How Rivka’s Righteousness Comes From Her Questionable Past
What does it mean to leave everything behind? To reject the ideas a person grew up with, and commit instead to new ideals? Is it possible to maintain anything of the past when embarking on a new life?
When we first meet Rivka, she seems basically perfect. Avraham has tasked his servant with finding the perfect wife “for my son, for Yitzchak” (Bereishit 24:4) – as Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, she must be a good match both for “Avraham’s son,” to fit into their family and its spiritual destiny on a national level, and also “for Yitzchak” himself, personality to personality. Furthermore, she must not be from Canaan, but must be willing to come to Canaan to join Yitzchak there; reading between the lines, we might suggest that he is looking for someone who is willing to leave, both literally and metaphorically, whatever ideas and influences she may have grown up with – and someone with the power and strength of personality to do so.
Rivka fulfills every condition so perfectly that the servant can’t stop proclaiming his thanks to God for helping him find her; it could only have been divine providence that led him to such a degree of success. After passing his test – not just of willing kindness, but of the ability to read between the lines and see what more is needed – Rivka demonstrates too both her power and will to leave her home behind and join Yitzchak as the second matriarch of God’s nation.
Even as her family would like to delay her (maybe indefinitely?) – she states unequivocally, “I will go” (24:58).
But does she really leave them – and their influence – behind?
Rav Hirsch (ibid.) suggests that Avraham’s insistence on a daughter-in-law from outside Canaan was partly due to the realization that, while a former idol worshipper from any land could be taught about God if she so desired, living surrounded by her former people would make it that much harder to change and maintain new perspectives. Indeed, Rivka seems to perfectly detach from her past just as hoped. One midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 63:4) sees this highlighted in the extreme emphasis on her background in 25:20 (“Rivka, the daughter of Betuel the Aramean, from Paddan-Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean”); among all those Arameans, she was “like a rose among thorns.”
Yet midrashic tradition also finds some hints that this rose actually retained some thorns of her own.
- When Yitzchak prays for a child in 20:21, Rashi famously quotes a midrashic view that Rivka prayed too. Less famously, perhaps, he also quotes a different tradition, that calls into question whether they truly connected with G-d in the same way and on the same level. For if they indeed both prayed, why does the verse go on to say G-d responded to his prayers; what about hers? Rashi explains that it was because Rivka’s background left its mark; her prayer just couldn’t measure up to Yitzchak’s. (See Maskil l’David, a commentary on Rashi who offers important insight here.)
- Another hint to a spiritual gap between Yitzchak and Rivka might be found in Genesis 26:35, when we are told that Esav’s Hittite wives “were a bitterness of spirit to Yitzchak and to Rivka.” Genesis Rabbah 65:4 sees significance in the order in the verse – Yitzchak before Rivka – and offers two explanations for why he would have objected to Esav’s wives more than she did:
- Because Rivka grew up with idolatry, she wasn’t as disturbed by her daughters-in-law and their idolatrous practices as Yitzchak was.
- Even more fundamentally, “because the matter [of Esav’s character, and attendant choice of wives] was attributed to her.” In this approach, the black sheep in this family came from genes Rivka brought along with her. While in the first explanation, she is “just” desensitized to idolatry because of her background – here, it is so deeply ingrained in her that she passes the taint on to one of her sons, where it manifests in his choice of wives.
Yikes. What are these traditions really telling us? Is it impossible to ever change, to ever escape whatever negativity might exist in our heritage even after rejecting it?
These ideas are presented almost in the same breath as saying Rivka wasn’t influenced by her background. Rashi stresses in his comment on 20:20 (following Bereishit Rabbah) that she didn’t learn from the wicked Aramean society, and on the very next verse, tells us her prayer wasn’t as good as Yitzchak’s because of the lingering effects of her upbringing. Which was it?
What we need is a more nuanced idea of what it means to be influenced by one’s upbringing, and what it means to reject and escape negative influences.
Let’s look a little more closely at that midrash about not being influenced by her Aramean family.
The midrash sees the emphasis on “Aramean” in 20:21 as a play on words: if we rearrange the Hebrew letters in Arami, we get ramai – “deceiver.” When Rashi quotes the midrash, he actually paraphrases it: he leaves out the play on words to stick more closely to the peshat (straightforward, without hints or external details) and simply says they were all generally “wicked” and Rivka “didn’t learn from their deeds.” The original midrash, however, with its specific reference to deceit, can’t say she didn’t learn from them; after all, what’s the big story about Rivka, after her being found at the well? She tricks her husband into blessing Yaakov instead of Esav! It seems exactly like she learned from her family’s deceitful deeds. Instead, the midrash carefully states, “but this righteous woman, who came out from among them, to what is she similar? To a rose among thorns.”
Despite elements of her character that did come from her background, she was a rose among thorns.
Maybe she did have some thorns of her own, but her choices in how to use those thorns made her a rose.
How does one maintain negative qualities of one’s background in a positive way?
The Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, 19th century Italy) offers some insight in the context of answering a related question about Yaakov. He points out that the descriptions of Yaakov and Esav in 25:27 imply Esav was tricky, the prime trait of a good hunter, while Yaakov was “simple,” straightforward in his dealings – but we know that Yaakov, like his mother, engaged in plenty of trickery! How can such a person be described as an “ish tam,” a simple, straightforward man? Shadal explains that Yaakov is an ish tam relative to Esav, whose whole being was devoted to traps and trickery – but that doesn’t mean Yaakov couldn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve, too! The difference is whether the trait defines him or it’s a tool he has to pull out as necessary; as Shadal says, “according to the needs of the moment.”
For Esav, habitual trickery was a defining characteristic. Rivka did indeed pick up a few things at home, and Yaakov had it in him too. But in judging a person’s character, what matters isn’t what they can do, but what they do – how, when and why.
Jewish tradition seems to view Rivka’s decision to trick her husband as an appropriate decision, and scholars have suggested a variety of explanations. In one approach, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (in his book, Biblical Images) suggests it was precisely because of Rivka’s background, and the street smarts it gave her, that she could see this was a moment that needed those skills:
Isaac was an “easy victim” of [Esav’s] duplicity; he was neither suspicious nor afraid because there was no dishonesty in his own heart. … Rebecca, however, was an expert in such matters… recognized her own family in Esau. …yet the fact that she recognized evil did not corrupt her; rather, she herself cultivated an admiration for what is good, pure, and innocent… perhaps loved [Isaac] because of his purity. She might have been required to deceive him now and then, but always for his own good, to spare him error and injury.
It’s a dangerous game to play, deciding to trick someone for their own good; I would hesitate to recommend following this precise model in practice. But in Rivka’s extreme case, we can find some valuable and universal truths.
Rivka absorbed things from her background, as do we all. As she grew, she had to decide how she wanted to use those traits – as do we all. Will we emulate our families in every way, or will we appreciatively accept the tools they’ve instilled in us even as we set out to forge our own paths, which might be fundamentally different from those of our parents?
We view Rivka as righteous not because she ignored her background, but because she took her thorns and made a choice: “I will go.” Even if we think we’re damaged by something in our pasts – we can always overcome it. The trick is to not deny that it’s a part of who we are, or to embrace it fatalistically (“I can’t help being like this; it’s how I grew up!”), but to maintain integrity and make choices about which elements will define us and which we will bend to our new ideals. And then, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss – oh, the places we too can go!
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