Echoes of Eden
At the end of Parshat Chayei Sarah, Avraham's faithful servant completes his mission: He declines Lavan's extended hospitality and brings their "negotiation" to a successful conclusion. Rivka herself has no small part in this conclusion. She is unequivocal; her choice is clear:
And they called for Rivka and said to her, "Will you go with this man?" And she said, "I will go." (Bereishit 24:58)
Rivka and her entourage set out, and Avraham's servant leads the way to his master's house. As they approach, they come upon Yitzchak, who is out in the field, immersed in prayer. When she sees him, Rivka's reaction is powerful:
And Yitzchak went out to meditate (or converse) in the field at the evening time; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, camels were coming. And Rivka lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Yitzchak, she fell (or, dismounted) off the camel. (Bereishit 24:63-64)
The scene is striking, dramatic - but Rivka's reaction is given to various interpretations. When she sees Yitzchak in the field, without even knowing who he is, she either falls off or dismounts (1) from her camel.(2) While some midrashim "blame" Yitzchak's physical beauty, others teach that Rivka reacted as she did because she alone was able to discern Yitzchak's other-worldly characteristics. The Alshech explains that she was in awe when she saw his holiness,(3) while other commentaries say that she was frightened when she saw him.(4) Other sources point to Rivka's own innocence and inexperience as the source of panic and confusion that caused her to fall.(5) These sources seem to fit into a larger theme found in the midrash which we may call "the preservation of Rivka's innocence":(6) Rabbinic sources contain a wealth of comments and midrashim that stress the depravity of the home which Rivka left behind, the corrupt world of Betuel and Lavan that Rivka rejected without a moment's hesitation. In fact, as we shall see, the biographical details revealed - and concealed - in the text of the Torah may be part and parcel of this issue.
When Rivka throws her lot in with Avraham's household, she effectively divorces herself from an immoral pagan society at the earliest possible opportunity. The midrashic teachings regarding her home in Padan Aram leave no room for doubt: Rivka's father Betuel was at the apex of this corrupt society; he was the most immoral person in Padan Aram.
The midrashic description of the backdrop to Rivka's departure addresses what is perceived as a lacunae in the text: When the servant first arrives looking for a bride for his master's son, Rivka is identified as the daughter of Betuel,(7) and when negotiations commence Betuel and Lavan respond.(8) Nonetheless the next morning when the marriage will be finalized the father is nowhere to be found and the servant discusses the pending marriage with her brother Lavan instead.(9) In explaining this unconventional betrothal, the midrash is clearly not oblivious to the significance of Rivka's father's name: Betuel - which may be translated as "the god of virginity." Betuel was surely not the first man in a position of power to invoke his "divine right" to spend the first night with every bride under his jurisdiction. The elders of Padan Aram, upon hearing of Rivka's upcoming marriage, insisted that if Betuel conducted himself thus with their daughters - they would demand no less for his daughter. They waited impatiently for the first sign of weakness, hoping to catch Betuel in his own evil net and sentence Betuel and Rivka to death.(10) Rivka knew very well what she was leaving behind, and she willingly, purposefully aligned herself with Avraham and all he stood for.
And then, she sees Yitzchak. Was it love at first sight? Physical infatuation? Awe at the sight of this holy man? The midrash offers one more possible explanation for Rivka's reaction upon first laying eyes on her betrothed: When Rivka first saw Yitzchak, she saw prophetically that he would have an evil son, and she fell off the camel.(11)
As Parshat Chayei Sarah draws to an end, Rivka and Yitzchak meet, are wed, and their life together begins. The relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka blossoms; he loves her and she brings him solace.(12) But as Parshat Toldot begins, we learn that their happiness is incomplete:
And Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka, daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean, for his wife. (Bereishit 25:20)
... and Yitzchak was sixty years old when she bore them. (Bereishit 25:26)
Combining these two verses, we learn that the couple suffered through twenty years of infertility. At no point does the text tell us Rivka's age when they married, nor do we know her age when she gives birth. For that matter, the Torah never gives us any information about Rivka's age, and we do not even know at what point in the biblical narrative she died (13) or how old she was at her passing. The Seder Olam Rabbah,(14) a rabbinic book devoted to biblical chronology, offers two variant accounts: in the first, Rivka was a mere three years of age at the time of her marriage (15) to Yitchak; in the second version, she was a more palatable fourteen when wed.(16) The first account seems far less compatible with the verse's statement that she was "barren"; it would only be possible to speak of twenty years of infertility if Rivka was, indeed, of childbearing age when they were wed, and the first twenty years of their marriage saw her prime childbearing years dwindle. Apparently, the opinion that Rivka was separated from the house of her father at the tender age of three is part and parcel of the "preservation of innocence" theme we have discussed, taken to extremes.
