Facts on the Ground for one Maharat Student

This year I was privileged to begin my studies at Yeshivat Maharat. I have been fortunate that I have received a tremendous amount of support in this endeavor from family and friends. My husband is actually jealous that I get to learn Torah all day. And that is indeed what I now do, all day, everyday. My learning encompasses traditional Yeshiva study or Halakha and Gemara and pastoral instruction. Yes, pastoral instruction, the instruction on how to be an effective Rabbi and leader in the Jewish community. During my interview for Yeshivat Maharat, Rabba Sara Hurwitz asked me if I understood that the course of study was specifically for ordination. I believe my response was, ‘I certainly hope so!’ I didn’t want to devote four years of my life to serious work without it being properly recognized.

In light of the RCA pronouncement, I have been asked if this was a blow to my resolve. To be honest, this wasn’t the first time I had been threatened was sort of cherem or communal ban. When I lived in St. Louis many years ago, I helped a number of women set up a Women’s Tefillah group and taught a number of those women how to lain, chant the Torah. The Chief Rabbi at the time had threatened to put my group under a communal ban. Thankfully, it never came to that and we were able to pray and learn. We just kept doing what we were doing because we knew it was l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Those facts on the ground were far more powerful and drew more people to Torah than any pronouncement from any Rabbinical organization.

To my dear colleagues, whether at Yeshiva Maharat, GPATS, Nishmat, Lindenbaum and elsewhere, I believe our facts on the ground, by leading, learning, teaching Torah, will in the end win the day. It is truly telling that our response has been to set up learning initiative for #WomenleadersforTorah, which will include a Siyyum or Shas (Talmud) and Tanakh. In that vein, I would also like to offer a D’var Torah on this week’s Parasha, Chaya Sarah. Here, we are introduced to Rivka, who admittedly is my most favorite woman in Torah. She is a model for me and I believe for all Jewish women leaders. She understands G-d’s purpose in the world and for the Jewish people. She is a no-nonsense personality who is goal driven for the sake of Heaven. Rivka I believe would get it, she would understand our devotion to Torah, to God and our singular purpose.

Poor Yitzchak. If the commentators have it correct, Yitzchak at this time is a middle aged man. He has endured two major traumas—his father tried to kill him and when he comes back from that ordeal, he finds his mother, Sarah, has died. These incidents have left him in a state of shock to say the least. He is inconsolable and he is mute. In fact he has no dialogue in this Parsha at all. Yitzchak is in no position to do anything to help himself- he is silent and passive. Avraham recognizes his son’s agony and sets about to get him a wife–but not just any wife, a wife not only to be a partner to his son but one to take over the role of Sarah, as covenantal partner with Yitzchak. Sarah indeed was a true partner with Avraham as the commentators relate that she and Avraham prosyletized together- Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women. Avraham’s goal is not only to find a kind woman but one with the proper qualities to continue the brit, God’s covenant to the future Jewish people.

Avraham enlists his servant and gives him certain conditions–first and foremost, not to take any of the local girls. Perhaps Avraham saw that these women did not embody proper qualities or perhaps since the local women were Canaanites, he did not want any of these women to have any future claim on the land that God had promised him and his family. Avraham then tells the servant (who by the way is not named Eliezer here–just the elder servant) to go to his hometown, Aram-naharaim, to find a wife.

The servant and Avraham make their own covenant with a convenient out clause for the servant–if the girl does not want to come–don’t force her, don’t kidnap her–your job is done. Kidnapping a wife is probably not the way to go especially if you want that wife to a be a true partner to your son. Eved Avraham loads up with plenty of goodies and makes his trek to Aram-Naharaim. He sets up at the local water hole — the well — and waits for young ladies to show up to draw water. In a striking piece of dialogue — almost a sililoquy, Eved Avraham, pleads with God to kindly send the right girl.

