Thursday, 09 Nov 2023

Written by Dr. Hannah M. Altorf

Abraham Mendelssohn would sometimes say, ‘For a long time, I was known as the son of my father and then I became known as the father of my son.’ He was the son of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and then became the father of the musician and composer Felix Mendelssohn. (Son and daughter, he could have said, for he is, of course, also the father of the musician and composer Fanny Mendelssohn.)

I am often reminded of this anecdote when reading about Isaac. Like Abraham Mendelssohn, he is known as his father’s son, when his father almost sacrifices him and then as his son’s father, when this son tricks him into giving the first born blessing to the youngest. Isaac’s father Abraham is a larger than life character. Called by God to go forth, he travels to Canaan. His journey embodies the beginning of a people with its own identity. Abraham does not shrink from negotiating with God, though he is also dangerously compliant when it comes to his sons’ lives. One almost dies in the desert and the other almost dies at Abraham’s hands.

Isaac’s son Jacob is an equally engaging character as his grandfather, though for different reasons. He holds onto his brother’s heel when they are born. When they are young, he asks his brother for his birthright in exchange for lentil stew. When his father is close to death, he diddles his brother out of his blessing. Jacob flees to his uncle across the desert, making his mother’s journey in reverse. He is deceived by his uncle, but deceives him in return and makes the journey back with wives, children and ample possessions. His life remains eventful all the way through to old age.

Isaac, in contrast, does not stand out as much as a character. Most stories about him invoke his father or are repetitions of his father’s life. Like Abraham, for instance, he presents his wife as his sister. (Genesis 26: 6-11) Unlike his father and unlike his son, Isaac does not traverse the desert. Instead, it is Rebekah who goes across. It is Rebekah again who ensures that the blessing goes to the younger son, as God had told her. (Genesis 25: 23, 27: 1-28: 9)

It has been suggested that the list of our ancestors should read, Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob, rather than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or the more extended, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. It is after all Rebekah who keeps the story going. It is Rebekah who crosses the desert to an unknown place and an unknown future, and it is Rebekah who ensures that the continuation of the covenant is with the right son.

Yet, the swap may not be that straightforward. On rereading Chayei Sarah this year, I was struck by how lonely Rebekah is. She is the exception in her family. She is kind to Abraham’s servant Eliezer. She first serves him and only then sees the gold. Her brother, in contrast, sees the gold first before he invites the servant in. In the midrashic retellings, the rabbis even have her family try to poison Eliezer. The family next tries to dissuade her from going by asking her directly, ‘Will you go with this man?’. With or against their will, she simply replies, ‘I will go’. (Genesis 24: 58) So, the next day she goes with Abraham’s rather pushy servant and his men, and her unnamed maid servant at her side.

Unlike the other matriarchs, there is not another female in Rebekah’s married life. Sarah has Hagar, even when they do not meet eye to eye. Leah and Rachel are almost always mentioned in one breath, sometimes with Zilpah and Bilhah. Again, the relationship is not necessarily one of mutual support, though the modern midrash of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent may have changed that for many of its readers. Rebekah, in contrast, is on her own. She is on her own in her family, on her journey and in her new home. We are told that Isaac loves her and that he is thus comforted after the death of his mother. (Genesis 24: 67) Her side of the story is lost at this point.

And yet, she is vital for the continuation of the story according to plan, both in this and in the next parashah. She is also essential for tying up issues left by Abraham. Chayei Sarah opens with the death of Sarah. More precisely, it opens with counting the years of her life: ’Sarah lived to be 127 years old’, which is, the rabbis explain, a very good number. Their account of her death is more sober. When they try to understand why the death of Sarah follows the account of the akedah, they conclude that her death follows because of the akedah. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. When Sarah is told what happened on Mount Moriah, she dies before she hears the end. Yet, after Rebekah meets Isaac, he is comforted and the rabbis explain that Rebekah continues where Sarah leaves off, baking the challah and lighting the candles. Near the end of the parashah Abraham marries again. His wife is called Keturah, but some rabbis hold that Keturah is in fact Hagar. Some even argue that Isaac goes looking for Hagar after he is so happily married himself. Thus, another loose end is tied up. When Abraham dies, he is buried by both Isaac and Ishmael. (Genesis 25: 9)

Thus, the rabbis read reconciliation into Chayei Sarah. Sarah dies, but at a very good age. Isaac marries Rebekah in his mother’s tent and he is comforted. Hagar returns, when there is no longer any chance of strife with Sarah. Abraham is buried by Isaac and Ishmael, together. Rebekah is the necessary invention, without whom the stories do not end well. Like the rabbis I like to imagine a better ending for her too. I like to think that she found something of Sarah’s in the tent that would support her and connect the two women. I like to think that Keturah and she would grow closer. Rebekah’s loneliness can also be read as fierce independence. In Fear and Trembling the Danish philosopher  Søren Kierkegaard speaks of a man’s longing to accompany Abraham on his journey to Mount Moriah. I find myself travelling with Rebekah, a woman on her own, speaking her truth. That is the image that keeps the story going. That is perhaps the story that our time needs.

Student rabbi Dr. Hannah M. Altorf

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.