The Chavruta Study Shiur – 5760 No.6
by Rabbi Alex Israel
YITZCHAK AND RIVKA: A STUDY IN OPPOSITES
Ever since I wrote the shiur last week, I have been wondering about Rivka. This young girl, whisked away from her home, her family, how did she fare in the house of Avraham? What adult personality emerged from the vivid image of the young woman that we met at the well last week? Then, Rivka appeared as one with immense energy and an extraordinary tendency towards chesed. Her personal decision to leave home, following Abraham’s servant to her destiny, (her parents let her decide) – this maturity of mind in a young girl -sends out an image of a strident and self-assured personality. But what became of her afterwards?
Usually when studying Parshat Toldot, we generally find ourselves discussing Esav and Yaakov (see our shiur from last year!) and the blessings, or we examine the personality of Yitzchak; Esav loving, Akeida stricken, almost blind. This week we shall alter our focus and consider the character of the woman of the family. We will talk and think about Rivka and her relationship with Yitzchak. As we shall see, the relationship was not easy and the commentators will read events in a variety of ways.
SOURCES FOR YOU AND YOUR CHAVRUTA
Obviously, we are interested in Rivka:
- As a personality in her own right
- As a wife: vis a vis Yitzchak
- As a mother: vis a vis Yaakov and Esav
The entire parsha is of course relevant. If you have the time then read the entire parsha be’iyun. But here are some episodes to focus our attention.
- Her meeting with Yitzchak:24:61-67
- One of the most interesting comments which impacts the Rivka-Yitzchak relationship can be found in the Ha’emek Davar commentary by the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin 19-20 Cent. Russia.) See his comments on 24:65 “And she took the scarf and covered herself”
II.Pregnancy and children: 25:19-25
- v.21 “Yitzchak implored God opposite his wife”
- What is strange about the wording in this passuk?
- Look at Rashi (“lenochach” and “vaye’ater”): Do the two comments of Rashi match each other?
- How does Rashi understand the phrase “lenochach”? Compare with Rashbam, Sephorno. How does Rashi’s comment differ to theirs?
- How do these sources compare with this Midrash: (Midrash Rabba 63:5)
“Opposite his wife – Yitzchak prostrated himself and Rivka also prostrated herself. He said: ‘Master of the universe – may all the children that you deem to give me be from this righteous woman.’ She said the same thing: ‘May all the children that you deem to give me be from this righteous man.'”
- v.22 “And the sons struggled within her, and she said, ‘If this is so – why am I?'”
- What exactly was the source of her complaint here? What did she wish herself? See Rashi and Sephorno; Ramban. How do they differ?
- Would a woman who had hoped for twenty years for children talk this way, even if the pregnancy was difficult? How does this help us with Rashi?
- v. 22 “she went to seek God” – How does Ramban interpret differently to Rashi and the Rashbam. To your mind, which is the more appropriate reading?
- To whom does she relay the message that she receives from God? Does she tell Yitzchak? (See Ramban 27:4)
- v.28 Why does Yitzchak love (prefer, favour) Esav? Why does Rivka favour Yaakov?
III. The episode of the blessing: 26:34-28:5
Can you explain Rivka’s actions here? See Rav Steinsaltz in Biblical images and Rav Hirsch on passuk 1.
THE SHIUR SECTION
On one level, we see Yitzchak and Rivka as the classic covenantal couple. Their relationship would seem to be loving and close. The Torah records a relationship of love and fufillment:”Isaac … took Rivka as his wife; Isaac loved her and was comforted after the death of his mother.” (24:66-7) Rivka provides a sense of companionship to Yitzchak, which helps him with his grief over his mother’s death.
The closeness and caring between Yitzchak and Rivka is expressed also in their heartfelt prayers for children. They are married for twenty years without having a child. The Midrash portrays an image of harmony between them:
“And Yitzchak prayed opposite his wife: … He said: ‘Master of the universe – may all the children that you deem to give me be from this righteous woman.’ She said the same thing: ‘May all the children that you deem to give me be from this righteous man.'”
Likewise, when reading the story in which Yitzchak and Rivka go to the Philistine region of Gerar (see Ch.26) meeting with the same unpleasant events as Avraham and Sarah before them, we once again view the Rivka-Yitzchak bond in a similar light to the ultimate covenantal couple; Abraham and Sarah. From all these sources, the closeness, love and togetherness of Yitzchak and Rivka seems evident.