His phrasing is interesting in that he demands that God do a ‘chesed’ for him as his master, Avraham, has done many times for God. ‘Chesed’ here does not necessarily mean kindness but loyalty. The Eved is essentially saying–Avraham has fulfilled his part of the bargain of the covenant by doing everything you God have asked of him — even the sacrifice of his son, now it is your turn God to show your chesed, your loyalty to Avraham.

He conditions this request by asking God to send a young woman who will perform an act of kindness for him — giving him and his animals water.

It is interesting to see that the qualities the Eved thinks will work for Yitzchak’s wife and what he thinks Avraham also wants for his son, are to find the one woman who is kind to other human beings, especially when it might not make any sense-practically or otherwise– to perform such acts. The Eved has recognized that Avraham has shown his loyalty, his chesed to God not by constructing altars (although he does do that at other times) but more so for doing simply acts of kindness for others.

Before the servant even finishes this speech, along comes Rivkah. Hooray—. The Eved asks her who she is–and lo and behold,she has the right yicchus. And then when the Eved asks her to get water for him and his camels,she goes about the arduous task—whether for a older or younger girl, three or eighteen–with nary a complaint. What always strikes me here is that the servant does absolutely nothing to help her!–that’s another d’var torah– What is more interesting however, is that the language of Rivkah literally running around to do this act of kindness parallels almost exactly when Avraham entertained his guests who later turned out to be Angels. Just listen to the similarity of ‘action words’-In chapter 18 of Bereisheet, as Avraham prepares the text states… “he ran to greet them-v’yaratz likratem...Avraham hastened- va’yimaher– to the tent of Sarah….Quick –mahari- three seahs of flour….Avraham ran –ratz– to the herd…hastened -vayimaher– to prepare it…” In our narrative, in Perek 24,..she quickly- vatimeher– lowered her jar…Quickly- vatimaher – emptying her jar into the trough, she ran –.vataratz– back to the well to draw and she drew for all his camels…
The servant while watching this–(remember he doesn’t lift a finger) sees this absurd scene and perhaps realizes–hey this young girl is just as crazy as my boss. She goes overboard to help strangers when anybody else in this day and age would ignore the stranger at best, kill them at worst. She’ll fit in just fine. This one is going to work out! He gives her a nose ring and sets about to seal the deal with her family. Unfortunately he has to then deal with Rivkah’s unsavory brother, Lavan.

The narrative repeats the chain of events three different times–many commentators have charted the various differences in the telling of events–suffice it to say thesheer repetitiveness of the narrative may indicate how hard the bargaining was for the servant. It is most striking then, that the deal ends with a simple response from Rivkah-eilech– ‘…I will go.’–You, Lavan, will not ruin this for me and I am going–getting out of here and what this household represents, I am going to change my destiny. Rivkah’s words, ‘I will go’ are somewhat of a bookend from the beginning of this family narrative, with Parshat Lech L’cha- God tells Avraham to change his life-here Rivkah, again in the Avraham like fashion, is saying it for herself.

When Rivkah is brought to Yitzchak, she sees him and quite literally falls off her horse! Maybe this is the origin of the phrase ‘falling in love’ comes from. Yitzchak brings her to the tent of his mother, marries her and lover her and he was consoled. Life can now begin again for Yitzchak.
Our Parsha does not end here. Avraham’s life goes on as well as. He takes another woman Keturah -wife or concubine–the narrative uses both here. There is some debate among the m’pharshim as to who Ketura really is. Some, including Rashi, believe her to be Hagar. Whoever she is, I think the greater point is the children that Avraham has with her and the extensive geneology at the end of our Parsha. God promised Avraham twice that he would have many descendants. In the B’rit Bein Habitarim, God tells him that his nation that is his descendants will extend from practically Egypt to Jordan. To populate this area would require a great number of people. The narrative helps prove God’s promise in providing the proper number of descendants in the right location. This seemingly mundane ending–a list of names–ensures us that the covenant is in good shape–God has fulfilled his end of the bargain and Rivkah will be the right woman to ensure its continuity.

You’ll have to tune in next week to what extremes she goes to make sure the Jewish people continue–until then Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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