Join us for this special WebYeshiva.org event. To sign up CLICK HERE
This is a virtual tour – The best way to appreciate Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) is by going on a tiyul – walking through the land and reliving the miracles on location. Unfortunately, the current situation prevents even those who live here from doing that this year. So we’re going virtual – enabling people around the world to participate! In this virtual tour with Rabbi Alan Haber we will “visit” a number of battle sites in the Jerusalem area from the crucial weeks prior to the end of the British Mandate in May, 1948. Through maps, photos and videos shot this week on location, we’ll relive the dramatic battles, mourn the young lives lost and appreciate the miraculous victories as we prepare to celebrate 72 years of Israel’s Independence.
Rivka, the second of our Matriarchs, is, interestingly, not traditionally criticized for pushing her son Yaakov to deceive his father. On the other hand, several passages in Rabbinic literature seem to take surprising little shots against her character and connection to God.
For instance, we are told that Yitzchak prayed “l’nochach (opposite, or regarding) his wife, because she was barren, and God allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and Rivka, his wife, became pregnant” (Bereishit 25:21). A straightforward reading implies that Yitzchak prayed for children and Rivka didn’t – strike one, perhaps, on a peshat level: she didn’t turn to God!
A midrash famously quoted by Rashi seems to cancel the strike by understanding l’nochach as “opposite” and claiming they both prayed, in parallel. However, while this may look like a lovely assertion of unity and equality of faith, we must not forget that the verse still specifies God listened to him; perhaps she did pray, but that only calls attention to the fact that she wasn’t answered. Rashi again turns to midrash, and explains that because of her background, her prayer was simply not as powerful as Yitzchak’s. While Rivka was righteous (and prayed), she bore the taint of her upbringing and simply could not connect to God like her husband could.
Once Rivka became pregnant, she sensed something strange and “went to seek God. And God said to her…” (ibid. 22-23). Here, the straightforward implication is that Rivka was indeed deeply connected to God, such that she could simply ask him a question and be answered.
However, likely because the Torah specifies that Rivka “went” somewhere with her question (Isn’t God everywhere?), Rashi clarifies (from midrash) that the exchange took place through an intermediary: She went to Shem, the pious son of Noach, and he transmitted God’s answer. While it may not be much of a “strike” against her to not be a prophet, it is striking that the midrash rejects the peshat implication that she was one. (Note also that Rivka is not included in the list of prophetesses in Megillah 14a, while other women are included based on less explicit prooftexts.)
A third Rabbinic strike against Rivka’s connection to God comes later in the parsha: When Esav marries Hittite women, we are told they caused “a bitterness of spirit to Yitzchak and to Rivka” (Bereishit 26:35). The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (65:4) assumes there is significance to the order of their names in this verse (perhaps because the repeated “to” implies a distinction between them), and suggests that Yitzchak is mentioned first because Rivka was more accustomed to idolatrous practices like those performed by Esav’s wives: she had grown up with such behavior and was desensitized, while Yitzchak was purely connected to God and completely distressed by idolatry.
Moreover, the midrash says, perhaps it was even because of Rivka and her family background that Esav turned out the way he did!
(Note that another midrashic tradition emphasizes Rivka’s distinction from her family, calling her “a rose among thorns.” While I will not address that specific midrash here, other than quoting it in the title, it should be kept in mind while reading the below – and see my essay here for more.)
On the other hand, we might see all these strikes against Rivka in a different light.
First, as to the question of the influence of her family: remember that Rivka rejected it without hesitation: “And she said, ‘I will go’” (Bereishit 24:58). But that “going,” like so many decisions to “go” that we might make, was just the first step on a journey.
Kli Yakar (Bereishit 25:22) offers a beautiful interpretation that perhaps relates that “I will go” to the later “and she went to seek God.” He suggests that the strange experience of Rivka’s pregnancy brought up existential questions that motivated her not to “seek of God” – i.e., to ask Him questions – but to “seek God” Himself. She wanted to explore the nature of “the actual existence of God.”
Can we fault her for needing some time to learn and grow along her chosen path? On the contrary: if it was a challenge for Rivka to develop a pure, unadulterated connection to God, we should not emphasize the obstacles in her path, but her commitment to continuing to go and seek God despite them.
