Torah Threads

Chayei Sarah

November 6th, 2015

D’var Torah– Chayei Sarah by Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Existence Veiled 

My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice. (Song of Songs 2:14)

Meet Rebecca.  This is the young woman Abraham’s servant identifies as the bride fated for Abraham’s son in the ancestral land of Charan.  We first encounter Rebecca in a description that is chock full of action.  Using few words the Torah creates a vivid portrait of beauty, kindness and strength:

The maiden was exceedingly beautiful to look at, a virgin – no man had known her. Going down to the spring, she filled her pitcher and came up again. The servant ran to meet her and said: Pray let me sip a little water from your pitcher! She said: Drink, my lord! And in haste she let down her pitcher on her arm and gave him to drink. When she had finished giving him to drink, she said: I will also draw for your camels, until they have finished drinking. In haste she emptied her pitcher into the drinking-trough, then she ran to the well again to draw, and drew for all his camels. Genesis 24:16-20 (Translation Everett Fox)

Rebecca’s story manifests a woman’s full, unbridled agency in this ancient text. Indeed, this is not just traditional matchmaking on the part of her family. Her voice, too, is important. Her family asks Rebecca directly if she is willing to follow this strange man she met at the well:

They said: Let us call the maiden and ask (for an answer from) her own mouth. They called Rebecca and said to her: Will you go with this man? She said: I will go. (Translation Everett Fox) Genesis 24:57-58

Thus does Rebecca set out on her journey, making the same journey Abraham did – from Charan to Canaan, leaving everything: her birthplace, her mother and father’s house and her land. In fact, some call her the “female Abraham”.  Like Abraham, she risks everything she has for a journey into the unfamiliar, setting out after a vague promise.

But here’s the kicker, the tragic clincher of Rebecca’s drama:

As she approaches her new home she sees Isaac from a distance. Upon seeing him  she literally falls off her camel (va-tipol me-al ha-gamal). She then proceeds to veil herself.  Why does this woman, a portrait in initiative and action, fall off her camel when she first lights eyes upon her betrothed?  Sliding and falling are acts that are the very opposite of taking initiative; one could say they are  the ultimate passivity. What about seeing Isaac would induce radical passivity in such a strong woman?

Consider Aviva Zornberg’s (contemporary Torah scholar) interpretation :

What Rebekah sees in Isaac is the vital anguish at the heart of his prayers, a remoteness from the sunlit world of chesed (kindness) that she inhabits. Too abruptly, perhaps, she receives the shock of his world. Nothing mediates, nothing explains him to her. “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” (Genesis 24:66) she asks, fascinated, alienated. What dialogue is possible between two who have met in such a way? A fatal seepage of doubt and dread affects her, so that she can no longer meet him in the full energy of her difference. She veils herself, obscures her light. He takes her and she irradiates the darkness of his mother’s tent. She is, and is not, like his mother; through her, his sense of his mother’s existence is healed. But the originating moment of their union is choreographed so that full dialogue will be impossible between them. (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, pp. 142-143)

Upon seeing Isaac, Rebecca despairs. She drops into the abyss. She knows she will not be able to be the strong person she is with Isaac. But she despairs for a short time only. She is strong enough to know that even trapped in a marriage with a man with whom she cannot express her strength, there is still a way forward. She knows that her way forward will be to veil her power.

And veil herself she does. From this point on in her story her strength is expressed surreptitiously, duplicitously, her most far-reaching, history changing acts accomplished through deception.

How infinitely sad it was that Rebecca could not continue being the powerful woman that she was, using her strength, manifest to all, for good and kindness in the world.

On the other hand, how extraordinary that even in circumstances that were far less than ideal, even in her veiled state, she was the one with power in her family, she was the one who fulfills the divine oracle:

And she went to inquire of YHVH. YHVH said to her: Two nations are in your body, two tribes from your belly shall be divided; tribe shall be mightier than tribe, elder shall be servant to younger!  Genesis 25: 22, 23  (translation, Everett Fox).

Rebecca is the parent who sets up her son Jacob as the progenitor of the next generation. It is she who is the actor in the family– not her husband. Sadly her greatest achievements happen through duplicity, through demeaning her husband and shattering the heart of her other son, Esav. She accomplishes her purpose in life through deception and betrayal, in a veiled state. Nevertheless, she is the one who fulfills God’s divine prophecy, here on earth, establishing her son Jacob as the progenitor of the Israelite nation, sending forth and inspiring a G-dwrestler , who in turn, despite his considerable flaws and foibles, inspires all of us.

Family Questions:

1)   Rebecca is a strong woman who feels that in relationship with Isaac she cannot show the strongest parts of herself.  Do you ever feel you cannot  show big pieces of yourself in a relationship? When do you veil yourself?
2)   Are there relationships in which you feel especially veiled?
3)   What helps you lift the veil to show your fullness?
4) Is it ever positive to be veiled? To hide certain parts of yourself? For what purpose?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dianne