A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Crowning Hashem on Earth

In this week’s parsha, Avraham asks Eliezer to go to Charan to find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer wonders what he should do if he cannot find one, and Avraham, 24;7, hopes/promises that Hashem, the God of the Heavens, Who took Avraham from his father’s household, would help Eliezer. Rashi notes that four verses earlier Avraham had told Eliezer he wanted him to swear by the God of Heaven and Earth not to take a wife for Yitzchak from among the Canaanite women.

Why does he here limit Hashem to God of Heaven, when a moment before he had referred to Him as ruling Heaven and Earth? Rashi answers that at the moment Hashem took Avraham out of his father’s house, He had indeed only been the God of Heaven. It was Avraham whose life work of speaking about and reminding people of Hashem, had ensconced Hashem as king of earth as well.

It is an image that I have heard offered many times before, and yet still find many who insist on ignoring it: we do something valuable for Hashem, in some sense, by declaring His presence. Or, perhaps more accurately, Hashem has set up a world which, for as long as it runs naturally, depends on human initiative to make His Presence known. Avraham recognized that “need,” and did his best to satisfy it, perhaps the reason he is treated differently than the other monotheists of Bereshit and Jewish tradition, such as Malkitsedek and/or Shem and Ever.

This came up in my Yeshayahu shiur this week as well, so those of you on both my lists might see it twice.  A central part of being Jewish, of being faithful to Father Abraham’s legacy, is working to bring people to recognize Hashem, to bring Hashem’s Kingdom from heaven to earth. As Avraham told Eliezer, by contrasting the state of affairs when Hashem moved him out of Haran to that moment.

The Speech of the Wise and Those Around Them

On 24;42, Rashi cites Bereshit Rabbah about how much space the Torah gives to Eliezer’s story.  Aside from recording each of his actions once he gets there, the Torah also includes his version of the story when he was speaking with Rivka’s family, even though it’s almost identical. R. Acha says that this teaches us that the actions and words of the slaves of the Patriarchs are better or more important than the details of the Torah given their descendants. Those details, some of them significant laws, are often taught by hint or allusion, where Eliezer’s story is told explicitly and at length.

I would have expected R. Acha to give examples of what Eliezer teaches us, so we can see how his actions and/or words enrich our understanding, but he doesn’t. Perhaps he wants us to go find those lessons ourselves. But another option is that R. Acha wasn’t saying Eliezer’s second telling is valuable because it adds so much, it’s valuable because it is the speech of a servant of the Patriarchs. Even in those instances where value isn’t clear, the Torah is telling us that it is.

I think it’s because to be close to great people is to have their greatness rub off. Those of us who are not great and do not have regular contact with the great benefit even from contact with their servants and those lived around them.

A Woman’s Consent to Marriage

After Eliezer tells his story, her family agrees to the match but ask him to stay to give her time to prepare. He expresses his preference to leave immediately, and they suggest asking her opinion. In context, it could have been a delaying tactic, since they expected her to prefer to stay home.

Rashi instead takes this as demonstrating a general requirement that a woman consent to her marriage. Today that seems banal, but remember that Rashi is reading that into the story of Rivkah, whom he had assumed was three years old.  More, the conversation until this point flowed as if the decision about whom she marries is her parents’ (since, in the text, they only ask her view about when to go, not whether).

Avraham Grossman, a Jewish historian who wrote an authoritative biography of Rashi also documented the rising social and cultural status of women in Rashi’s time and place.   We might be tempted to connect the two, to ascribe Rashi’s concern with the woman’s consent to his surroundings. Except R. Yehudah says much the same in the name of Rav (or, perhaps, R. Eliezer), in Kiddushin 41a.

This is an example, one of many, of how we can miss details that change our picture of a past society. It seems to me common to lump all Jewish law together as dismissive of and disinterested in women’s rights, capabilities, and/or value. Especially in the context of marriage, there is enough material to paint Jewish marriage as male-dominated.

The necessity of her consent is more than pro forma and should call us to adjust our picture. In Sephardic communities, where polygyny (multiple wives) was theoretically allowed for longer than in Ashkenazic ones, many women included in their ketubbot the condition that their husband not take a second wife without their express permission. A Jewish woman only entered a marriage if the conditions were sufficiently acceptable that it was a worthwhile proposition for her as well.

Those who won’t be satisfied won’t be satisfied, and I am not saying this solves all the issues. I’m saying it shows an acknowledgement of women’s rights some of today’s rhetoric glides over.

The World We Leave Behind

When Avraham dies, 25;9 notes that Yitzchak and Yishmael buried him, placing the younger son before the older one. Rashi infers that Yishmael repented his evil ways and allowed Yitzchak to go first. Rashi sees this penitence as Avraham’s שיבה טובה, good old age. In Lech Lecha, 15;15, Rashi had included in that שיבה טובה Hashem’s taking Avraham five  years early, so that he would not have to see Esav leave the family’s way of life.

Similarly, in 25;11, the verse notes that Hashem came to bless Yitzchak. In his second option, Rashi says that Avraham refrained from blessing his son because of his worries about Esav’s future, unsure if Hashem would want Yitzchak to have such blessings, if part of them would go to Esav. Instead, he left it up to Hashem, Who now came to bless Yitzchak.

For Rashi, Avraham defines success, or some part of it, by how his descendants develop (this will be true of Ya’akov as well). If Yishmael had not reverted to better ways, if Avraham had lived to see Esav go “off the path,” as it were, he would not have had a happy, comfortable old age. For all that he (and others) can excuse themselves that they did their best, Rashi’s view is that Avraham measured himself by results and not effort.

Who our children and grandchildren are is a reflection of our success or lack of it. With all the other factors that come into play, with all the legitimate justifications we can offer, what happens matters, too, not just what we wanted to happen.

The Two-Stage Death of the Righteous

One more piece of evidence Rashi offers to show that Yishmael returned to his father’s ways is that 25;17 says ויגוע וימת ויאסף אל עמיו which, loosely translated, means he breathed his last, died, and was gathered to his people. That first verb, which might also mean he expired, is one only used about the righteous. Ramban thinks it means death without any illness or suffering, but notes Midrashim that see it the other way, as a period of suffering.

What I haven’t seen anyone point out is that the righteous who are described this way appear only in Bereshit. Aharon, Moshe, Yehoshua, etc., are none of them described with this verb. Were I a more daring thinker, I’d suggest that it was something in the period of the Patriarchs that then disappeared, either because no one else deserved it or because it was no longer necessary or valuable.

Either way, Yishmael passed away with that, because he repented, bringing a ripe old age to his father, who had been a crucial force in introducing Hashem’s rule on earth and who had a servant whose words were precious enough to be recorded at length in the Torah. A servant who knew that Rivkah’s feelings and consent were vital to her marriage.