The Tent of Rivka

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

PARASHAT CHAYEI SARAH

 

The Tent of Rivka

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Parashat Chayei Sarah opens with a report of the aged matriarch's demise.  After a long and productive life full of challenges enthusiastically engaged and stormy seas successfully navigated, mother Sarah dies and passes from the pages of Biblical history.  Avraham, although no doubt grief-stricken over the enormity of his loss, immediately sets out to secure a burial plot for her.  Tentatively approaching the Chittites who hold deed to the lands in the Chevron region, Avraham turns to Efron their compatriot and requests his agreement to sell to him the cave of Makhpela and its surrounding fields.  Though seemingly magnanimous, Efron is in fact anything but, for in the end he does not consider the sale of the property until Avraham has agreed to his inflated demands: four hundred shekels of silver currency. 

 

Surprisingly, this amount the patriarch readily surrenders, for Avraham surely realizes that his purchase of Makhpela will have far-reaching implications.  He understands, like Sarah who predeceased him, that he will not live to see the birth of the nation concerning which God had often pledged with such earnestness and passion.  He knows, after more than six decades of being a nomadic shepherd in Canaan and still with no landed property to speak of, that he will be long gone before his descendents are numerous and mature enough to claim Canaan as their own.  But as their progenitor, Avraham also realizes that he must initiate the process of settling the land, though only symbolically and in death, by securing legal title to a portion of it.  By establishing a family sepulcher for burial, by purchasing a plot for eternal repose, Avraham establishes a tangible and eternal connection with Canaan's fertile soil.  In so doing, he ensures that his own descendents, though they may stray far from Canaan's borders and even farther from his legacy, will never be entirely cut off from their destiny.  To Makhpela they will return, if nothing more than as a pilgrimage to their history, but in so doing they will remember.

 

 

AVRAHAM AND SARAH'S RESPECTIVE DEATHS

 

In the narratives of Sefer Bereishit, few individuals loom as large as Avraham and Sarah.  How lovingly the Torah traced their geographical and spiritual peregrination from Ur, how proudly it described their acts of compassion and righteousness in the new land, how admirably it marveled at their steadfast trust in God even when He tested their faith severely.  Though both of them pass from the scene in Parashat Chayei Sarah – the matriarch dying, as it were, in real time, the patriarch's death described only proleptically – they do not disappear before their worthy successors have been appointed.  Yitzchak their son, in every respect a loyal bearer of their legacy, begins his life's journey with a new mate.  The benevolent Rivka, her character tried and superbly vindicated by Eliezer's thirsty prayer at the well, willingly returns with Avraham's loyal servant from the far-off eastern lands of Mesopotamia to become Yitzchak's wife.  Their marriage is presented by the Torah as the final narrative before the death of Avraham, a sure indication that he dies a blissful man, for he knows with certainty that they will perpetuate God's mission.  As the Torah colorfully, poignantly and tellingly puts it:

 

Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother.  He took Rivka as his, and she became his wife and he loved her.  Then was Yitzchak comforted for the death of his mother (24:67).

 

Here the Torah leaves no room for doubt.  As surely as Yitzchak became the embodiment of everything that Avraham held dear, the repository for his values and the champion of his cause, so too Rivka enters the tent of Sarah and effectively perpetuates her role.  Yitzchak finally mourns no more over the death of his mother Sarah not because he no longer feels the gaping void created by her departure, but because he recognizes in Rivka the possibility of continuity.  Sarah will live on posthumously through the deeds of her daughter-in-law, who in many ways will surpass her in achieving steadfast trust.  After all, while the sending away of Yishmael may have pained Avraham immensely, Sarah had no qualms whatsoever.  But wasn't Rivka later called upon to surrender one of her own sons, to tearfully and irrevocably drive a wedge between herself and her firstborn Esav, so that Yaakov might secure his rightful destiny?

 

 

THE PROGRESSION FROM SARAH TO RIVKA

 

The Midrash Bereishit Rabba, quoted by Rashi with variations, describes the transition from Sarah to Rivka in telling terms:

 

"Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother" – as long as Sarah was alive, a cloud was fixed at the entrance to her tent.  When she died, that cloud ceased.  But when Rivka arrived, the cloud returned.  As long as Sarah was alive, the doors were wide open.  When she died, that generosity ceased.  But when Rivka arrived, that generosity returned.  As long as Sarah was alive, a blessing was associated with the dough.  When she died, that blessing ceased.  But when Rivka arrived, that blessing returned.  As long as Sarah was alive, a lamp burned from one Shabbat night until the next.  When she died, that lamp ceased.  But when Rivka arrived, that fire returned.  Yitzchak saw that she followed the example of his mother, preparing her dough and separating the Challa in ritual fitness.  When Yitzchak noted that she followed the example of his mother, separating the Challa in purity and separating the dough in purity, immediately: "Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother.  He took Rivka as his, and she became his wife and he loved her.  Then was Yitzchak comforted for the death of his mother" (24:67).

