Parashat Chayyei Sarah 5784

9 November 2023 – 25 Heshvan 5784

Rabbi Janet Burden


When I was a little girl, I would return again and again to my beautifully illustrated children’s Bible, to re-read the story of Rebecca at the well. When I was too tired to read, I would simply gaze at the picture of my heroine, who I now realise was drawn to resemble Sophia Loren. With flowing dark curls, an hourglass figure and graceful limbs, she was perfect, absolutely perfect. And me? Well, let’s just say I was NOT perfect. I was an awkward, stick-figured child with hair that was straight and straw-coloured. Adults often thought I was cute; I thought I was hideous. I didn’t want to be me – I wanted to be her. I imagined myself in Rebecca’s flowing robes, emulating her, impressing everyone with my beauty, my generosity and hard work – and of course, being rewarded by getting to marry the prince…or something like that, anyway….

And this, of course, is one way in which Biblical stories teach us: through presenting admirable examples. Rebecca in this scene is a wholly attractive figure, reflecting an ideal not only in her physical form but also through her actions. Many have noted that her behaviour is reminiscent of her future father-in-law when he greets the three strangers. Like Abraham, Rebecca far exceeds what the customs of hospitality would require. She demonstrates the same unhesitating generosity, the same willingness to give her time and energy to a complete stranger. Watering a train of ten camels was no small feat – one camel would do most of us in! And she sets about her task with the same alacrity we saw with the Patriarch – both are described as running to perform the necessary tasks. There are also other language echoes, which serve to create a parallel between the two characters. This is surely the woman who should become the keeper of Abraham’s tent! When Eliezer asks if there might be room in her father’s house for the guest, she assures him that both he and his animals will be well cared for. At this final sign, Eliezer knows that his prayers have been answered, and he falls down in gratitude for the help of God in finding her. Oh…to be that Rebecca, an answer to a prayer.

It was only when I re-read the tales of Genesis as an adult that I realised how poorly I recalled the rest of Rebecca’s story, where her behaviour is much less admirable. Encountering the text anew, discovering its richness and complexity, is one of the great pleasures of adult Torah study . Sadly, I was one of those people who, through teenage and early adulthood, made the mistake of thinking that Bible stories were like fairy tales, to be left behind with my dolls and dress-up box. I dismissed them without much thought.

In retrospect, the only positive benefit I can see from having done so was that my rediscovery the Bible, especially when read in light of the midrashim and other commentaries, allowed me to fall in love with the text all over again – and this time, I didn’t need a soft-focus painting of Sophia Loren to inspire me.

Through those intervening years, I acquired not only the critical faculties but also the maturity to realise that sometimes the most important lesson we can take from a story is the example of how not to act. When we meet Rebecca later in life, we find that she favours one child over the other, takes advantage of her ageing husband’s blindness and conspires to trick Esau out of his inheritance. Her questionable behaviour didn’t sit well with the image my child’s mind had seized upon of Rebecca as the perfect woman, so I simply ignored it. I wanted a clear division between the good guys and bad guys, and moreover, to be able to know with certainty that I was on the ‘right’ side: with all of my family and friends, my teachers and community, of course. Sadly, much of the world remains trapped in this childish perspective, so that cognitive dissonance forces people to deny unpalatable truths.

If we are blessed with good guidance and a modicum of self-awareness, we realise that the childish ruse of glossing over parts of the story with which we are uncomfortable simply isn’t appropriate. We can see clearly that the Bible is not offering us individuals as role models, but rather stories we can learn from. The characters we encounter in its pages, even if not demonstrably historic figures, are clearly based on real people, in all their glory – and in their imperfection. The text leaves it up to us to identify the things we admire in Biblical characters and to emulate them in those aspects. How good it would be if we all could demonstrate the openness of Rebecca and her compassion! But the text also points out to us pitfalls we should strive to avoid and character flaws we should try to correct.

God forbid that we should play the kind of games in which Rebecca indulges to secure our own ends. Even when it might be in our self-interest to do so, we should not give in to the temptation to deceive or to take what is not rightfully ours. We must find the courage to face the complex truth about our motives and actions. We need to be able to ‘read,’ as it were, both the wonderful and the problematic parts of our own stories.

This is not to say that we should spend all our time beating ourselves up for our faults; that could only be counter-productive. The main purpose in recognising our short-comings has to be to inspire us to correct them, as Herbert M. Baumgard observes in Judaism and Prayer:

Prayer is not possible unless one has a reasonable evaluation of his own self importance. Those who belittle or hate themselves despair of ever leading meaningful lives and find it difficult to pray. To pray, you must believe yourself capable of change and growth toward the “image of the Divine.” Looked at in this light, prayer is an exalted tool leading to the reawakening of the sense of one’s own worthwhileness. It is a channel by which the individual river can link itself to the great ocean of life. It is a way of learning, a way of reaffirming the fact that we live in a kingdom greater than the kingdom of the individual. Prayer is a way to the tapping of a power greater than the individual believes he has. It is the process of becoming increasingly a part of a greater life in which we move and which flows through us at all times.

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