However, it would seem that this is only half of the story, for indeed, Yitzchak and Rivka seem to be very different people. Their respective preferences for their children – And Yitzchak favoured Esav because game was in his mouth whereas Rivka favoured Yaakov (25:28)- already tells us that their personalities lead them in different directions. In addition Rivka’s subversive actions in the “blessings” episode is certainly not the actions of a woman who agrees with and has open communication with her husband. What is the source of their differences?
ACTIVE AND PASSIVE
We can identify a difference in personality.
If we go back to last week’s parsha – back at the well – we can see how the text hides a very striking study in contrasts between Rivka and Yitzchak. This episode is a betrothal scene . Much like the meeting between Yaakov and Rachel or Moshe and Tzippora later in the chumash. What makes it rather different is that in this story, the bridegroom is absent. Yitzchak does not choose his wife. She is chosen for him. In contrast, Rivka is very much present. She is impressive through and through. The text does not waste words to express her kindness and her industriousness. Her opinion is trusted and respected by her family too. When her parents agree to the terms of the marriage, they say, “let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” (24:57) and she replies quite confidently in the affirmative. Rivka is the decision-maker. Rivka is the primary actor. In her actions and speech, her quiet self- possession, we see a future matriarch.
This, of course, is in contrast to Yitzchak, the absentee bridegroom. He is simply passive in the entire process. A wife is sought for him. She travels to him. He remains where he is , uninvolved. Even at the moment of meeting between them, Yitzchak is simply standing in a field, and Rivka is full of activity (more about that in a moment.) Of all the Avot, Yitzchak is surely the most passive. From the Akeida onwards he is a “victim”, always the subject of other people’s arrangements for him. Indeed, it seems that in many of the stories of this family, Yitzchak adopts a passive role whereas Rivka is the one to “make things happen. He is acted upon rather than acting for himself (Akeida, finding a wife, Gerar, blessings.) In Rivka’s pregnancy, she goes to “seek God.” Some people say that she prayed, other commentators see her as visiting a prophet. Whichever way, where was Yitzchak? Where is he? Could he not pray? Could he not serve as the communicator between Rivka and God? Or did Rivka for some reason feel that she could not tell him? In the blessings story too, Isaac is blind, inactive, acted upon (manipulated?) by others. Rivka is active. She is orchestrating things from behind the scenes. She ensures that events follow the scheme that she has designed, over and above Yitzchak’s head.
So there is a personality difference, a difference in role. But that is only part of the story.
THE ANGEL OF GOD. RIVKA’S FEAR
When the servant returns with the young bride Rivka, their first view of Isaac is of Isaac “meditating in the field.” Her reaction is described in a short passage that invites both imagination and interpretation:
“Yitzchak went out to the field at evening time, to meditate. Rivka looked up and saw Yitzchak, and she fell (alighted?) from the camel. She asked the slave ‘who is this man in the field, approaching us?’ ‘It is my master,’ replied the servant. She took the veil and covered herself.” (24:64-65)
The commentators are puzzled by Rivka’s strange “falling” or even alighting from the camel before she knew the identity of the stranger in the field. Likewise, her act of face covering raises certain questions. Rashi comments:
“She saw his lordly appearance and gazed at him in astonishment.”
as if to say that she was taken by his dignified visage. But others see the entire episode rather differently. Here is the fascinating comment of the Netziv:
“Rivka looked up and saw Yitzchak: while he was in prayer. He looked like an angel of God; fearful in appearance. And she fell off the camel: from fright! She did not know who he was. … She covered her face with a veil: From fear and embarrassment, as if with a realization that she was not worthy to be his wife. From that moment on, there was always a sense of trepidation in her heart. Her relationship with Yitzchak was very different to Sarah’s with Avraham or Rachel and Yaakov. With them, if there was a problem, they would not be afraid or apprehensive to talk it through. This was not the case with Rivka.
