A rose among thorns – but did she pick up a few?
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?