The God of Rivka

This week’s alumni d’var torah is by Tobie Harris.

To make the prayer service more inclusive, egalitarian communities often attempt to add women back into the liturgy. One common example is amending the first blessing of Amidah to add the italicized words: “the God of our forefathers and foremothers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak and God of Yaakov, God of Sarah, God of Rivka, God of Rachel and God of Leah.

I have always been uncomfortable with this addition – not primarily because of a conservative hesitance to change the wording of the prayers, but more because I don’t think I know enough about the foremothers’ relationship with God to know what exactly I’m saying.

I can know, in some sense, what it meant to Avraham for Hashem to be his God. I can, in an even more limited sense, know what it meant for Hashem to be the God of Avraham. But I have much less of an idea of what, if anything, Hashem meant to the foremothers, since the Torah records almost none of their religious experiences. Although God frequently speaks about the foremothers and they frequently speak about Him, this week’s parsha contains possibly[1] the only record of direct interaction between them:

כב וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-יְהוָה.  כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

It is noteworthy, however, that the midrash on this verse (adopted by Rashi) places a (male) intermediary between Rivka and God:

‘מדרש רבה בראשית פרשה סג’ פסקה ו

ותלך לדרוש את ה’ וכי בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות היו באותן הימים והלא לא הלכה אלא למדרש של שם ועבר אלא ללמדך שכל מי שהוא מקביל פני זקן כמקביל פני שכינה

Were there synagogues and houses of study in those days? Didn’t she just go to the house of study of Shem and Ever? Rather, this comes to teach us that one who welcomes a sage, it is as if he has welcomed the Divine Presence.

The midrash’s interpretation seems solidly based on the use of the phrase “going to inquire of God,” which is used frequently in the Tanakh to describe the process of going to a prophet to consult with God through Him (see, for example, מלכים ב כב). On the other hand, those sources seem usually to explicitly mention the prophet involved. Furthermore, the text has never mentioned a character outside of the Abrahamic family with a relationship with God (at least not by the four-letter Name used in our verse), a problem solved by the midrash by drawing on the recurring story of a house of learning set up by Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, where the forefathers periodically study.

The midrash leaves open the question of why Rivka sought out Shem rather than asking Yitzchak or Avraham. Various commentators suggest that they were unable to answer, or that Rivka or Hashem chose not to use them as intermediaries so as not to distress them with the news of Esav’s anticipated wickedness.

Ramban takes a different approach, translating the verse not as “to inquire of God” but as prayer (perhaps best translated “to seek out God” and as used in Tehillim 34:5 and elsewhere). However, the Ramban’s claim that this is the only meaning of the term drisha he has encountered seems to ignore many verses that would support the midrash’s interpretation. His reading also ignores that the surrounding verses have used a variety of other terms to describe prayer (most recently ויעתר) and does not explain the term “went”, which is not used in any of the parallel sources cited.

I would suggest that these verses can be better understood by realizing how unusual Rivka’s actions are in the context of the Book of Genesis: to the best of my knowledge, we have never yet seen a character initiate a dialogue with God.[2] Characters may pray for and be answered with Divine action; they may mention Him in blessings or call in His Name; they will respond to Him when He chooses to speak to them, but they never turn to Him and expect Him to answer.

In light of this, I would suggest a more general interpretation of the phrase ‘לדרוש את ה which would include both the Midrash and Ramban’s source texts: drisha is used to imply actively seeking out God – being the one to chose to initiate a dialogue, whether it be by direct prayer or via an intermediary. In our context, I suggest the phrase serves not to insert an intermediary, but to highlight the significance of Rivka’s choice; adding the term “to go” emphasizes the pro-active nature of her actions, as well as the sense of embarking on a quest.

Rivka’s relationship is thus marked as fundamentally different from that of the forefathers. God never chose to initiate a relationship with her; by marrying Yitzchak, she married into his faith and became a part of the story of his religious evolution. Rivka could have remained an ancillary character whose faith never becomes relevant. But instead she became the first person not to wait for God to chose her, but rather to choose Him.[3]

Tobie Harris (SBM ’05) lives in Jerusalem and works as an attorney for the Israeli Antitrust Authority.

[1]    Give or take an ambiguous pronoun in Genesis 18:15.

[2]    Credit to my friend Debbie Zimmerman for pointing this out to me about Avraham. Some sources I have seen read Genesis 18:22-23 as Avraham initiating the argument over destroying Sodom, but I think that the preceding verses make it clear that the contact has been initiated by God, even if Avraham choses to extend it.

[3]    It is interesting to contrast this proactive role with Yitzchak’s general passivity – the contrast of the first person to initiate dialogue with God and the first person born into a relationship with God.


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