This story is the prologue to the story in Parshat Toldot where Yitzchak and Rivka have very different opinions. Rivka could never bring herself to talk to Yitzchak about the truth she felt regarding Esav. The same was true about the bestowing of the blessings …”
The Netziv pinpoints two things here. The first is Yitzchak’s spiritual intensity. He is an Olah Temima – a pure and perfect sacrifice, an angel of God. Yitzchak in prayer is a fearful sight. Might we suggest that Yitzchak never quite came down from Mt. Moriah. He always had some of that fire of the Akeida with him throughout his life . The second point is the product of this state of being. The self-assured Rivka loses confidence in the face of this spiritual whirlwind. We do not see Yitzchak and Rivka talk to each other in their initial meeting. In fact the Torah barely records them speaking to each other. The first words they say to each other in the Torah’s view of things are only after the explosive episode of the blessings. In a family so in need of communication, silence reigns. In the Netziv’s reading here, Rivka cannot communicate with Yitzchak. She is in awe of him. When a sensitive situation arises, Rivka cannot discuss things with Yitzchak. This, says the Netziv is the source of many of the problems in our Parsha.
RIVKA – A TRAGIC FIGURE?
This unconventional and tragic reading helps us understand many episodes in the parsha. It is echoed by the Ramban (27:4) who suggests that Rivka never told Yitzchak about the prophecy she had received while pregnant about the turbulent and confrontational future of their twins. She was simply too scared to tell him. It helps us understand why Rivka must subvert Yitzchak’s plan. This method is easier for her than confronting Yitzchak directly. But what a tragic situation! What an awful state of being!
Aviva Zornberg advances this tragic theme (maybe a little melodramatically) by noting:
“Rebecca, whose loving alacrity and energy are reminiscent of Abraham’s, meets Isaac in the field, and her whole body falls, she veils herself, before the otherworldliness of an Isaac, rapt in prayer.
The girl who unhesitatingly- in response to her family’s demoralising doubts, ‘Will you go with this man?’ – ‘I will go’ becomes the woman who questions, time and time again, the value of her life. Her visceral reaction to her daughters-in-law is a kind of revulsion: ‘I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman … what good will life be to me?'(27:46). The ‘Why life?’ question – this is the literal form in the original Hebrew – strikes a new note in the biblical register. She is the philosopher who interrogates life, harshly, skeptically – puts life to the question. Most striking in this vein, however, is her enigmatic cry as the infants “struggle” in her womb: ‘If so, why do I exist?'(25:22)” (The Beginning of Desire pg.159)
This somewhat extreme polarity between Yitzchak and Rivka, which in the mindset of the Netziv creates fear and tragedy in the life if Rivka (and the rest of the family) is not the only possible way of viewing things.
ATTRACTION OF OPPOSITES
Rav Steinsaltz prefers to see Yitzchak and Rivka’s differences as facilitating a loving relationship in which one partner will complement and complete the other.
“Rebecca is the opposite of Isaac and complementary to him. Isaac appears outstandingly as a person who does NOT make decisions … at every stage of his life, it was Rebecca who decided and acted, accordingly, confident; whereas Isaac was hesitant and unsure…
Rebecca was the opposite of Isaac who grew up surrounded by trustworthy folk … he had an aristocratic mother and a father of the noblest character … Isaac’s world was supportive, secure; he could hesitate or even err because there were always others, loving and concerned to back him up … Isaac knew little of the world of evil and deceit… Rebecca on the other hand , grew up in a world (the house of Laban) whose failings she knew all too well. She had learned the meaning of cheating, of hypocrisy; and this knowledge lay at the root of the difference between Rebecca and Isaac and the relationship with their sons.
… Thus the relationship between Rebecca and Isaac acquired additional significance: for her, he represented another world, a higher level of being … she was bound to him and perhaps loved him because of his purity.” (Biblical Images pgs 44-46)
According to Rav Steinsaltz, Rivka and Yitzchak were aware of each other’s strengths and failings. Their love for each other was a product of their differences. Rav Hirsch argues that this was the source of Yitzchak and Rifka’s strange favouritism of their children:
That Isaac’s sympathies were more inclined toward’s Esau, Rebecca’s to Jacob can moreover easily be explained by the attraction of opposites. We see Isaac,… Esau’s lusty active nature appealed to him … he perhaps saw in him a force, which he had… Rebecca on the other hand saw in Jacob’s whole being, a picture of a (holy) life unfolding, of which in her father’s house she never had the remotest idea.”
Rav Hirsch criticizes Yitzchak and Rivka for this favouritism and sees it as a factor in the fragmentation of the family, but for our purposes, we want to stress how the differences between Yitzchak and Rivka, which might have even drawn Yitzchak and Rivka to be attracted to each other, lead to a situation in which Rivka looked to Yaakov as the son who embodied the family’s ideals whereas Yitzchak saw something in Esav which attracted him.
