To Build a Jewish Home
One way of looking at this week's Torah portion is that it is all about women. The very first words - "and the days of the life of Sara were 100 years, 20 years and 7 years" - tip us off to this point (Genesis 23:1). Similarly, a more zoomed-out perspective reveals three major episodes in our sidra, all revolving around women: a) the death of our matriarch Sara and its aftermath, b) the search for a suitable bride for Yitzchak and c) the second marriage of Avraham to the mysterious Ketura.
Following the death of Sara, Avraham experiences a sort of near-panic at the mere thought that his family - the kernel of the Jewish people - is without a wife and mother to guide them. It is impossible to imagine the health and integrity of the Jewish people without the eshet chayil, the woman of valor. I certainly cannot imagine my house without Shira, my wife and the mother of our three children; it would crumble like the Philistine palace in the hands of Samson. And neither could Avraham. As soon as he finds a) the Hebrews without a matriarch, b) his son without a wife and c)himself without Sara, he swings into action. Nothing else can happen - no forward progress can occur in Jewish history -- until the women are back in their essential roles of guiding, teaching and role-modeling. After all, says the Talmud (Yevamot 64a), a man without a wife is a man "without blessing, without goodness, without peace, without Torah, without protection and he is not even called a man at all...but a half-man." Any single man reading this might view the alacrity with which Avraham pursues a wife for Yitzchak as a wake-up call and a model for how he ought to pursue his own search. Among other things, one could learn to act decisively and immediately, to set goals and priorities, to establish deal-breakers, and to prepare to fully commit financially and emotionally. Certainly, shrugging one's shoulders and saying "I'm dating" or "She's a nice girl, let's see what happens" (When? Next decade?) would not have satisfied Avraham or Yitzchak.
The culmination of this process is the dramatic moment when Rivka - who has asserted herself against her own family and traveled a long way at great effort - meets Yitzchak. She is dramatically affected just by seeing him. And he - standing out in the field and praying that he would find his bashert, his intended -- says the Torah, "brings her into the tent of Sara, his mother, and he marries Rivka, and she becomes his wife, whom he loves, and Yitzchak is then comforted after [the loss of] his mother." (Gen. 24:67)
This bloom of love and consolation is a touching moment of closure, especially for poor Yitzchak. He has been deeply traumatized both by the experience of his near-death experience on Mount Moria and by the sudden death of his mother. He is all alone in the world until Rivka rescues him. But while Rivka represents a turning point in Yitzchak's personal life (as his wife), she is also a replacement for Sara, the matriarch of the Jewish people. This is why he brings her into Sarah's tent and not simply his own. Perhaps, the Torah portion is not as much about women, per se, as it is about the meaning of a Jewish home, with a particular focus on Jewish women's role in creating it.
Rashi explains the midrash on this verse (24:67) as a sort of test, or hope, that Rivka could fill Sarah's shoes:
"...for as long as Sara was alive, there was a candle lit from Friday to Friday, and a blessing inhered in the dough, and a cloud hovered over the tent; when Sara died, these all ceased. But when Rivka came, they returned."
The influence and soul and of Rivka manifests itself in three specific virtues:
The lit candles, the rising bread, the hovering cloud
What is the significance of these three and why are they the litmus test for whether or not a woman is one of our foremothers? Why are these three things the decisive images of Jewish womanhood and valor? Here are three possible interpretations:
I: The Importance of Shabbat in Building a Jewish Home
The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) tells of two angels (one good, one bad) who accompany a person home from shul on Friday night. We sing the song Shalom Aleichem ("welcome, O angels") to welcome them in. The angels evaluate whether or not the home is a proper Jewish home, ready to sanctify the Shabbat (and then be blessed by the angels) based on the same three criteria as Sarah's tent: Are the Shabbat candles lit? Is the table set for the Shabbat meal? Is the bed made?
The lit candles are a symbol of joy and peace. They tell the story of a home that has prepared for Shabbat and is now ready to enjoy it, a home that knows that candles are lit before Shabbat and enjoyed during. The set table is a sign that that a holy Shabbat meal will be enjoyed in this home and, perhaps, a sign that guests will be welcomed in to partake as well. The set table, like Sara's challa, represents both the full richness of risen bread and the sharing of the blessing with others. The made bed corresponds to the cloud, for both suggest intimacy and love. The cloud above Sarah's tent was a sign that - although all were welcome - this was a house that believed in privacy and modesty. Just as the cloud hides what it covers, Sara was modest in her behavior and in her intimacy with Avraham. The angels look to see that husband and wife are prepared modestly for the intimacy of Friday night. Peace, communal enjoyment and intimacy are the blessings of Shabbat and they fill the week - for Sara's blessing lasted from Friday to Friday -from end to end.