And yet another midrash indicates that commitment paid off: While she might not have had the spiritual capacity to initiate a conversation with God when she was new to Canaan, when Esav later plots “in his heart” to kill Yaakov (27:41), Rivka “is told the words of Esav” (ibid. 42) – and as Rashi notes, who could have told her such private thoughts but God Himself?
For over 50 years Rabbi Brovender has taught thousands of students from all around the world. This week we introduce you to Ilana Goldstein Saks. She has taught Tanach for many years and is also a professional baker. Ilana is currently a coordinator of the special-needs bakery at Sadnat Shiluv. She lives in Efrat with her husband, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, and their four children.
How did you meet Rabbi Brovender?
I feel like I have met Rabbi Brovender many times in different ways. I first met him when a cousin and then my older sisters attended Bruria, now known as Midrashet Lindenbaum, and my father discovered that Rabbi Brovender was the same Brovender that he had taught to read the Torah for his bar mitzvah many years before.
Later, I was his student at Midreshet Lindenbaum – first as a post high-school student and later on the Bruria Scholars program. Since marrying my husband Jeff, who was also Rabbi Brovender’s student, and at this point has worked with Rabbi Brovender for over 25 years, I have had the opportunity to learn from him second hand.
Not incidentally, Rabbi Brovender was our mesader kiddushin.
What do you find most important or striking about the “Brovender Method” -his unique way of teaching?
The classes I learned with Rabbi Brovender were almost exclusively Tanach based. He taught me an appreciation of Parshanut, and the need to read the commentaries carefully and thoughtfully.
His classes demonstrated that superficial reading would be neither sufficient nor satisfying.
When it comes to Torah learning, what were you most drawn to after learning with Rabbi Brovender?
Much of my learning and almost all of my teaching has been of Tanach and related texts such as parshanut and midrash. My personal inclination was always to confront the text of the Tanach on its own – without the distraction of commentaries who seemed to add layers of meaning that were not really there.
I learned by example in Rabbi Brovender’s classes how to study and appreciate parshanut, and that parshanut can really open our eyes to interpretations of the text that we would otherwise miss.
What lesson or specific Torah that you learned from Rabbi Brovender, do you keep coming back to or carry with you wherever you go?
So often he would begin a class with a familiar commentary, which I hadn’t found to be so interesting, and by the end of the class he had shown just how interesting it was. This repeated experience of learning texts with him taught me a new level of respect for the text.
When I learn and teach, I approach the texts with the assumption that it has something meaningful to teach me, and that it is simply up to me to uncover that meaning.
This has influenced both my attitude toward the texts as well as my efforts in analyzing them. I have come to appreciate the hidden depth of texts that is often missed by a superficial glance – something which I have often thought can be said of Rabbi Brovender himself, as well as the way he views his students.
When Avraham tasks his servant with traveling “to my land, to my birthplace” (Bereishit 24:4) to find a wife for Yitzchak, the servant expresses a fairly reasonable concern about what might go wrong – “Maybe the woman won’t want to follow me back here” (ibid. 5) – and wants to clarify backup plans in advance – “Should I return your son to the land from which you came [to marry her there]?”
Avraham, however, asserts that there is nothing to worry about: Definitely do not bring Yitzchak there, but don’t worry, because “Hashem, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me saying: I will give this land to your offspring – He will send His malach before you and you will take a wife for my son from there” (ibid. 7).
Why not worry?
That’s quite a mouthful. Why doesn’t Avraham simply say “God will help”? What is the relevance of these particular details about God to this assurance of His help? And what is the meaning of this particular assurance; what will an angel (malach) do, and how does Avraham know?
Some suggest, to answer the last question first, that Avraham didn’t actually know. The Hebrew future tense carries a degree of inherent ambiguity: does it mean something will happen, or should happen – that one hopes it will happen? Is Avraham saying “God will send His angel,” or is he saying “May God send His angel with you!” The Bechor Shor, among others, cites both possibilities: it could be a prayer or a promise. Chizkuni also offers two suggestions, but rather than “promise,” he pits prayer against prophecy.
Logic over worrying
Perhaps, then, Avraham did know that God would help – because He told him He would. Or, perhaps he was simply as certain as if he had been told, certain enough to make a promise to his servant – because he himself had been promised. In this light, we can offer a partial answer to the earlier question: Why are the details of God and Avraham’s biography relevant here?