THE BLESSINGS EPISODE
All of this forms something of a prelude to the chapter of the berachot, one of the most difficult chapter in the lives of our Avot. Yaakov’s crude masquerade, and the subsequent cruel deceit of his father were orchestrated by Rivka. We wonder what she was thinking.
At the outset, let us note that the Torah very clearly marks its disapproval of this trickery. Let us remember that Rivka’s name is erased from the Torah after this event. Even her death is not mentioned! (except maybe by hint – see Rashi on 35:8 ‘veAgadda’ – but this is just the point, the Torah deliberately erases her identity from here on.) Likewise, Yaakov too would seem to benefit little from these Brachot of the “fat of the land” and family leadership, that he stole. He now goes into exile for 22 years and certainly experiences little “bracha” in life. Yaakov’s life moves from trouble to trouble: Lavan’s oppression, fear of Esav, Dina’s rape, The loss of Yosef, and exile in Egypt. Moreover, we should remember that Yaakov himself becomes a victim to deceit and falsehood throughout his life. Be it the switching of Leah for Rachel, or possibly the fabrication of Yoseph’s death (a trick by his own sons! poetic justice!) Yaakov can certainly be seen as bearing the price of his sin.
But let us return to Rivka in this story. Why did she trick Yitzchak? A few scenario’s have been suggested:
- That she acted on the basis of her nevuot (at the start of the parsha.) She had never communicated the content of this nevua to Yitzchak, but she knew that the “older shall serve the younger”. Now she must act to realise the prophetic plan.
- She thought that Yitzchak was mistaken in his plan of choosing Esav. She could not tell him because she was so intimidated by her husband. So she found a subversive way to push her view through.
Obviously, these theories have problems with them. Did Rivka think that this could all happen without being “found out”? Is it possible that a blessing from God will not find its true address? – even if Jacob stood before his father, if Isaac blessed Esav would the bracha not be bestowed upon the true recipient – Esav!
A third theory is appropriate. Rav Hirsch again:
“Isaac … believed that the Abraham-ic calling was to be carried out by Esau and Jacob in brotherly union. He therefore intended on giving Esav a blessing of material content, but for Jacob, a spiritual one …. but Rebecca knew from Lavan and her own home the impossibility and the failure of such a division .. “
Rav Hirsch explains that whereas Yitzchak wished to divide the family leadership between his active son who was the go-getter, and his spiritual philosopher son – Yaakov, Rivka disagreed. Rivka claimed that Esav had no sensitivity to spiritual values and thus would not make any room for Yaakov’s value system. Yitzchak insisted that Rivka had misjudged Esav. According to Rav Hirsch, they had discussed and argued about this for many years.
Now, at the last moment, Rivka’s deceit came to tell Yitzchak one thing. She knew that the deceit would be revealed! How could it not! But she wanted to show Yitzchak in the most blunt possible way, that he was gullible, and that he could be tricked. And this was to prove her ultimate claim, that Esav had been misleading his father, all these years.
The parsha is vast and the issues are many. I began writing this shiur with the hope to encompass Rifka’s personality: with her husband, as a mother, and as an individual. In truth, we have managed to cover the first section only! Next year – bli neder – we will look at Rivka’s pregnancy in more detail. For now, however, I hope that we have covered some primary themes which underlie the parsha as a whole and give added meaning to the episodes within.
shabbat shalom to you all.
 See a more comprehensive literary analysis in Robert Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative” pgs 51-54.
 See Rav Steinsaltz’s article – “Isaac” – in his book “Biblical Images” where he deals with the problem of Isaac’s passivity.
 See Aviva Zornberg pg.155-160.
 According to Rashi (25:20), there was a 37 year age gap between Yitzchak and Rivka. Rashi has his reasons for adopting this Midrashic view but I personally find it rather far fetched to suggest that the “well” scene is happening when Rivka is only 3 years old! I would prefer to suggest that Rivka was of marriageable age at the time – maybe 12?14?16? Even so, that would still give a 20+ age-gap between Yitzchak and Rivka (Yitzchak got married only after Sarah’s death at the age of 40 – see 25:20.) This could not have helped their mutual communication.
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