 

Here, the Midrash employs some colorful comparisons to highlight the matter of Rivka's resemblance to Sarah.  Sarah's dough was blessed, her tent illuminated by candlelight, and a telling cloud hovered above her door.  What might be the meaning of these provocative metaphors?

 

 

THE PARALLEL OF THE MISHKAN

 

The elements of the above Midrash that together describe the uniqueness of Sarah's household – cloud, doors, dough and light – are all known to us from at least one other Biblical context.  Quite probably, the Rabbis were inspired by that other passage to Midrashically reinterpret our text as a reflection of it.  I speak of course about the Tabernacle or Mishkan, that portable shrine that accompanied the people of Israel during the whole course of their wilderness wanderings.  According to the account preserved in the Book of Shemot (Chapters 25 – 27), the Mishkan was a prefabricated rectangular building of gilded acacia boards that was provided with a covering of finely embroidered curtains and protective hides above.  These curtains were draped over the tops of the boards – for the building had no structural roof – and then fell down their sides to be fastened by cords at the base, giving the entire edifice the appearance of a tent.  For that reason, the Mishkan was often referred to in the text as "Ohel Moed" or the Tent of Meeting (see Shemot 28:43, et al).

 

The Mishkan, the locus in space where God's presence was experienced, was provided with a number of precious vessels, arranged within its area hierarchically, that had both ritual and ceremonial as well as symbolic and spiritual value.  The Aron, for instance, the Ark of the Covenant that alone occupied the most sanctified space of the Holy of Holies, was the repository of the engraved tablets of the Decalogue that Moshe had received at Sinai and symbolically represented God's throne on earth.  In the more outer space of the "Holy," the centrally placed Golden Altar was primarily used for the daily offering of incense, whose fragrant smoke ascending heavenward symbolized the prayers of the people. 

 

Flanking it on either side were the golden Menora and the Table of Showbread.  The former, a seven branched candelabrum heavily ornamented with motifs from the world of trees and flowers, was lit daily with pure olive oil and provided a potent symbol of God's vital role in illuminating the human mind and soul with His wisdom.  The latter, a gilded affair completely and perpetually covered with twelve specially shaped loaves of bread, no doubt signified God's constant involvement in the life of the nation of Israel (i.e. the Twelve Tribes) as Provider of physical nourishment and Sustainer of the body.  As for the outer courtyard, it too was provided with an altar of bronze upon which the animal sacrifices were executed.  The entire edifice was surmounted by a suggestive cloud, a tangible manifestation of God's presence as well as mystery, as recorded at the close of the Mishkan narratives that conclude the Book of Shemot:

 

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God's glory filled the Mishkan.  Moshe was therefore unable to enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested upon it, and God's glory filled the Mishkan.  When the cloud ascended from upon the Mishkan, then the people of Israel would embark upon all of their journeys.  But if the cloud would not ascend, then they would not journey until such a time as it lifted.  Thus, the cloud of God was upon the Mishkan by day, and fire by night, in the view of all of the House of Israel during all of their journeys (40:34-38).

 

 

THE IDEAL JEWISH HOME

 

It is not at all difficult to now recognize the link between the Tent of Meeting and the Tent of Sarah and Rivka.  Both edifices were essentially "homes," the former serving as the abode for the God-man encounter, the latter heroically attempting to emulate it in mundane reality.  Both highlighted the essential role of God in the human toil of securing sustenance, for the former had the Table of the Showbread and in the latter "the dough was blessed."  Both emphasized the involvement of God in providing inspiration, for the former had the perpetually lit Menora, and the latter had the "lamp that illumined from one Shabbat night until the next."  And both, of course, were surmounted by the mysterious cloud, concrete (while simultaneously insubstantial) symbol of God's incorporeal but real presence in the physical world.  In essence, then, the thrust of the Midrash is to suggest that Sarah and Rivka, by virtue of their exemplary conduct and virtuous deeds, their recognition of God's involvement in their lives and their steadfast trust in His salvation, had fashioned "Jewish homes" in the truest sense of the term. 

 

As matriarchal figures, no doubt the efforts and achievements of the two are understood by the Midrash as signifying what ought to characterize ideal homes for their descendents as well.  And so we must ask ourselves in the wake of their example: will our own homes be centers of strife and striving, sources of endless ambitions and ruthless aspirations for the securing of evermore material possessions, in our futile and mistaken belief that wealth confers immortality?  Or will they be productive and positive focal points for the creed of labor's dignity, for the profound recognition that materiality is but a noble means to a more noble end, for the blessed dough that fills the belly without leaving in the mouth an acrid and bitter taste borne of frustration and disappointment? 

