkelon College and researcher and scholar at Bar-Ilan University, notes in his article, “How Old Was Rebekah When She Married Isaac?” that Rashi concluded she was three years old when they married. As a person given to twenty-first century thought my immediate response was to suspend judgment and find what evidence would lead such a brilliant mind to such an illogical conclusion. Yet, it’s not illogical at all, if we take into account that we calculate Isaac’s age at binding by the age we are given at marriage, which was forty.
Rashi’s calculations derive from an overwhelming consensus among Sages in their homilies that, “When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, at that very moment the matriarch Sarah died, and Isaac was then thirty-seven; and at that very time Abraham was told of Rebecca’s birth; thus we find that Rebecca was three years old when she married Isaac.”
Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel surprised by Rashi’s interpretation asks:
“The Sages have said that it was forestalled until Rebecca turned three years old, for she was born after the binding of Isaac and Isaac was then thirty-seven years old; but this is a homiletic interpretation, for how could she have been only three and yet have gone to the spring and drawn water for all the camels, and done all that Scripture tells of her doing?” Still, later in his homily the good Rabbi professes, “Should you say, a three-year-old is too young to go out to draw water, we answer that a three-year-old in days of yore was more mature than a ten-year-old in our times.”
For commentators at odds with Rashi there is another calculation. It’s based on the pairing of Rebecca with Kohath for the number of years they both lived, which was one-hundred thirty-three. By taking Jacob’s age of ninety-nine at the time of his mother’s death and subtracting the twenty years she was barren, her derived age is fourteen.
The question then becomes why did Rashi and others remain committed to their belief that she married Isaac at age three. Halivah concludes that Rashi lived in a time when Christians questioned the deceptive behavior of Jews in scripture, such as the behavior used to take Esau’s birthright and blessing. Being so young prevented Rebecca from inheriting the dishonest and cheating behaviors of her father and brother. She would be pristine, virtuous and a steadfast mate, unlike the wives of Adam, Samson and King Solomon.
Whatever age she married at, Rebecca became a matriarch of two nations, and served God and not her own self-interest in having her younger son receive his father’s blessing. Her strength and courage has inspired young activists like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, government officials like Nikki Haley and Kamala Harris, and business leaders like Meg Whitman and Kim Ng.
In my opinion, the modern woman who exhibits the characteristics most like Rebecca is Melinda Gates. She not only shared her husband’s dream of raising a family, but as a fellow computer scientist helped advance the growth and development of the business he founded. More significantly, she helped him create the world’s largest private charitable organization, which I believe not only represents a true example of Tikkun Olam, but preserves their legacy for generations to come. I think Rebecca would be proud.