Shabbat candles: 4:18 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 21:1-25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1-31
This week’s Torah portion tells of the search for a proper wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Most people think that the test of Rebecca’s worthiness is her willingness to give water to the stranger at the well, and her offer to water the servant’s caravan of camels, too. But these are not among the three requirements that Abraham seeks in a prospective daughter-in-law. Abraham swears his servant, Eliezer, to three things: First, that the chosen girl not be the daughter of the local Canaanites; second, that she must come from farther afield — Eliezer must travel to the land of Abraham’s birth and select a girl from there; and third, Abraham insists that the girl be willing to return with Eliezer to Hebron in order to wed Isaac on his home turf. [Genesis 24:2-8]
Eliezer’s added condition, that the girl prove her worthiness by watering both him and his camels, is a pre-certification. The offer and the act of watering will distinguish her, making his selection task easier. For how else could the servant even begin to choose from among all the girls at the well in Aram-Naharayim? Only if she passes his watering test can Eliezer then focus on Abraham’s most critical requirement.
Of Abraham’s three conditions, only the third is a test of the girl’s character; the first two deal with externals: her people and her country. The third requirement — that she consent to follow Eliezer back to Hebron to be wed — is the deal breaker. Abraham says, “If she does not consent to go, you will be clear of this oath to me” [Gen. 24:8]. The girl must agree of her own volition to leave her land, her family, and her parents’ house and travel to Isaac to be wed.
Why is the girl’s worthiness tied to her consent “to go?”
For the answer, we look to Abraham’s story. Abraham was subjected to ten tests, or trials, over the course of his lifetime as he developed from the son of an idolater into the father of ethical monotheism. His first test famously began with the words “Lech lecha” (Go forth), God’s command to the awakening Abraham to leave his land, the place of his birth and his father’s house, and travel to the land that God will show him [Gen. 12:1]. Heeding the command “to go” starts Abraham on his personal odyssey to find his God and to found his covenantal family.
Years and a lifetime pass, and we read in Gen. 22 of Abraham’s final test, the Akeida; God’s shocking command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, which also has at its essence the command to “go forth.”
“And God said, ‘Take your son, your special son, whom you love — Isaac — and go forth to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a burnt offering atop one of the mountains that I will point out to you’” [Gen. 22:2].
God’s two “go forth” commands effectively bookend Abraham’s life. How many of us would heed that whisper, sell our apartments, take our children out of school, and pack up and go forth? This is the reason the command “to go” is considered such an important test of faith: going forth into the unknown, leaving behind all that is familiar and comfortable, is excruciatingly hard to do. Abraham twice heeded the “go forth” command.
After Abraham “goes forth” for the second time, God issues a reprieve, saving Isaac from death at the last moment. But the command to “go forth” remains seared onto Abraham’s mind, the prototypical God-test.
It is no surprise, then, that Abraham imposes this same test on the girl who is to wed his covenantal son. She must possess the strength of character to leave her mother and all that is familiar; she must channel the fire within her that burns for an unknown life-adventure far from her birthplace. Abraham’s vision of a bride for Isaac is a woman who is Abrahamic; who not only agrees, but desires “to go,” as he did.
In our parsha, when Eliezer is poised to take Rebecca with him back to Hebron to be wed to Isaac, Rebecca’s mother and brother demur. Perhaps they are desirous of extracting more in the way of dowery gifts from Eliezer. Perhaps they genuinely have second thoughts about giving her away to an unknown man. But when they confront her and ask, “Will you go with this man?” Rebecca laconically replies, “Elech” (I will go) [Gen. 24:58].
With that single emphatic and immortal statement, Rebecca passes Abraham’s — and God’s — test of chosenness. In our parsha, Rebecca displays at least two of Abraham’s signal qualities: the generous quality of chesed — a graciousness to and empathy for the stranger — as well as the essential courage to go where her instincts tug her.
Generations into the future, another biblical woman will echo Rebecca’s words and actions. It is none other than Ruth, Rebecca’s spiritual heir, who tells Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go… elech” [Ruth 1:16]. As descendants of Abraham, Rebecca, and Ruth, all of us possess the inherent strength to pass whatever personal test we face: to pick ourselves up, change jobs, move to a new city — to go — in pursuit of our personal destiny.
Sandra E. Rapoport, author of “Biblical Seductions” (Ktav), lectures on Women of the Bible. Find Sandra on Facebook. Her website is biblicalseductions.com.