Thursday, June 04, 2020

We’ve come to the section of the sha’ar where R. Arama asks questions about the parsha and answers them. He opens with Bereishit Rabbah 58, where R. Kahana wonders at Kohelet’s feeling the need to point out the obvious truth that the sun rises and sets.

Flow Of the World, Flow of the Righteous

The Midrash says Kohelet was drawing our attention to Hashem’s kindness to the world, only ending the time of one righteous person after a replacement has arrived. R. Akiva was not killed until R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi had already been born, etc., including Sarah not passing away until Rivkah was ready to step in for her. To hint at the point, Parshat VaYera ends with Betu’el fathering Rivkah, and Chayei Sarah starts with the passing of Sarah.

R. Arama thinks the Midrash means to alert us to a connectedness of the spiritual world with no fundamental difference from the natural world. Days flow into each other, continually, Providence creates chains of connection of parts of the world, including the presence of righteous people (who bring another kind of light to the world).

The Midrash included Sarah and Rivkah in its list of examples because they were the second match R. Arama has spoken of before, the pairing with their husbands crucial to the success of the Patriarchs. As Shabbat 25b says, true wealth lies in having a wife of good deeds. Loss of a wife of excellence deprives a man of all the good, aid, support and peace she had offered until then, leaving him bereft and certainly demanding he mourn and eulogize her.

The Steps to Finding a Wife

I have skipped many of his interim comments, a point here and a point there, to use our space for his broader notes. The Torah devoted much space to Eliezer finding Rivka, spurring R. Aha to comment, Bereishit Rabbah 60, the conversation of servants of the Patriarchs seems more dear to Hashem than the legal sections of the Torah. Eliezer’s story is told as it happens and also his version of the story to Rivka’s family, where important halachic topics get only a hint.

R. Arama seems to think some of that stems from the significance of one’s choice of wife. He reminds us that the Creation story placed the story last, a sign to make it the last stage of a man’s self-development; Mishlei 24:27 tells men to set up their livelihoods and then build their house (the Talmud often refers to a wife as a man’s “house,” and understands Tanach to do so also).

The tochacha, the section of the Torah warning of the punishments for national disobedience, puts betrothing a woman before planting a vineyard or field, Devarim 28:30, to R. Arama a sign the people who bring Hashem’s wrath upon themselves are foolish generally.

First, marriage without the man having a clear means of support jeopardizes his wife and future children, raises the specter of poverty. Second, it hinders the man’s own development, as Kiddushin 29b phrases it: reichayim be-tzavvaro ve-yilmod Torah, he has a millstone around his neck and he will study Torah?

Yitzchak’s Preparations

Yitzchak does not get married until he is 40, a fact R. Arama takes to mean he had spent the time developing himself, ready to enter marriage at the top of his game. Avot tells us 40 is the age of binah, insight, the age a man is developed physically and mentally. Yitzchak’s proper conduct and preparation for marriage earned him the Divine providence to match him with Rivka, to guide Eliezer to find her.

[R. Arama moves to other issues, leaving me wondering about his support of late marriage. Did he want people of his time to wait more? Or, was he justifying their choice of late marriage? He does not explain how he would deal with Talmudic statements favoring early marriage as a way to avoid the promiscuity he has already said was an issue in his time, single men looking for sexual satisfaction in the wrong places. He also does not consider the proper age for a woman to get married, and the meaning of the difference. Rashi assumes Rivkah was at most 13.]

The Qualities Eliezer Sought

Standing by the well, Eliezer prays to God because he knows a good wife comes from Hashem, according to the person’s actions [another line I hear as a comment to the people of his time, perhaps a reminder to think more about Hashem’s role in their marriage choices]. The test Eliezer devised would see how well Rivkah thought and how ready she was to put in the necessary effort.

To stand by a well and ask someone else for water, when Eliezer could have drunk directly or asked to borrow a water jug, opens the door to saying no. Even an ordinarily generous person might be unwilling to help someone too arrogant to help himself.

The good match for Yitzchak would instead assume Eliezer did not know how to draw water, was too wealthy to ever have done it for himself, had some illness or ache preventing him, or “koved atzluto, the weight of his laziness.” [I included this last phrase because it shows R. Arama thinks it appropriate to help even someone who should be doing more for him/herself. Crippling laziness is still crippling, he seems to be saying.]

In addition, her readiness to help might start with compassion for the camels, suffering for their master’s inability/refusal to draw water. It’s the reason Eliezer’s test looked for her to say “gam li-gmalecha ashkeh,” I will also give water to your camels.

By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein 

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.


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