Judaism appreciates strong, courageous, visionary women. This week we read of two of them, our ancestral mothers, Sarah and Rivkah. We don’t know all that much about Sarah, whose death we read about this week, and whose story is inextricably intertwined with Abraham’s. She is by his side as they leave from Haran for the Land of Canaan; she works her magic with Pharaoh during the famine that forces the two to flee from the land of Canaan to Egypt; she offers her handmaid Hagar to him in order to help fulfill the promise that Abraham should be the father of a great nation in the land, after which she receives the prophecy that she shall be the mother of that great nation that will inherit the land. To this day, those who convert to Judaism are known as the children of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of our covenantal people.
With Sarah’s death at the beginning of this parashah, Abraham knows that he must find a wife for his solitary son Isaac, a woman who will be the next matriarch for our people. As Abraham’s servant embarks on his search for the right woman he prays for guidance in the selection process. Rivkah fulfils the imprecation of Abraham’s servant:
“Let the maiden to whom I say ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink and I will also water your camels’ — let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac.”
Rivkah is a woman of gracious giving. The blessing given her by her family as she sets out to fulfill her role in the covenantal promise is the one we give to our brides at the bedeken ceremony to this day: “O sister, may you grow into thousands of myriads…” In next week’s parashah we will see that Rivkah is the one woman in the Torah with whom God speaks directly; we will see that just as the fulfillment of the brit, the covenant, was dependent upon Sarah, so too, it is dependent on Rivkah. While men seem to claim most of the limelight, subtly, it is our matriarchs who ultimately shape the destiny of our people.
In a sense, these days, nothing has changed. The men tend to grab the headlines, seem to be “making the important decisions”, “doing the important work”, but that is all a matter of perception. Yes, for the most part, men to this day run government, control armies, lead the boards of corporations. But life is ultimately lived and best expressed from the ground up, from the family and the community on through to society. Truly, women today follow in the footsteps of our first matriarchs we hear of in this week’s Parashah, Sarah and Rivkah, who guided their family and thus our people with courage, love, generosity and wisdom.