The Matriarchs: Sarah and Rebecca

All the years that Sarah lived, a cloud hung by the entrance of her tent; as soon as she died, the cloud left. But as soon as Rebecca came, that cloud returned. All the years that Sarah lived, the doors were wide open (to welcome all travelers) … a blessing was dispatched to her dough … the lamp would burn from Sabbath eve to the next Sabbath eve … as soon as Rebecca came it (all of the above) returned. As soon as Isaac saw that she did as his mother did … immediately (as the Torah relates): Isaac brought her to the tent. (Bereishis Rabbah 60:16)

I.  Complimentary Function

A Name

“This shall be called woman for from man was she taken.’ (2:23) Woman is called Ishah, because she was fashioned from Ish (man). The Torah gives this as the reason for her name, but it does not tell us why man was called Ish. What is the significance of each of the two names?

Not only man, but all animal life was fashioned from earth. All breathe, eat, sleep, propagate. God’s plan was to give life to a clump of dirt formed from earth, whether the life was human or animal. But human beings have within them a characteristic of another prime element – fire. Fire represents passion and enthusiasm, lust and initiative. It represents the uniquely human traits that give man dominance and enable him to attain wisdom, develop culture and pass them on to his children. The name, Ish, derives from eish ~ the element of fire.

There is a major difference between these two facets of life. Simply to live and vegetate ~ although impossible without God’s gift of life ~ can be managed without Godliness. Animals do it; so do Godless humans.

Only Together

Nowhere is the spirit of God more essential than in the union between man and woman that produces future generations. When His spirit is present from the moment of conception, the future has holiness as an ingredient of its growth from a cell to a finished being whose lustful drives have been tempered by God’s Presence. Man alone cannot bring it; woman alone cannot bring it – only the two of them together can invite holiness to join.

This is implied by the names Ish and Ishah. The Sages teach that man’s name contains the Hebrew letter ~ yud. Woman’s name contains the Hebrew letter ~ he. When a man and woman unite with sincerity and holiness, he contributes his yud and she contributes her heh forming Yah, a Name of God. But if man and woman deny God entry into their lives, he surrenders his yud and she surrenders her he. Remaining is eish – the fire of destruction.

Adam, God’s own handiwork, perceived when the first woman was brought to him that they were to be partners in honoring the fiery instincts within them both. Woman as a creature ultimately formed from the earth needed no particular name – both man and woman are adam. But the function of taming fire and turning it into a Godly force must be carried out jointly with each of the partners taking separate but complementary roles. Adam knew that he needed her as she needed him in order that – together – they could stamp God’s Name on the future of humanity. And so he named her Ishah, assigning to her the second letter of God’s Name.

II.  Sarah’s Temple

Sarah’s home was no ordinary tent. It had extraordinary qualities, miracles, and blessings. These miracles were not of Abraham’s doings ~ they ceased with Sarah’s death.

There is a special significance of these blessings. They paralleled the miracles of the Mishkan in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. (Mishkan: the tabernacle or temporary Sanctuary in which the Divine Presence dwelled.)

Her home, her tent presented the following:

  • A cloud of holiness ~ the cloud represented God’s Own Presence, the same Presence which rested in the Mishkan. Sarah’s open doors symbolized the Temple which was a place of holiness calling out to every Jew to come and draw closer to God through its activity.
  • A blessing in her dough ~ In the Sanctuary of the Temple, loaves of ‘show-bread’ were put into place every Sabbath. Because it was blessed, it never became stale. The blessing in Sarah’s dough was a spiritual one, a blessing that protected it from the elements and helped all who ate it absorb its holiness within themselves.
  • A Sabbath lamp that remained lit all week long ~ the ‘western lamp’ of the Temple Menorah burned longer than all the others. It was the first lit and the last to go out, its flames burning bright until the moment of the next day’s lighting. This symbolized a principal of spiritual growth ~ yesterday’s greatness need not fade away; it should become the starting point for today’s further development. Sarah’s Sabbath candles ushered in a ‘day of contentment and holiness’ ~ God’s precious gift to Israel. Sarah’s Sabbath lamp, like the western lamp of the Menorah, endured and shed a glow that lit the darkness of the week.

The heavenly cloud that hovered over her tent was God’s testimony to what went on within. Because God’s Presence was in Sarah’s tent, on her table, her Menorah, He set His cloud atop her dwelling.