As her biological clock winds down, Rivka finds herself pregnant at last. The Torah tells us that Yitzchak's prayers are answered.
And Yitzchak prayed to God regarding (literally, in the presence of) his wife, because she was barren; and God responded to his prayer, and Rivka, his wife, conceived. (Bereishit 25:21)
As her dream is about to come true,(17) Rivka experiences some sort of difficulty related to the pregnancy - and the source of this difficulty is reminiscent of Rivka's reaction when she first sees Yitzchak. She is frightened, confused, alarmed. What is the cause of her distress? Here, too, the midrashic material is diverse, and rabbinic commentaries offer widely divergent opinions. In a sort of parallel to the opinions on the earlier scene, some see her distress as the natural,(18) commonplace fears of any expectant mother - especially one who has waited for twenty years,(19) especially one living in an age when so many pregnancies ended in tragedy. Simply put, Rivka experienced the discomfort and worry that accompany every normal pregnancy, and she prayed to God (20) for the health of her unborn child and for her own survival.(21) Other commentaries learn about the cause of her distress from the way in which God responds to her: He calms her fears by explaining that her pregnancy is strange and unusual because she is carrying twins.
Still others regard Rivka's distress as having very little to do with the normal physical and emotional stress of pregnancy, noting that she sought a spiritual remedy for her fears. Rashi explains that her distress stemmed from a strange phenomenon: when she would pass a place of idolatry the baby would stir and try to "escape"; conversely when she would pass the tents of Shem and Ever, a place of spirituality and holiness, the same struggle would ensue.(22) As far as Rivka knew, she was carrying a single child with a "split personality". Rivka's concerns had to do with the spiritual conflict (23) she felt within her womb;(24) therefore the knowledge that she is, in fact, carrying two fetuses, two distinct personalities, explains what she is feeling.
But can this answer allay her fears? We are forced to consider Rivka's earlier prophetic experience: From the moment she saw Yitzchak, she knew that he would have an evil son. Now, the vision is being played out within her, causing her distress that she can address only to God.
Rivka had removed herself from the corrupt world of Betuel, making a life in the tent of Sarah, married to the most holy man she had ever seen, son of one of the greatest spiritual giants of all time. And at the first moment that she sees this great future unfold before her, when she sees Yitzchak in the field immersed in prayer, she knows that she has not fully escaped evil. There is a thread of evil even here, and she is unable to escape it. It is surely no coincidence that in the twenty years of infertility Rivka never availed herself of the solution adopted by Sarah, Rachel and Leah, a solution so common in the ancient world: Rivka had maidservants who accompanied her from Padan Aram, yet she never suggested that Yitzchak father children with anyone else. Did the knowledge of this evil son yet to be born plant within her some deep-seated ambivalence about having children? Is this the reason she refrained from seeking solutions for their infertility? Is this perhaps the reason that the text never records Rivka herself praying, asking, hoping for children?
We may say that Rivka's entire adult life was lived under a cloud, a shadow cast by the vision of Esav that she had on the day she saw Yitzchak. Our sages express this sense of foreboding in a variety of ways, at various junctures throughout Rivka's life. In fact, even before Rivka sees Yitzchak, midrashic sources point to clues of this problematic destiny:
"and Rivka and her maidservants arose, etc.": The Rabbis said: As a camel possesses one mark of uncleanness and one of cleanness, so did Rivka give birth to one righteous and one wicked son. (Bereishit Rabbah 60:14)
Rivka makes a clean break from the house of Betuel - or so she believes. She chooses the house of Avraham over the house of Betuel, the morality and holiness of Yitzchak over that of Lavan. But even as she turns her back on the corruption and depravity of Padan Aram, she rides away on a camel - symbol of a sort of moral bifurcation or schizophrenia: Whereas kosher animals chew their cud and have split hooves, the camel has only one of these indicators of kashrut. The midrash draws a parallel between this "half and half" purity of the camel, and Rivka's destiny as mother of one righteous and one wicked son. The dread of this schism, symbolized by the camel on which she rode into the future and expressing her inability to completely escape the evil of her past, was what caused Rivka to dismount or fall. She saw that evil would accompany her on her journey; the birth of Esav was inevitable.