A number of commentaries suggest something along the lines of this: “God made a point of bringing me here and telling me this land would be for my offspring; it’s only logical that He will make sure that I actually have offspring in this land to inherit it! For that to happen, it makes sense that Yitzchak will stay here and be joined, here, by a woman who is a good match to bring the next generation into the land with him.”
Prayer, prophecy, and promise
Of course, that line of reasoning only holds for someone who has some pretty strong faith. In this reading, Avraham puts his full trust in God and His promises, as well as in his own understanding of them, to the point that he can confidently tell his servant no, it is not possible that Yitzchak will have to go anywhere to find a wife; I am sure that God will help you find the right woman, and the right woman will be willing to join him here, where his (their) promised future lies.
At this point, one might argue that the lines between prayer, promise, and prophecy are not so distinct. Avraham desires and asks for God’s help, but he is so deeply connected to God, after decades of wandering and questioning and guidance and growth, that he can also be absolutely certain that what he wants is what God wants, and what God will do – because it is all held within the prophetic communications he has received.
When three “men” show up at Avraham’s tent-step while he’s recuperating from circumcision (Bereishit 18:1), one of their tasks is to foretell the birth of Yitzchak, which will occur a year later. Considering the prominent role Sarah will play in that event, coupled with the fact that does not yet seem to know that she will be Avraham’s biological as well as ideological partner in building God’s nation, it is only natural that they would want her present to hear the momentous news.
Indeed, this is how some commentaries explain the question the “men” ask Avraham before making their announcement: “Where is Sarah, your wife?” (18:9). Once they have established that she is within earshot, “here, in the tent” (ibid.), they can proceed. (See Ohr Hachaim’s explicit statement of this perspective, as well as Bechor Shor and Seforno.)
What’s it to us?
Of course, one might argue that (1) this is such a minor, practical detail that it doesn’t seem worth including in the text of the Torah; and (2) if they are indeed angels, surely they were privy to the knowledge of Sarah’s whereabouts; why the need to ask?
Digging deeper, we might then suggest that the reason to ask – and more to the point, the reason to include their question and Avraham’s response in the Torah – is that there is something the Torah wishes to highlight to the reader, about the question and/or the response. Perhaps the “men” wanted to make a point to Avraham – and the Torah, in turn, brings it to the reader’s attention – or perhaps it is a detail that is significant solely for our benefit, that would have meant nothing special to Avraham.
What might be so significant about Sarah’s whereabouts? A lot! A survey of commentaries and midrashic traditions reveals a wide range of ideas (many more than can be discussed here).
Basic Etiquette (“The Way of the World”)
On one level, we might suggest that the above is not as practical as we thought; perhaps the Torah wishes to convey the importance of sharing information directly with affected parties – rather than, for instance, giving medical information to a woman’s husband without her.
Along similar lines, two midrashic suggestions offered in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 87a) seem to suggest that asking about Sarah was a matter of simple propriety – and intended to teach readers the importance of such propriety:
Rabbi Yosi b’Rabbi Chanina said: In order to send her the cup of blessing.
It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yose: Why are the letters “א – י – ו” in “אליו” dotted? The Torah taught derech eretz, that a person should inquire after his host.
The Torah contains dots over the word for “they said to him” when they asked Avraham where Sarah was; these dots call attention to the letters איו, which translates as “where is he?” Rashi explains (see his comments on the Gemara and on Bereishit 18:9, as well as Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 48:15) that this indicates they asked her about him as well as asking him about her. Thus, the message here is to teach the value of basic manners toward one’s host and hostess.
Sending her the “cup of blessing” – while the cup and its significance clearly need further explanation – also seems, on the most basic level, to be a matter of graciously including one’s hostess in proceedings.
A Personal Trait
A more well-known explanation offered by the Gemara and echoed by Rashi is that the question of Sarah’s whereabouts was intended to highlight her modesty in remaining apart from the company, and/or (perhaps thereby) to endear her to her husband. It is worth considering these interpretations alongside each other: the idea that they wanted to make sure she was present and the idea that they were highlighting, as a positive, the fact of her absence.
Women in Tents
Any analysis of the midrashic comment on Sarah’s modesty would be remiss to not include another midrashic tradition, which contrasts this characteristic of hers with a heroine much later in Tanach: Yael, who is known not for simply being “in the tent” but for what she did in her tent – “And she took a tent peg…and pierced the peg into [Sisera’s] temple…” (Shoftim 4:21).