III. Sarah’s Successor

When Eliezer was dispatched to find a suitable mate for Isaac, he set his priority on her character.

The Brisker Rav points out the revealing process of Isaac’s decision to take Rebecca as his wife. Eliezer came back to Canaan with her and told Isaac all that had happened on his trip (24:66): God’s intervention enabled him to make in a matter of hours a round trip that should have taken him five weeks; Eliezer had prayed that God indicate the proper maiden and the choice had fallen upon Rebecca; Bethuel tried to poison him but was himself killed through an angel’s intervention. Miracle after miracle Eliezer related but still Scripture does not say that Isaac married Rebecca.

He took Rebecca into the tent, Sarah’s tent, and behold! ~ she was Sarah! The tent became a Temple again. There was kindness and blessing in the tent. Visitors felt welcomed and satisfied. Holiness came and remained, and the Shechinah was a welcome guest. Only when Isaac saw Rebecca’s deeds and virtues did he take her for his wife (24:67). Then came love and comfort for the loss of his mother.

A Revealing Comparison

Rebecca comes to us as a model of one who looked for no attention or praise for her kindness. Even when she initiated the tactics which resulted in Esau’s loss of the blessings to Jacob (Chapter 27), she did it quickly, gently, without confronting Isaac with a demand that a son as unworthy as Esau should be banished, not blessed.

Our picture of Sarah, at least as it takes shape from a superficial reading of the Torah’s narrative of her life, is quite different. Scripture tells us of her courage and strength. She followed Abraham from Haran to an unknown future, let herself be abducted by Pharaoh and Abimelech because to do otherwise could have caused Abraham’s death. Seeing herself barren, she surrendered her privileged position by giving her maidservant to Abraham as a wife so that he might have an heir. But when Hagar became arrogant she punished her harshly ~ at least in Hagar’s eyes. When Ishmael presented a danger to her Isaac, Sarah banished him to the heat and thirst of the desert though he was too sick to travel. It was a move that Abraham refused to permit until God instructed him to obey Sarah because she was superior to him in prophecy (21:12). So grievous an act was it in Abraham’s judgment, that it is reckoned by the Sages as one of his ten tests, but for Sarah it was not a test, her conscience was not troubled.

So Sarah was strong and decisive ~ but was she kind and generous? Rebecca was kind and generous ~ but was she strong and decisive? Isaac took Rebecca not because she was unlike Sarah but because she was like her. And God bore witness to the fact by showing that Sarah’s temple and Rebecca’s temple were one and the same.   To the casual observer, nothing could be more different than a down featherbed and a mosquito netting. In reality though, they are identical in the sense that each is the correct protection against a particular condition. One mother covers her child gently with the featherbed, the other drapes his cradle with netting; both are doing what must be done then and both are equally concerned and caring.

The underlying substance of Sarah and Rebecca was identical: virtue, kindness, humility, and all the traits that are the prerequisites of obedience to the commandments.

The Midrash comments that just as wool and linen are forbidden in combination, so, too, Sarah understood that Isaac and Ishmael could not remain together in the same family. Each had his mission and Isaac’s mission could not be contaminated by the presence of Ishmael.

Was Sarah indeed lacking mercy? God, Himself testified twice that she was not: He ratified her decision by telling Abraham to obey her, and He showed that gracious, selfless Rebecca was Sarah reborn!

Indeed, Sarah embodied the concept of Ish and Ishah which Adam recognized when the first wife in history was brought to him. Together, the two could harness the fiercest human drives by placing them at the service of God. It was a mission neither could perform alone, Man and woman, husband and wife are separate beings, yet they are one. In unison, by complementing one another, they bring holiness to one another, to their posterity, to the universe.

Rebecca, too, did what had to be done in her particular circumstances. Isaac judged correctly when he saw in Rebecca the image of Sarah.

III. God Alone Chooses

The choice of a Matriarch of Israel is not a random task. She must have human qualities of the highest order, accept the principles which God ordains as the foundation stones of His people, and be chosen by His standards of holiness and dedication. For no less than the Patriarch is she the forebear of the nation, the bearer of the measure of Godliness that, combined with her husband’s, result in the Name of God that is stamped upon their offspring from the instant of conception.

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