giovedì 20 novembre 2008

Hayé Sarah


וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק. “And Rebecca lifted her eyes and saw Isaac” (Gen. 24:64).
I wonder what could have happened if Rebecca and Isaac had not liked each other.
The text conveys a sense of inevitableness. Rebecca appears on the scene exactly when Abraham’s servant has finished praying to God for the success of his mission: to find the proper wife for Isaac. And from the very first moment, Rebecca seems to be promised to Isaac. She has all the good qualities: she is gorgeous, attentive, welcoming to guests and strangers. She comes from, let’s say, a well-known family. In order to meet her future husband Rebecca even skips the leave-taking ceremonies that she is supposed to attend. When finally Isaac sees her, and she sees Isaac, Rebecca veils herself in a shrewd seductive move. And two verses later the two are already in the same tent, having (as my American friends say) a lot of fun.
From this story some commentators—Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example—took the opportunity to praise what they call “the Jewish marriage”: the marriage “made in Heaven”. That means: arranged by families, and where the mates’ individual decision plays a very limited role, because love is supposed to come only after the marriage, not before[1]. Rebecca’s family asks for her opinion once things are already settled with Isaac’s family. Nobody even asks Isaac for his opinion. Not surprisingly, he is able to love his wife only “in the tent of his mother Sarah” (Gen. 24:67); only, as Rashi says, when she became like his mother. There are a whole lot of examples of dysfunctional relations in the Book of Genesis.
Given these premises, one cannot but wonder what would have happened if either Rebecca or Isaac had rebelled against their families’ decisions and their love had never bloomed. Given the historical conditions, certainly none of them would have found another nice Jewish boy or girl to marry.
Linda Stern Zisquit, an American poetess who immigrated to Jerusalem in the Nineties, writes:
Had Rebecca not looked up
(…) there would have been no water,
no winding dream,
no tribe or unrelenting
portion of sadness
dispersed on (…) Jerusalem
and I would not have been promised
to gather them home. But Rebecca
saw him, and he loved her[2].
One could say: had Rebecca not lifted her eyes, there would have been no Jewish people at all. But she did, and here we are.
Falling in love, with all the consequences, is something beyond human control. It is like the time of death, or the result of the struggle to establish descendents—all themes our parasha deals with. The servant of Abraham knew it well, when he asked God הַקְרֵה־נָא, “send me a good chance” (Gen 24:12), to surprise us, the readers.
Indeed, the whole concept of Chance, good or bad, is inconceivable for those who believe in Divine Providence. Nehama Leibowitz points out that מִקְרֶה chance, Fate, was the core of Philistines’ religion[3]. The Philistines believed that a person’s destiny was “written in the stars”, that humans were ruled by an impersonal force, Fate, sometimes manipulable through magic, but ultimately indifferent to human will.
This belief goes against the principle of responsibility. “It was Fate”, “I could do nothing” means: “I am not responsible”, “it was not my decision”. Or: “I had to do it”. These are exactly the words we hear from those who remain bound to destructive, dysfunctional relationships, only to please, or to defy, their parents.
Was it just a Philistine thing? The confrontation between beliefs, ours in a personal, caring God and theirs in an impersonal Fate, is not limited just to the time of Israelite struggle with the Philistines. It is a contemporary thing. I am not thinking only of astrology, something I admittedly also indulge in—such a funny parlor-game. I am referring, for example, to the belief in the magical virtues of an impersonal force called the “Free Market” that is supposed to provide social welfare, economic development and even democracy all over the world. And in case the magic doesn’t work, in times like ours, we hear wealthy people saying: “It’s nobody’s fault” “There are no definite personal responsibilities” “It’s the system”. And those who, as a result of this bad conjuncture, are at risk of losing their savings or jobs, can only pray for the appropriate מקְרֶה
This is, let me say, totally un-Jewish. Our tradition commands us not only to look for responsibilities, but also to establish a society where the stranger, the orphan, the widow are not pushed to the margins. True, it also includes unusual stories of dysfunctional families from a long time ago, but it leaves us with the commitment to discover the connections between Ancient Middle Eastern sagas and perennial ethical truths that refer to the whole of humanity.
As each of us has come into the world due to the love of our parents, may we be able to build a society based on din ve-hesed, justice and love.

[1] Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah, tr. by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, London 1996, vol. I, p. 412.
[2] Linda Stern Zisquit, “Posit”, now included in: Linda Stern Zisquit, Unopened Letters, Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale (NY), 1996.
[3] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), tr. by Aryeh Newman, Eliner Library, Jerusalem, (1986), pp. 239-243.

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