As readers, we are left to ponder the inevitability of Esav's birth, the inescapability of evil. What is the source of this seed of evil that grows from the purest, holiest roots? How can it be that Esav is born of the union of Yitzchak and Rivka? In a seemingly cryptic comment on the verse describing Rivka's departure from Padan Aram, the Arizal transmits a teaching found in the Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer:(25)
"And they rode on the camels." Know that Rivka riding on a camel is a hint to the serpent that our rabbis say was like a camel; and Sama'el (the Evil One, Satan) rode the camel, to seduce Eve... (Liqutei Torah Chaya Sarah)
The Arizal connects our present subject with a much earlier, much larger moral battle: In the Garden of Eden, the Evil Inclination utilizes very specific tools to seduce Eve.(26) Satan searched and found the most devious creature for this insidious task - the Serpent who, before the punishment, resembled a camel - either physically, or, more likely, in terms of the misleading symbols of purity. The results of the Serpent's efforts are all too familiar to us: Adam and Eve sin, and each of the parties involved is punished in their own way. It is the punishment God metes out to Eve that many see echoed in Rivka's distress:
To the woman He said, "I will greatly multiply the pain of your child bearing; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Bereishit 3:16)
While the physical challenges of pregnancy that Rivka experienced may be traced back to Eve, the connection seems to run much deeper. The Megaleh Amukot explains that Rivka was "the image of Eve" and Yitzchak was "the image of Adam": Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, ingested the moral bifurcation or confusion that this Tree of Death embodied. Rivka carried within her two children, two fruits, as it were - one good, the other evil. Her distress is far beyond the physical: She seeks advice because she does not understand why her pregnancy should be entangled in this confusion of good and evil, enmeshed in moral dualism. She is married to the son of Avraham, to the man who had been offered as an olah to God. The father of her children is Yitzchak, whom she first sees out in the field, deep in prayer - in the very place that cursed man must labor. According to the midrash, Yitzchak himself had just returned from Eden.(27)
There should be no evil growing from such roots.(28)
Our sages deal with this problem by pointing out that Rivka's experience does not precisely replicate the sin of Eve and its aftermath: whereas good and evil are confused by sin, they are somehow distilled in the course of this miraculous pregnancy. The Be'er Mayim Chaim suggests that in utero, a clarification takes place, and good and evil are clearly divided (perhaps for the first time since before the sin).(29) This process alone would explain the turmoil Rivka felt, even justify her discomfort. But this seems to be an insufficient answer for Rivka; she questions why the evil should exist within her at all. God's answer is quite clear: Like the birth of Cain and Hevel after the sin, Rivka will give birth to two sons. The fate of these two sons, of these two distinct moral entities, is conflict. These two sons are part of a process that will reverse the sin committed in Eden, and bring an end to the confusion of good and evil. Yaakov's destiny is to confront evil, to persevere, and to vanquish it. Even before his birth, he begins to fulfill that destiny - a destiny that we may find encoded within the punishment of the Serpent:
And the Almighty God said to the Serpent, 'Because you have done this, you are cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; it shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (akev). (Bereishit 3:14-15)
The name that this son of Rivka is given at birth is completely enveloped in his destiny. "Yaakov" reflects the struggle which Rivka sensed was going on inside her, in which good and evil were separated, distilled or refined into two distinct forms. It is a name which reflects an ongoing struggle between good and evil that began with the Serpent and remains unresolved.
Yaakov's role is not an easy one. He confronts evil in many ways, using all the tools he can muster. At one point, he follows Rivka's command and goes so far as to put on Esav's clothes - garments of treachery which, according to tradition, were passed down from the nefarious Nimrod, and had once belonged to Cain, who had received them from Adam.(30) To confront evil, Yaakov dons these garments; he recreates a confusion of good and evil, fighting a wicked and devious enemy with his own sword, as it were.
