Parshat Toldot: Rivka, the Female Voice of the Book of Bereishit
Rabbi Yair Melchior, a graduate of the Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institute, is the Chief Rabbi of Denmark
One big question that has always troubled me is Yitzhak’s outright preference for Esav. How is it possible that Yitzhak, the father of the nation, couldn’t see the obvious? How could he not see the great qualities of the “quiet man, dwelling in tents”? With time, this question became less urgent, as it made way for a deeper insight: There was, in fact, someone else who did see, someone who had an unobscured perspective – Rivka.
In my opinion, it was not merely woman’s intuition at play, or high levels of critical thinking on Rivka’s part. Rather, Rivka’s character reverberates throughout because she plays an important role in more instances than we care to admit.
We all grew up with stories of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs of the Jewish People. Much was told us of the Patriarchs, while the Matriarchs seem to have one single purpose – to be just that: matriarchs, mothers. However, this view of things is not entirely accurate. While many Torah chapters are dedicated to Avraham and Yaakov, Yitzhak appears in but a few. The two significant stories where Yitzhak is mentioned are directly connected to Avraham and Yaakov, respectively. It is pretty obvious that Yitzhak is the least significant of the three Patriarchs, so much so that in some Biblical references to this patriarchal lineage, his name is omitted entirely. For instance:
” But thou, Israel, My servant, Yaakov whom I have chosen, the seed of Avraham My friend.” (Yeshayahu 41:8)
“O ye seed of Avraham His servant, ye children of Yaakov, His chosen one.” (Tehillim 105:6)
In many respects, Yitzhak is just a link in the chain connecting Avraham and Yaakov. Similarly, when it comes to the relationship between Yitzhak and Rivka, Rivka is clearly the dominant figure.
Rivka first appears on the Biblical stage in the story relating the mission of Avraham’s servant, where she is depicted as an exemplary hostess. When the twins in her womb give her a hard time, Rivka goes on her own to “inquire of the Lord” and attains prophecy. Rivka is also the one who loves Yaakov unconditionally, initiates the exchange of the blessings and plans Yaakov’s ensuing escape. Add to this the fact that the Torah informs us of Rivka’s birth (Bereshit 22:23), which is not the case with Sarah, Rachel and Leah.
These facts highlight, and maybe even help in clarifying, one of the most central questions in the previous portion: Why does Avraham insist on taking a wife for his son Yitzhak from his own birthplace? If it is absolutely forbidden to take Yitzhak out of Canaan and bring him to Avraham’s homeland, why take a woman for him from that very place?
However, once we are introduced to Rivka’s character, we suddenly understand the profoundness of Avraham’s instructions. Avraham was a man blessed with the unique qualities of devotion to God and extraordinary hospitality. Both of these qualities were also manifest in Rivka. Rivka prefers the “quiet man dwelling in tents” who followed in the footsteps of Avraham and “walked upright before God.” Rivka is first introduced as a woman of extraordinary generosity, one who shows exceptional hospitality to the stranger from the Land of Canaan.
Rivka, like Avraham before her, chooses to embark on the difficult journey to the Land of Canaan. The Torah also emphasizes the fact that it was done of her own accord, and not because her father or her brother instructed her to do so. In fact, both actually had some reservations about her departure.
With some caution, one might suggest that it is Rivka who is the true successor of Avraham. Maybe this was Avraham’s intention all along when he insisted that his servant bring a woman from “there”. When choosing a wife for his son, Avraham had to find a woman who would be able to see the bigger picture, and bring with her a taste of the old world in which he had grown up, and perhaps even the value of hospitality which was less common among the natives of Canaan. Avraham was looking for a woman who mirrored himself; one who had embarked on a similar journey and had made similar choices. Years later, Yaakov would set out on the same voyage as well.
Rivka’s character sticks out even more in light of the scarcity of woman figures in the Bible, and the firmly based patriarchal family structure of the time. Prominent female figures throughout the generations had to work hard to prove themselves, while living in an environment that made this virtually impossible.
The Jewish community in Denmark comprises approximately 2400 members, most of whom live in Copenhagen. The community has recently marked its 400th anniversary, commemorating the time when Jews were first welcomed into Denmark.