We are living in an age when the news is filled with demeaning language and accusations of impropriety in the workplace. Whether it is well-known newsmen, movie moguls or politicians, women are treated as objects and worse. Many of the men assume their positions of power will keep them safe and insulated from accusations. While women who speak their mind are threatened, ridiculed and in some cases fired. It does not matter where you live—North America, Israel or Europe –women are fighting for dignity and respect.
Our parasha, Hayyai Sarah, provides a very different view of women, how they were valued in the Biblical period and can teach us lessons on dignity and respect.
“Sarah lived to be 127 years old—such was the span of Sarah’s life. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba…Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-2) In the Torah: A Women’s Commentary, it is pointed out that this verse includes one of the two times that the root s-p-d (samech-pay-dalet) is used to indicate mourning in the Bible and this is the only reference to details of mourning in connection with a woman’s death. (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, NY, 2008, page 114) Sarah is valued for the life she lived and Abraham acknowledges this in his actions. As our text continues, Abraham insists upon paying for the burial plot to insure the legal status of the land for eternity and perhaps to guarantee that Sarah’s final resting place will remain undisturbed.
With Sarah’s death, there is a void created in the family and Abraham realizes that the void will be filled through a wife for Isaac rather than another wife for himself. The responsibility of finding the perfect wife for Isaac is given to “his slave, the elder of his household, who had oversight of all that was his.” (Genesis 24:2) Abraham lays out the criteria for this search:
- The woman must be brought back to Canaan because Isaac must not leave the land.
- The woman must be beautiful, because that is a sign of divine favor.
- She must be a betulah, a girl of marriageable age.
- She must be a virgin, because that is a sign of purity and chastity, discipline and devotion.
The servant travels with 10 camels, each carrying an abundant sample of Abraham’s wealth and arrives at the well with time to pray for success and a sign of which woman to approach. He added to the criteria generosity and hospitality for himself and the camels. As the servant finishes his prayer, Rebekah arrives at the well:
“The slave ran toward her, and said, “Let me sip a little water from your pitcher.” And she replied, “Drink, sir!” Quickly she lowered her pitcher on her hand and let him drink. The drinking done, she said, “I will draw water for your camels, too, till they are done drinking.”” (Genesis 24:17-19)
Rebekah meets all of the criteria that Abraham and his servant had agreed upon and the servant is taken to meet the family. Gifts are given and the servant explains the reason for his visit. In theory, the servant could have just left taking Rebekah with him because he had paid a “bride price” or he could have taken her at the well without consulting her family. No this was an open discussion among family and not some plot to steal a young girl and take her to another country without her family’s consent. After hearing the news of Abraham’s wealth, Isaac’s birth and Sarah’s recent death, the servant explains the reason for his visit.
“Laban and Bethuel responded by saying, “This matter has emanated from Adonai; we cannot answer you one way or another. Look—Rebekah is before you; take [her] and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife as Adonai has decreed!” (Genesis 24:50-51)
More gifts were given and there was a festive atmosphere. Yet in the morning, when the servant was ready to return to Canaan, Laban and Bethuel hesitated and suggested that Rebekah remain with them for a week or so. The servant didn’t want to be delayed since God had answered his prayer. Laban and Bethuel answered:
“Let us call the girl and see what she has to say.” So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” (Genesis 24: 57-58)
This entire episode is out of character for the Torah. Biblically, women were considered the possession of their father and when they married they were transferred (some might say sold) from their father’s tent to the tent of their husband. Women did not own land and were not in the line of inheritance. Yet here after the presentation of the gifts from Abraham and the agreement that Rebekah would marry Isaac, everything stops until Rebekah can be consulted. Would the agreement have fallen through if Rebekah had said no and would Laban have returned Abraham’s gifts? We will never know. By stopping to ask Rebekah if she was willing, Laban and Bethuel demonstrate respect and devotion for Rebekah. They value her opinion on the path her life will take.
Hayyai Sarah is the story of two women who were valued, cherished and respected within their families and thus their communities. Abraham’s response to Sarah’s death comes from his love for his life partner and his desire to establish an unbreakable link to the land. The story of Rebekah could have been one of coercion and disrespect but by asking her opinion changed the tenor of the process. Rebekah was given responsibility for her life choices and she will continue to control her own destiny and that of the Jewish people.
May every individual be treated with respect and compassion.
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, R.J.E., is the co-director of Hevreh: A Community of Adult Jewish Learners.