Yitzhak pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren;
and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rivkah conceived.
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why should I go on living?!”.
She went to inquire of the Lord and the Lord answered her …. (Gen. 25:21-23)
In our passage, two individuals, though married to each other, turn to God regarding two separate issues. Yitzhak is preoccupied, as was his father Avraham, with the following generations, with the future, based upon God’s promises in the past. Rivkah, on the other hand, is preoccupied with the present – she can barely live with what is happening in her womb.
While it would be nice to think that Yitzhak was simply supporting his wife in her hour of need, the second part of the excerpt above hints that this wasn’t the case. For if he was indeed praying to God solely on her behalf, we might expect him to continue to do so when there is trouble with the pregnancy. It was Rivkah alone, if we read the text carefully, who went to inquire of the Lord.
Later generations seem to have struggled with this passage. Once again, one might wish that it was because Yitzhak was expected to be at his wife’s side, but it seems that there is another motive. For example:
- The Jewish 1 st century historian, Josephus (Ant. 1:257) states – in his paraphrase of the biblical narrative – that it was Yitzhak, not Rivkah, who went to ask God what was happening;
- In the early midrashic work, Bereshit Rabbah (63:6, 4th -5th century, Land of Israel), Rivkah inquires of the Lord, but does so only with the help of Eber, Noah’s great-great-grandson, who was miracously still alive;
- In the later midrashic collection, Midrash Yelamdeinu (6th -7th century, Land of Israel) she does so through another pre-Avrahamic character, Shem, Noah’s son;
- Another late midrash, Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (7th cent, Land of Israel), she is careful to pray in a clean place;
- Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak, 12-13th century, Provence) also entertains the above possibility but adds that perhaps she went to her father in law, Avraham;
- Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, 11-12th century, Provence) doesn’t speculate regarding to whom exactly Rivkah went, but does state that it had to be a prophet. This interpretation is followed by many modern commentators who understand that she went to the oracle;
- Rabbi Tuvia ben Eliezer (Lekah Tov, 11th century, Greece/Land of Israel) understands that Rivkah brought a sacrifice.
Common to all of the above interpretations, despite the simple meaning of the biblical text, is that Rivkah herself was in direct contact with God. It seems that these male interpreters are unable to imagine that she, a woman, would be able to do so. They understand the word “to inquire” either
means that she went to a male prophet or conduit to the Holy One, or that she made an offering – here too, through the services of a man.
The only rabbinic tradition that I have found which allows that she, and not a male representative, was in direct contact with God is found in the aforementioned Bereshit Rabbah (63:7), albeit, in a backhanded way:
God never found it necessary to enter into a conversation with a woman until Rivkah,
and even then, there was a good excuse.
As previously mentioned, the text of Genesis is really quite clear: Rivkah spoke with God. This is something that she did on her own, not only because she could do so, even as a woman, but because only she could do so since this was happening to her, and to her alone.
There is a valuable lesson to be learned here, especially for men. There are things that we men will never know, never understand and perhaps not even notice, that belong to the realm of women. Surely this works both ways, but when it comes to menstruating, conceiving, carrying a child and giving birth, we men really need to be both humble and careful.
And I learn another lesson from the opening scene of our reading today: While there are certainly times when others might step up and support us in our hour of need, whether it is a helping hand, an encouraging word, a hug, pat on the shoulder or a prayer unto God – there will always be those times in our life in which we are essentially alone, that only we can be the ones to make a decision, to search deep down inside for the courage or to stand alone and inquire, or perhaps even demand, an answer from God.