MY FIRST BLOG
It’s hard to believe that this is my 70th blog. I began to write in the time period between Shavuot and Tisha B’Av. Out of curiosity, I looked to see what I wrote in my first blog. I am not surprised that what I wrote then is timely today:
No one listens to the other, so we raise our voices. We are a country of immigrants, so to make sure the “other” understands us, we raise our voice, assuming that if we scream loudly enough, something will penetrate. It is a cliché to point out the discourteous models of discourse that we regularly see on television interviews, the Knesset etc. All of this filters down. There is a lack of respect for opinions that are not our own. In the good old days, if you were a principal, a doctor, a president, a prime minister, a parent, that would guarantee respect. Elders had experience and we were prepared to listen to them. However, those days are gone. No one respects the other, we don’t even respect ourselves, so how can we be expected to respect those who are different from us. We may not be killing each other (yet) as they are doing in the U.S. where every day brings a new shooting, but we are killing each other with disrespect. Every day brings another challenge to the government. Without any shame, the opposition is prepared to bring down the government and vote against law and order in the West Bank, and passing a bill for funding soldier’s education. We live in dangerous times when there is only disrespect, shamelessness, and self-interest. Is this what we pass on to the next generation?
I ended my first blog with a true story that happened a few years ago.
In the good old days, when we used to go to the opera in Tel Aviv, we would take the train from Beersheba, and then from the Tel Aviv train station we would take a taxi to the opera house. One day, the only taxi available was not in the usual taxi stand. The driver demanded 50 shekels for a 4-minute trip. My husband was willing to pay; I balked at this and said to the driver, “this is literally highway robbery.” The driver answered: “The prime minister is a thief, with his hands in everyone’s pocket, why should I be different?” I responded: “You know; you’re absolutely right and I will be repeating this story for years”. We got in, paid and got to the opera with more than enough time to spare and 50 shekels poorer. But it was worth it for this anecdote. As we say in Hebrew: ha-mavin, yavin! Or in Aramaic dai lehakima be-remiza. The wise person will get the hint!
So this brings me to this week’s parsha Hayei Sarah, which has nothing to do with Sarah (except for where to bury her) and mostly about the next woman who will have a lot to say and perhaps will be indirectly responsible for carrying out one of the most difficult assignments of any woman’s life, choosing one son over another. But that’s in next week’s parsha.
REBEKAH’S ESCAPE FROM HOME
After Rebekah’s watering Abraham’s servant’s camels and her inviting him home to her house, the servant declares his intentions to take Rebekah back with him to marry Isaac:
Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The matter was decreed by the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed low to the ground before the Lord. And the servant took out ornaments of silver and ornaments of gold and garments and he gave them to Rebekah and he gave presents to her brother and her mother. And they ate and drank, he and the men who were with him, and they spent the night and rose in the morning, and he said, “Send me off, that I may go to my master.” And her brother and her mother said, “Let the young woman stay with us ten days or so, then she may go.” And he said to them, “Do not hold me back when the LORD has granted success to my journey. Send me off that I may go to my master.” And they said, “Let us call the young woman and ask for her answer.” And they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will.” And they sent off Rebekah their sister, and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men (Genesis 24: 50-59).
I always wondered why Rebekah was so eager to leave her home. Why did she take a chance on a total stranger? What kind of conversations did she have with Abraham’s servant on the long road trip from Haran to Canaan? None of these questions are answered in the biblical tale itself. So this is where Midrash comes in. The midrash also wonders how come her father Bethuel disappears from the conversation after the evening meal and also about the propriety of her traveling with a strange man, a Canaanite servant no less! And notice the difference in style: when Bethuel is around, he peremptorily offers his daughter: “take her and go”! But when her mother is around, they ask her “will you go? They allow her choice and agency. Is her unnamed mother a feminist? We know that Rebekah’s grandmother’s was Milkah, perhaps a queen? (For genealogy see Genesis 22:20-24)
WHAT THE MIDRASH HAS TO SAY ABOUT ALL THIS
The midrash totally demonizes Bethuel (whose name sounds like betulah, a virgin—someone has a sense of humor here in the choice of names) and implies that he had plans to sexually abuse her. So God’s angel takes preemptive action:
“Her brother and her mother said: Let the girl remain with us for some days, or ten months; afterward she shall go” (Genesis 24:55).
“Her brother and her mother said: Let the girl remain with us” – where was [her father] Betuel? He wanted to impede [the betrothal of Rebekah] and was stricken down overnight. That is what is written: “The righteousness of the honest will straighten his way” (Proverbs 11:5). “The righteousness of the honest” – this is Isaac; “will straighten his way” – the way of Eliezer. “In his evil, the wicked one is rejected” (Proverbs 11:5) – this is Betuel, who was stricken down overnight.
“Let the girl remain with us some days” – this refers to the seven days of mourning for him [Betuel]. “Or ten months [asor]” – this refers to the twelve months that a virgin is given to secure her needs for herself. *After betrothal, a fiancée is entitled to take twelve months before the wedding to prepare herself (Mishna Ketubot 5:2). Laban and his mother were willing to speed up the process, so they requested only ten months.
“They said: We will call the girl, and ask her response” (Genesis 24:57).
“They said: We will call the girl [and ask her response]” – from here we learn that one may marry off an orphan girl only with her consent.
“They called Rebekah and said to her: Will you go with this man? She said: I will go” (Genesis 24:58).