Devorah praises Yael for killing this enemy general, saying she is to be “blessed more than women in tents” (ibid. 5:24).
Who are these women in tents, and why is Yael blessed above them? According to a view in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 48:15, Devorah is alluding to Sarah (and perhaps other foremothers described as being in tents), and her point is that while Sarah’s role within the tent – as a homemaker, raising a family committed to God and the mission of the Jewish people – was obviously a crucial one, it would have all been for nothing if Yael hadn’t stepped up to save the Jewish people from the threat posed by Sisera.
As Parshat Lech Lecha begins, it looks very much, at least on a superficial reading, like the story of Avraham (then called Avram); his wife Sarah (then Sarai) is simply “taken” (12:5) along for the ride.
Sarah Takes the Stage
Only as they approach Egypt, looking to escape a famine in Canaan, does Sarah become a central character – and even then, she seems remarkably passive:
And Avram went down to Egypt… And when he approached to come to Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “Behold, now I have known that you are a beautiful woman. And it will be, when the Egyptians see you…they will kill me and leave you alive [to take you for themselves]. Say, please, you are my sister…” And it was, when Avram came to Egypt and the Egyptians saw…the woman was taken to the house of Pharaoh. (Bereishit 12:10-15)
There are no verbs connected with Sarah in this passage – not even a reaction to Avraham’s plan. She is spoken of and “taken” – and not even “they took her,” but “she was taken,” as if to emphasize passivity and powerlessness.
On the other hand, we certainly see later that Sarah knows how to speak up when necessary, as when she suggests that Avraham marry Hagar and when she later insists that Hagar and Yishmael be cast out. And indeed, perhaps even in Egypt, Sarah is more active than she seems.
Here’s the Thing About Words
The Torah tells us that God struck Pharaoh and his household with “great plagues, al dvar Sarai eshet Avram” (12:17). The Hebrew word davar has two common translations: “thing/matter” and “word.” These lead to multiple possible translations of this verse, offering very different portrayals of our damsel in distress – or, should I rather say, our heroine.
Biblical translators often assume the first meaning of davar here: “God struck Pharaoh on the matter of Sarai, the wife of Avram.” In other words, something was happening regarding Sarah, and God decided to take action because of it.
(Note that the phrase “the wife of Avram” could be understood in a number of ways, offering further nuances that are sadly beyond the scope of this dvar Torah.)
If we understand dvar as “word,” however, that would change everything: it would indicate that Sarah spoke words – and not only that she spoke words, but that they were effective. “God struck Pharaoh on the word of Sarai, the wife of Avram”: God did not simply initiate the rescue of a damsel in distress; rather, the heroine of her own story spoke up to save herself.
But to whom did she speak up, and how did it help?
Rav Hirsch suggests that Sarai spoke to Pharaoh, admitting that she was Avram’s wife – and by doing so, “forced God’s hand,” as it were, to step in and save her: Pharaoh would no longer try to gain her “brother’s” permission for marriage, and would simply kill Avram and keep her; thus, the danger became immediate and Hashem had to intervene.
Alternatively, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (41:2) suggests two possible non-physical addressees. First – God himself; it was Sarah’s words of prayer (a remarkably bold prayer; see midrashic text) that moved God to step in when He did.
And second: “Rabbi Levi said: All that night, an angel stood with a whip in his hand. He would say to her, ‘If you say strike, I will strike…’ And why all this? Because she was saying to him [Pharaoh] ‘I am a married woman!’ and he was not stopping.”
It is Rabbi Levi’s interpretation that I find most fascinating. Here, the “word of Sarai” was two-fold: she spoke to Pharaoh and told him the truth (as in Rav Hirsch) – and when he didn’t listen, God sent an angel to make him listen, precisely in accordance with Sarah’s decision and spoken instructions.
At the very depth of her powerlessness – God doesn’t just save Sarah, but empowers her to use her voice to save herself.
Broadening the Message
Part of building an active, personal spiritual identity and mission – for both spouses in this partnership – is developing a balanced relationship between faith in God (bitachon) and personal efforts (hishtadlut). It is not simply about using one’s voice, or about trusting that God will step in, but about finding and using our God-given abilities to the greatest effect.