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Chayei Sarah 5770-2009

“The Willing Bride”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, the wondrous story unfolds of Rebecca’s selection to be the wife of Isaac and, ultimately, the future matriarch of Israel.

Abraham sends his Damascan servant, Eliezer, back to his homeland, Haran, to choose a wife for his very special son, Isaac. Eliezer, searching for a way to identify the proper wife for the spiritual young man, sets a sign for himself. The woman at the well who offers a drink, not only to himself but to his camels as well, will be the one whom G-d has chosen to be Isaac’s mate.

When Eliezer discovers that Rebecca, the woman who gave his camels drink, was actually from Abraham’s family, he goes to her home to negotiate with her father, Bethuel, and brother, Laban, regarding her marriage to Isaac. In recounting the meeting at the well, Eliezer emphasizes that the match was divinely ordained and that Rebecca is unquestionably the right woman for his master’s son. After showering the family with gifts, Eliezer and his entourage eat and drink and spend the night in Bethuel’s home.

The next morning, however, Rebecca’s brother Laban and her mother are reluctant to let her go with the stranger. They say (Genesis 24:55): “Tay’shayv ha’na’ah’rah ee’tah’noo yah’mim oh ah’sor, ah’char tay’laych,” Let the maiden remain with us a year or ten months, and then she will go. Eliezer insists that their departure not be delayed, because G-d Al-mighty has made his journey successful. He pleads with them to allow him to take Rebecca and return to his master.

Certain that Rebecca would not want to leave with a stranger, her brother and mother suggest (Genesis 24:57): “Nik’rah la’na’ah’rah v’nish’ah’lah et pee’hah,” Let us call the maiden and ask her opinion. When Rebecca is asked whether she will go with the man, she quickly responds (Genesis 24:58): “Ay’laych,” I will go!

At Jewish wedding celebrations the world over, a preliminary ceremony is conducted known as the “badekin,” which literally means the veiling of the bride. Ever since Laban deceived Jacob, who intended to marry Rachel but was given Leah instead, it has been customary for Jewish bridegrooms to “inspect” their brides before the actual nuptial bond to make certain that the groom is indeed being wed to the correct woman. The “badekin” ritual is very well known and virtually universally practiced. However, many are unaware that, as a consequence of the exchange between Rebecca and her family, it is also customary to ask the bride whether she willingly wishes to marry the prospective groom. Because of Rebecca’s interchange with her family, Jewish law declares that a (minor) woman may not be married against her will. The bride, in essence, has the right of last refusal.

The Netziv says that the reason that Rebecca was asked whether she would go with this man was because the journey back to Canaan was long and arduous. Being unaccustomed to travel, her family hoped that Rebecca would remain for a while to prepare for the challenging trip.

The May’am Lo’ez suggests that the reason that her brother and mother were trying to delay Rebecca was because Rebecca’s father, Bethuel, who had adamantly opposed the match, died that very night, and they were hopeful that Rebecca would at least remain until the days of mourning had concluded.

Rashi introduces an additional dimension to the episode. Rashi notes that the fact that Rebecca says, “I will go,” rather than simply saying “Yes,” implies “may’atz’me,” on my own, and is understood by the Midrash Rabbah to mean that Rebecca intends to go, even against her family’s wishes.

Going against one’s parents’ wishes is no simple matter for a Jewish child! After all, the laws governing respect for one’s father and mother play a formidable role in Judaism and Jewish life, and are regarded as the central laws ensuring the structure of family and, indeed, of all human society. Children are required to not only honor their parents, but to revere them as well.

“Kavod,” honor, is taken to mean that children have an obligation to provide their parents with food, clothing, shelter and transportation, and to do all of this cheerfully.

“Yirah,” reverence for parents, is interpreted to mean not doing anything that would offend one’s parents or hurt them in any way. Consequently, children are not permitted to occupy the appointed place where their parents stand or sit, they may not contradict their parents or even corroborate their words in their parents’ presence. They are not permitted to insult a parent, show any distress about what their parents had done, or display anger toward them in their presence. Clearly, the obligations of the child toward the parent are rather rigorous.

Nevertheless, the Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 250:25 states that if children (or students) desire to travel to a particular place to study Torah because they believe that they will accomplish more in the new location than in their own hometown, they may do so even over their parents’ objections, since the mitzvah of studying Torah is greater than the precept of honoring father and mother. (This is learned from the patriarch Jacob, who presumably left his own parents to go to the school of Shem and Aver where he engaged in the study of Torah for 14 years.)

The Rama adds that in the instance where a child wishes to marry someone whom the parents find objectionable, the child is likewise not bound to obey the parents. Similarly, a child who wishes to move to the land of Israel need not listen to parents who object to the move.

We see from the Biblical episode of Rebecca, the “willing bride,” and from her single word “Ay’laych“–-I will go, that a critical principle is established, granting a permissive freedom to children that one would hardly expect to find in the highly structured and ritualized religious code of Judaism regarding parent-child relationships.

May you be blessed.