Parshat Hayei Sarah – Marriage and Politics

The story of Eliezer seeking out Rivkah on behalf of Itzhak seems anticlimactic in the otherwise fast-paced narrative of Breishit. Not only does the story seems to occupy a disproportionate volume of text, but it is repetitive and predictably formulaic.

I would like to suggest that one of the reasons the text of the Torah does this, is in fact to make us pause and reflect not only on a foundational encounter in the history of the Jewish people (the creation of the first Jewish family), but also to submerge a sober parallel discussion beneath the plain meaning of the story.

I am not the first person to notice a linguistic connection between the narrative of Eliezer meeting Rivkah and that of Shmuel meeting Shaul. I would, however, like to take this fascinating observation one step further.

The two stories share some key turns of phase: “the daughters of the town went out to draw water” is found only in these two places in Tanah (Eliezer and Rivkah; and Shmuel and Shaul). Another narrative element “scarcely (terem) had he finished speaking and here comes (the hero of the story)” is also found almost exclusively in these two stories. Even more so, the overall formula of a messenger seeking out a future bride or king on the basis of a foreseen pattern of behavior, not only fits both narratives, but also is familiar enough that it feels like it is plucked from an old fairy tale about a peasant boy who is destined to be king.

Without spending too much time on this so as to get to the actual point I want to make, the connection between marriage and kingship that the text of Humash is hoisting on us is open to anyone’s interpretation, but seeing as how this is not just any marriage and not any kingship, reminds us of the connection both have to Jewish nationhood. Additionally, both marriage and kingship create a new entity, whether it be the family or the nation-state, and therefore involve responsibilities and obligations that extend beyond the practical consideration and intimacy of the people involved, whether as individuals or even as a couple.

What has always fascinated me, however, is another parallel between Rivkah’s marriage and the creation of the political institution of Jewish kingship. This parallel is noticed in passing only once, and only in Breishit Raba, and no particular interpretation of it is given. Yet the connection is striking and obvious.

The story of Rivkah meeting Itzhak has a narrative element that is highly unusual, yet appears one other time in Humash almost verbatim. When Rivkah sees Itzhak she covers for her face with a scarf. The exact same words for “covers” and for “scarf” are used a few passages later to tell the story of the encounter that ultimately produces the Davidic line of Jewish kingship: Tamar meeting Yehuda. Remarkably the parallel does not end there! Rivkah gives birth to twins who are fighting each other over who will come out first, and the one to emerge barely ahead of the other is described as being covered by a red mantle (the color of kingship). Tamar gives birth to twins and the one to stick his hand out first only to come out second acquires a red tag to denote his tenuous primacy.

These singular narrative elements: initial election for generosity near a well where girls draw water; face-covering; giving birth to twins, are ripe for all sorts of interpretation. However, this is already starting to be very long and my goal here is not to publish a PhD thesis. I would like therefore to finish with an attempt to integrate these three elements as symbolic of an overarching idea about marriage and political leadership.

The first is pretty obvious, the latter are less clear in what they are trying to say. Hence, we can agree that a precondition for a couple coming together in a productive fashion is a certain tendency to be generous, loving, and selfless. Same goes for kingship. But what does covering the face have to do with marriage (and by the way, why does covering the face also surface in the story of Jacob and Rahel, as well as in the actual Jewish wedding ceremony)?

Upon reflection there’s a straightforward way to look at this, especially if we look elsewhere in Humash for a face-covering of sorts. Covering your face has the direct consequence of covering your eyes, that is, obscuring your ability to see ahead. I would argue that marriage, let alone having children, is impossible without a little bit of that. You can not hold on to your (sometimes illusory) ability to see every future outcome, to try to plan every eventuality, while you’re starting a family or having kids. The latter, especially, tend to be very unpredictable and realizing this not only helps to remain sane when having them, but might also help avoid some of the mistakes made by Itzhak and Jacob with their respective progeny. Needless to say same goes for successful leadership. Incidentally, the greatest of all Jewish leaders, Moshe, hides his face from the divine outlook when called upon by God to lead the Jews out of exile.

Less straightforward is the issue of twins, which seemingly keeps popping up (and out) at key moments in Humash. What does the narrative element of producing highly contentious yet eerily similar progeny who are already battling even in the womb have to do with marriage and politics? With a little license we can extend the occurrence of rival progeny to many other instances in Humash narrative not involving actual twins, but in the story of Rivkah and Tamar the two rival siblings are represented as rival twins as though to emphasize something important. With a small assist from the allegorical element of prostitution, which also plays a role here (Tamar plays a ritual prostitute, and can anyone think of another example in Tanah involving a prostitute and two identical babies?), I think that we can formulate a simple and somewhat darker final element of what Humash is implying.

An inescapable element of starting a family and a kingdom is the issue of ideology, one way or another. Humash is telling us, using the device of face covering, that when planning a family we best not try to predict every outcome as though we are playing chess, and I think that most of us understand that intuitively. But, I would wager that we still want to shape the future of our family within more or less rigid bars shaped by our beliefs of how life should be lived. Kings too are more often than not driven as much by ideological inclination than practical considerations. We want our family values to be a reflection of our wisdom, and this seems like a praiseworthy thing.

I think that Humash is telling us here to be careful. Ideologies, like the two prostitutes in the story of King Shlomo, can produce multiple offspring, some viable and some not. Parenthetically, Shlomo himself likens wisdom to a prostitute in his Proverbs. Also like King Shlomo’s prostitutes, ideologies don’t like to take credit for their less than desirable progeny. When raising children or when leading a nation, we ought to consider that being too much in the grips of our own wisdom can lead to bitter disappointment, for even the greatest of Jewish families have brought forth terrifyingly stark contrasts under their own roof.

About the Author
Erez Maoz is a Rabbi living in Jerusalem with his family. Erez moved to Israel from the US in 2008. He works as a consultant. He can be contacted by email at erezmaoz@gmail.com.
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