II: The Importance of Holiness in Building a Jewish Home
The holiest place in Judaism was the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Within the Temple were two special chambers: the kodesh (the Holy chamber) and the kodesh ha-kodoshim (the Holy of Holies). Within the kodesh were three vessels: the menora, the showbread table (shulchan) and the golden incense altar. These three also correspond to the candle, the bread and the cloud of Sara. The menora represents the spiritual life, the soul, of Judaism. Just as a flame is non-corporeal, but is connected to this world, so are we souls, though we inhabit bodies. We live a life that is sanctified within spirituality, but always rooted in the world we live in. The menora also represents the light of Torah, which is the content of our approach to spirituality, the way of Hashem.
The show-bread table - upon which twelve loaves were baked each Shabbat for the kohanim (priests) - represents the physical aspect of Judaism. Our tradition says: "if there is no flour, there is no Torah". If we do not meet our physical needs, we will never meet our spiritual ones. The challenge is to bend our bodies and our hands and our needs not just to their own satiety, but to a higher value. This is one of the reasons why we wash our hands - sanctifying them - before we eat bread.
Finally, the golden incense altar, -- located in between the menora and the table - from which the cloud of incense rose straight up (through a hole in the roof) to Heaven (see Avot 5:8) represents the combination of the two: the opportunity to interweave both the physical and the spiritual together. This is why the candles and the bread were inside Sarah's tent, but the cloud hovered above.
The angels who enter our home on Friday night are looking to see if this is a home that has balanced the world we live in with the eternal values of Torah. This is the balance that Rivka restored to Sarah's tent.
III: The Importance of Feminity in Building a Jewish Home
There are three mitzvot that are especially directed to women: lighting Shabbat candles, making bread (and taking off the challa portion), and the monthly cycle of purity and mikva immersion. These three also correspond to the three images of Sarah's tent. The candles and their flame represent shalom bayit, peace in the home. This is the internal dynamic between the members of the family and it is the province and blessing of women (not exclusively, but as primary actors) to instill and maintain it. The challa represents the outward dynamic of the home, i.e. how it interacts with others, such as guests and the poor. Finally, the cycle of nidda and mikva, represent the most intimate values of the home. God created us so that through physical intimacy we achieve the greatest closeness to another person and (S)He decreed that this is the way in which we would help create children, the generations that will follow us. It was also God's will that women be the caretakers of this process. When a husband and wife are in balance, when they love and respect one another in all the ways that they should, they are then in a position to transmit their values to their children. That our secular society has abnegated the teaching of these values to children is one of the most worrying moral failures of our generation.
When Yitzchak brought Rivka into his tent, he initiated a relationship of intimacy, in all the ways in which husbands and wives are intimate: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Like the angels on Friday night, we need to do frequent inspections of our homes to see if they have the three images of Sara's and Rivka's tents. Are the candles lit? Is the bread rising and the table set?
Is the cloud present? If they are, we know that our blessings are in order. If not, we need to address the missing piece - like Avraham did after Sara died - and move quickly to heal it. Shabbat shalom!
 I took this structure from Rabbi Yakov Medan; how Ketura fits into the larger theme is a topic for another time.
 See K'li Yakar (R. Ephraim Lunshitz) 24:63 - he was praying that Hashem (via Eliezer) find him a good wife.
 In which God commanded Avraham to sacrifice him (the binding of Isaac) and Avraham very nearly complied.
 See Rabbi Schwab On Prayer for a detailed analysis of this idea.
 A small amount of dough is removed when we bake bread as a reminder of tithing. This is called "challa." By metonymy, we have come to call the whole loaf challa or challa bread. We do the same thing regarding the scroll and case that we put up on our doorposts. The doorpost itself is called a mezuza, but we have transferred the name to the scroll it self.
 Jewish women immerse in a natural pool of water (mikva) following their menstrual cycle each month. This is known as the nidda cycle.
Joined: July 27, 2007
Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...Divrei Torah (67)