Parashat Chayei Sarah: A mother’s role in nation building

Alexandre Cabanel - Rebecca et Eliezer (1883)

As we saw in Parashat Lech Lecha, one of the challenges that Avraham faced on his journey was the need to break with his prior way of thinking and his cultural biases.

And yet, he also had the strike the right balance, bringing with him just the right bits from the old way. Consider this: Avraham’s father was Terah. This turns out to be true of Sarah as well, who is revealed to be Avraham’s half-sister. Both of them are descendants of Terah.

Avraham learns the hard way just how important it is to chose the right mother for one’s child. There was a time when he would have been happy enough for his son Yishmael to succeed him, saying to God “If only Yishmael will walk before You.” After all, Yishmael was Avraham’s son; what more is needed? But he was told that only a son of Sarah would be eligible for the covenant. Avraham alone was not sufficient—only the combination of Avraham and Sarah would found the new nation.

Who the mother of one’s child is matters in more ways that one can ever rationally know. God doesn’t tell Avraham why Sarah must be the mother of his heir, but we, as readers, begin to suspect that she holds the key to the future.

The test of kindness

Avraham seems to have learned this lesson well by the time he sends his (un-named) servant back to Terah’s tribe to seek a wife for Yitzhak. The servant specifies a test for the bride-to-be: that she not only offer him a drink from her pitcher, but also care for his thirsty camels, at considerable investment of effort. In other words, he devises a test for kindness,—kindness to the stranger and to beasts of burden. He understands that what is needed for Yitzhak is a woman whose chief characteristic is hessed.

And yet, Rivka was more. She was the one who, even more than her husband Yitzhak, understood which of her sons was destined for the covenant. She was the one who made sure that the proper son was chosen to be the firstborn, overturning the natural birth order. And she was the one who insisted—like Avraham—that the chosen son find a mate from among the clan in Aram, the descendants of Terah, rather than marrying among the Canaanites. In short, Rivka, even more than Yitzhak, was the guarantor of succession.

Nature and nurture

Thus, mothers have more to give than just their genes; they are the ones who bring something of the old ways into the new way, for better or for worse. It’s the mother who inculcates cultural norms and ethics into the children, what we call derech eretz.

This is Rivka’s enduring legacy. Many centuries later, we find her trait of kindness singled out as one of the distinctive characteristics of Am Yisrael, such that one who is lacking it is seen as suspect:

[David said:] There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, the Jewish people. They are merciful, they are shamefaced, and they perform acts of kindness. They are merciful, as it is written: “And He will give you mercy, and have mercy upon you and multiply you” (Deuteronomy 13:18) They are shamefaced, as it is written: “And that His fear shall be upon your faces” (Exodus 20:17). They perform acts of kindness, as it is written: “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, [that they may keep the way of the Lord, to practice righteousness and justice”] (Genesis 18:19), Whoever has these three distinguishing marks is fit to cleave to this nation.  (Yevamot 79a) אמר שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים רחמנים דכתיב (דברים יג, יח) ונתן לך רחמים ורחמך והרבך ביישנין דכתיב (שמות כ, כ) בעבור תהיה יראתו על פניכם גומלי חסדים דכתיב (בראשית יח, יט) למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו וגו’ כל שיש בו שלשה סימנים הללו ראוי להדבק באומה זו

Avraham, the father of multitudes

Avraham has been told that he will father great nations. But why Avraham?  Rashi and the Rambam both see the choice of Avraham as being based on his religious awareness. He was a monotheist in a time and place where that was not the norm. He had some prior connection with God.

And yet, that is not what the Torah itself tells us. Like Rivka, Avraham was chosen based on the ability to convey kindness to the next generation: “For I have known (chosen, acknowledged) him,” God says, “so that he may teach and command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Eternal by doing what is righteous and just, so that the Eternal may bring upon Abraham what He has promised him.”

It isn’t just Avraham’s theology that counts, but the prospect of his initiating a cultural change, whereby each generation will be educated to put a high premium on  acts of kindness and justice. He is singled out to be a father—not a great hero or king—”just” a father.

We may see the choice of Avraham as a “cultural experiment”—an attempt to bring into being a new type of society, one in which kindness is the key determinant of success. In this cultural experiment, the matriarchs have as great a role as the patriarchs. One of the lessons Avraham learns along the way is that parenting is nation-building.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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