No one is better equipped to fight evil than Yaakov, who was born to the task. Encapsulated within his name is an expression of his destiny; it is an expression of the identity which Yaakov maintains until the point that he struggles with evil and emerges victorious (though not unscathed). Only then does Yaakov, who attacked the heel of his nemesis and stood his ground in the face of evil, become Yisrael.
From the very beginning, Rivka's vision was perfect where Yitzchak's was clouded. Rivka had a clear vision of the future, a firm grasp of the roles each of her sons would play. She had no illusions about Esav, nor did she have any doubt that Yaakov would have to use any means at his disposal to face evil and defeat it. God's message to her may not have given her comfort, but it gave her perspective and purpose: We cannot escape evil; since the sin in Eden, evil has become internalized in us all. What we can do is live up to the destiny to which Yaakov and his descendents were born: to face up to Esav, to persevere against evil, and with God's help, defeat it.
1. The Rashbam says that she had not been riding side-saddle; therefore, out of considerations of modesty, upon meeting her husband she dismounted.
2. Rashi, Bereishit 24:64, states that she was in shock when she saw Yitzchak.
3. Torat Moshe Bereishit 24:64.
4. The Hizkuni Bereishit 24:64 suggests that due to her tender age she was frightened, and when she saw him she thought he was a rapist or a thief. The Riva on Bereishit 24:64 says Yitzchak looked like a zombie, and she thought he was some kind of thief.
5. It is explained that when she fell she was wounded and bled; subsequently, when Yitzchak was intimate with Rivka, the signs of her virginity were absent, and immediately the suspicion was focused on the servant Eliezer who accompanied Rivka on her journey. Upon returning to the place where she fell, and finding the blood that corroborated their account of the injury, Rivka, and Eliezer were exonerated. See Midrash Aggada Bereishit chapter 24.
6. Rivka's innocence is attested to in the text of the Torah: Bereishit 24:16 "And the girl was very pretty to look upon, a virgin, and no man had known her." It seems strange, if she is a virgin - they why is it necessary to state that "no man had known her"? Rashi explains that women in those days would often "save" themselves for their husbands in terms of virginity, but they would nonetheless engage in other forms of sexual contact.
7. See 24:15,24,27.
8. See 24:50.
9. See 24:55.
10. Yalqut Shimoni Chaya Sarah remez 109.
12. Bereishit 24:67.
13. The Sifri says that Rivka was 133 at death, while according to Rashi it would seem that Rivkah was 122 years old, this 11 year discrepancy, is related to two readings in the Seder Olam, see below. For some of the calculations see Rabbi David Silverberg http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/salt-bereishit/06-10toledot.htm, who seems to have missed the Seder Olam.
14. Seder Olam Rabbah chapter 1.
15. Rivka's birth is reported after the akaida, according to some traditions Yitzchak was 37 at that time, therefore if he was 40 at the time of marriage she would have been three, marriages at extremely young ages were common, even though consummation of the marriage would have been delayed for a significant amount of time. There are those who assume that Yitzchak was significantly younger at the time of the akaida.
16. See Daat Zekanim Baalei Tosfot Berishit 25:20.
17. We assume that Rivka and Yitzchak shared a desire to have children, though the text does not record Rivka having prayed for children - as it does in the case of Yitzchak; see below.
18. Rashbam says that indeed it was a normal pregnancy - for twins.
19. Ohr Hachaim on Bereishit 25:22.
20. Ramban 25:22.
21. See Seforno, she was afraid that she would lose one of the fetuses and her life would then be in danger as well.
22. Rashi Bereishit 25:22.
23. See Kol Eliyahu Berishit 25:22.
24. Rashi ibid.
25. Chapter 12.
26. In Pirkei D'rebbe Eliezer chapter 21, it states that the rider of the serpent violated Eve, and she became pregnant with Cain.
27. Yalqut Shimoni Chaya Sarah remez 109.
28. Megaleh Amukot parshat Toldot.
29. Toldot 25.
30. See Rabbenu Bachaya Bereishit 3:21, and the footnotes by Rabbi Chavel in the Mosad Harav Kook edition.