“They called Rebecca and said to her: [Will you go with this man?]” – Rabbi Yitzḥak said: They were hinting to her: ‘Will you [really] go? Will you [really] go?’ *They did not want her to go. It was as though they were asking: Are you even considering going with him? “She said: I will go” – I am going against your will, even if you disapprove (Genesis Rabbah 60:12).
There is another version that explains how Betuel was stricken down:
The brother and mother: where was Betuel? The same angel that Abraham sent with Eliezer (the unnamed servant) switched the poisoned dish intended for Eliezer and gave it to Betuel who ate from it and died. And there are those who say that the angel killed him, so that Betuel would not be able to lie with her before her marriage (as he would do with all the local women, exercising the droit de seigneur) so to protect Rebecca from her father’s evil intentions, the angel took preemptive action (my translation of Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 24:53:2).
Another midrash has all the people in town killing him, because they were tired of his deflowering their daughters. The rabbis in this midrash are pre-occupied with Rebekah’s virginity. Perhaps this is because in the opening description of her it states: “And the young woman was very comely to look at, a virgin (betulah), no man had known her” (Genesis 24:16).
“So in the continuation of this midrash they explain that when Rebekah fell off her camel (on seeing Isaac) her hymen was perforated and so she was now technically not a virgin. Fortunately for her, the angel Gabriel (the same one who killed off Betuel) was sent by God to cordon off the spot where the blood was (like today’s forensic technicians) so that she could later prove her innocence. So that when Eliezer was later accused of interfering with her, despite her protestations of innocence, she could show him the place. And Isaac when he saw it, immediately knew she was pure and Eliezer was proved innocent and rewarded for his faithfulness and given a place in gan eden while he was still alive (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 109).
Is the concern with Rebekah’s virginity genuine? Or is it just a ruse on the part of the sages to take away the agency of a very strong woman. The discussion verges on pornography. Rebekah is a very decisive woman. She makes up her mind quickly; she has energy, she runs; she has strength, she waters ten camels; she offers a stranger hospitality. When asked if she wants to leave, she does not hesitate for a minute. She says: I’ll go—אלך. Later on she demands an answer from God as to why she is suffering during her pregnancy and God answers her with an oracle. She will take things in hand and make decisions that will have lasting ramifications. So is it that the sages don’t like strong women? Possibly. They even depict her as a three year old!
Lately I’ve been struck with how some commentators on Israeli Television out due themselves to promote the heroic actions of women that took place on October 7th. They point to the many women (civilians and soldiers) who defended and saved many people through their resourcefulness and bravery. Despite the fact that their actions speak for themselves, the commentators feel that it is necessary to say something like: “This proves how wrong people are for protesting women serving in fighting units in the army!” Why the need to add this, I wonder. When will it be possible to NOT point out the obvious—that women are as capable as men. On the other hand, when pointing to victims, notice that the emphasis is not on the soldiers who are being held as captive hostages, it is the teenage girls, the toddlers, the children, the mother holding babies, the grandmothers, the pictures of two sisters. It gives the nation shivers to wonder what is happening to all these victims in the tunnels. And what about the soldiers, both male and female? Too hard to contemplate. I think of all the strong women I know and then recall a poem by the American activist feminist writer Marge Piercy (b.1936) .
“For Strong Women,” Marge Piercy
A strong woman is a woman who is straining
A strong woman is a woman standing
on tiptoe and lifting a barbell
while trying to sing “Boris Godunov.”
A strong woman is a woman at work
cleaning out the cesspool of the ages,
and while she shovels, she talks about
how she doesn’t mind crying, it opens
the ducts of the eyes, and throwing up
develops the stomach muscles, and
she goes on shoveling with tears in her nose.
A strong woman is a woman in whose head
a voice is repeating, I told you so,
ugly, bad girl, bitch, nag, shrill, witch,
ballbuster, nobody will ever love you back,
why aren’t you feminine, why aren’t
A strong woman is a woman determined
to do something others are determined
not be done. She is pushing up on the bottom
of a lead coffin lid. She is trying to raise
a manhole cover with her head, she is trying
to butt her way through a steel wall.
Her head hurts. People waiting for the hole
to be made say, hurry, you’re so strong.
A strong woman is a woman bleeding
inside. A strong woman is a woman making
herself strong every morning while her teeth
loosen and her back throbs. Every baby,
a tooth, midwives used to say, and now
every battle a scar. A strong woman
is a mass of scar tissue that aches
when it rains and wounds that bleed
when you bump them and memories that get up
in the night and pace in boots to and fro.
A strong woman is a woman who craves love
like oxygen or she turns blue choking.
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
suckling her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid (here).
BACK TO REBEKAH
As I conclude this blog, I must admit that Rebekah has never been my favorite person in the bible. I admire her strength, even as I find it misguided. She knows what she wants; she goes after it. Precisely because she can serve a a role model for so many men and women, it is sad to see her strength diminished by our sages to an ordinary woman whose virginity has to be saved by godly intervention.
On the other hand, let’s imagine that Rebekah does not mind the fact that she has been saved by supernatural forces. After all, today it is so easy to imagine the worst. Imagine, if all the bad things had happened to her (her father and Eliezer raping her). Rebekah recognizes her near escape, what so many of us can identify with today that “There but for the grace go I!” This acknowledgement gives her strength. She is resilient–not a victim–but she could have been. And this adds to her humaneness and an understanding, that her life has purpose. Or to paraphrase this week’s headline in Yisrael Hayom Rebekah is projecting strength as she embarks on a long and complex mission.
To be continued in next week seventy-first blog. May we have a restful Shabbat.