 

Will our homes be centers of learning and spiritual growth, places of illumination brought into being by the sincere desire to deepen our understanding of God and His Torah, and focal points for the radiation of the God idea into the surrounding moral darkness that otherwise threatens to engulf the world?  Or will they instead be places of banal and mindless living, mere shells housing otherworldly blue flickers and constant numbing noises that emanate indifferently from featureless screens of coated glass?  In short, will the "Shabbat lamp" light up our homes from one week to the next or will we seek our nirvana elsewhere?

 

 

THE MISHNA IN SHABBAT

 

The stark choice that is introduced by the reading of the Midrash is amplified by an even more stark source, this time from the Mishna in Tractate Shabbat:

 

Women die in childbirth because of three transgressions: for not exercising care concerning the laws of menstruation, the laws of Challa and the kindling of the (Shabbat) lamp (2:6)

 

While this Mishna has aroused much consternation, particularly in the modern age, I believe that it seeks to convey a similar message.  We note immediately that two of our earlier elements of Rivka's tent, the blessed dough and the Shabbat lamp, are paralleled in the Mishna by the "laws of Challa and the kindling of the lamp."  The third element, the hovering cloud, must therefore be related to the laws of menstruation.  How can this be?

 

Social anthropologists make much commotion about the primitive blood taboos, prevalent in many cultures, that they believe lie at the foundation of the Torah's laws of "Nidda."  While it is impossible to dismiss entirely these claims (see for instance the commentary of the Ramban to Bereishit 31:35 and Vayikra 18:19), they represent a very minor dimension of the matter.  Much more significantly, the laws of Nidda impose powerful constraints on intimacy, as if to say that even life's most private moments must be inspired by the presence of God.  In this sense, we may argue that the symbol of the cloud hovering above the matriarchal tent, the tangible expression of God's presence, is paralleled in the Mishna by the laws of Nidda, for both items emphasize the overarching experience of God's involvement in the husband-wife relationship.  In other words, the home that attends to these laws, inspiring intimacy with the recognition of God, transforms what is essentially a powerful and blind biological drive into a vehicle for fostering true and profound communion.

 

It may be instructive to note that while the Mishna in Shabbat clearly assigns the responsibility of these three laws to women, they also plainly devolve upon men.  Anyone who bakes bread, male or female, is obligated to separate the Challa.  A man who dwells alone or else one whose wife is unable, must kindle the Sabbath lamps.  The laws of Nidda, while addressing the monthly reproductive cycle of the woman, are clearly not performed in isolation.  The impact of those laws is primarily felt, especially today in the post-(and pre!) Temple era, in the realm of relationship between the husband and wife.

 

 

DEATH IN CHILDBIRTH

 

But what of the ominous "death in childbirth" that the Mishna imposes upon a woman inattentive to these laws? The relevant Talmudic passage seeks to clarify the relationship between childbirth and these three things, but provides us with only an extrinsic linkage.  "Sharpen the knife while the ox is fallen" goes the ancient adage (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 32a), colorfully highlighting the great danger that, until modern times, heralded childbirth.  In other words, a situation of danger invites heavenly scrutiny of one's deeds, for the Divine decision to save or else to let perish hinges on one's past conduct.  Inattentiveness to the three laws is therefore called to the attention of the Heavenly Court at the moment of great vulnerability that childbirth represents.

 

In light of our earlier analysis, though, there may very well be an additional aspect.  Did the Mishna mean to only suggest a straightforward causal and empirical connection between death in childbirth and the neglect of these three principles?  As all of us know, such an assertion, if taken literally, is tenuous at best.  Or perhaps, was the Mishna indicating a more profound truth, namely that inattentiveness to these three laws, as the DEFINING COMPONENTS OF A HEALTHY AND FUNCTIONAL JEWISH HOME, is destructive to any hope of Jewish continuity?  In other words, if the proverbial Challa is not taken – unbridled physicality for its own base sake taking the place of the hallowed loaves, if the Shabbat lamp is not kindled – ignorance of life's spiritual dimension taking the place of the golden glow of the Menora, and if the husband-wife relationship is but a shallow excuse for egocentric economic gain and selfish sexual gratification, then no proverbial Jewish children can grow up spiritually "well-adjusted" and wholesome in such an environment.  It is as if these children, truly the future of the people of Israel, have been condemned to develop as spiritual orphans (i.e. death of the mother in childbirth), for their home life has been shorn of everything that is precious and meaningful.

 

This then is the meaning of first Sarah and then Rivka's tent, powerful symbols for the underlying values that must shape, characterize and inspire what must not otherwise be left undefined as the comfortable but spiritually amorphous setting of the modern and secular Jewish hearth.  In these uncertain times, with Israel besieged from without by bloodthirsty foes, and from within threatened by indifference and apathy, we would do well to remember our matriarchs' example, for the future of Jewish people depends upon it.

 

Shabbat Shalom