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The Search for the Next Matriarch

Chayei Sara, like every parsha of the Torah, contains timely messages applicable to our generation even though it is more than 3000 years since these events in the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs took place. They were recorded for posterity precisely for their enduring relevance. One such example comes from the dialogue Avraham has with Eliezer, his majordomo. Their conversation concerns the assignment given to Eliezer by Avraham, to find a wife for his son, Isaac.

Avraham makes clear to Eliezer that he is not to take a wife for Isaac from the women of Canaan. Rather, he is instructed, “Return to my homeland to my kindred and take a wife for my son, Isaac.”  Avraham informs Eliezer that if the woman chooses not to come back to Canaan, he is then absolved from this mission. The question needs to be asked: what is the difference between the women of Canaan and the women of Avraham’s homeland? Both societies were steeped in idol worship/man-made religion. Why would one be preferred over the other? What advantage did the culture of Avraham’s homeland have over that of Canaan? After all, Avraham rejected that culture and as the Torah describes, God told him to make a complete break with his homeland and family that remained in Ur Kasdim. Moreover, it could be argued that taking a wife from the women of Canaan would go a long way in solidifying Avraham’s descendants’ claim to the land of Canaan.

To get an understanding of Avraham’s directive, we need to know that man-made religions have two general causes. One stems from the overpowering of man by certain emotions and fears. To assuage these feelings a person invents notions of malevolent and benevolent forces at work in the universe. At the same time, he creates in his mind an elaborate system of actions and practices that will prevent or curtail these destructive forces from harming him. He projects independent powers and existence to these forces, deifying and worshipping them. The other cause of idol worship stems from an intellectual misconception. A misstep in thinking leads again to the construction of a false system of reality and all the attendant rituals, practices, and services to man-made deities.

Of these two causes, the one based on our powerful internal emotions is much harder to break. Since our emotions and instincts are part of our inherent makeup, they are always present and exerting their force on our behavior. It is very hard to look objectively at this part of our nature. Even harder is the ability to re-channel these feelings and desires. In fact, we may remain blind to their effect on our behavior our entire life. When talking about human personality our Torah says, “The hidden things (sins) are for Hashem but the revealed (sins) are for us…” The Torah recognizes there may be causes to our personality and behavior we can never change. We cannot change because we cannot recognize their source.

The other cause, a mistaken premise or intellectual error may also remain hidden from us. But there is a better chance or more opportunity for this type of mistake to be corrected. In his situation, we are not necessarily dealing with our internal nature. If someone can show or demonstrate how the worship or practice is based on faulty thinking, there is a better possibility that the appropriate change and adjustment can be made.  A wholesale change in personality is then not necessary to shed the false notion and embrace the true idea. Such a person is seeking the truth. He is just misguided but happy when the mistake is pointed out.

Let me illustrate these two situations from a more recent example. Debate raged from time immemorial concerning the existence of the universe. Was it created or was it eternal? The Torah maintained creation but Aristotle and others held from the eternity of the universe. The modern scientific community as well was divided into two camps, each supported by the scholarship of brilliant scientists. This important debate finally reached a definite conclusion in 1965 with the discovery of the existence of the predicted “radiation background noise.” This “noise,”  found by astrophysicists Wilson and Penzias working for Bell Labs, conclusively demonstrated that the universe was created. It was one of the leading physicists on the “steady state” team, those who held the eternity of the universe, who derisively coined the term “the big bang” to describe the opposition’s “created and expanding universe” theory.

What is important for our purpose is to look at the reaction to the proof for the creation of the universe. All but one of the “steady state,” eternal universe, proponents eventually recognized the error of their approach and joined the “big bang” team. That one lone holdout was Dr. Fred Hoyle, a distinguished professor of physics at Oxford. He contributed much to our understanding of how the universe works. What prevented him from accepting the truth? He staked his entire reputation on the “steady state” explanation of the universe. He had powerful emotions and internal energy flowing to protect his ego. No matter the evidence or argument, he refused to accept the idea that the universe was created. Sadly, he died a broken man.

The society of Canaan was a society steeped in immorality. In their culture, human energy was directed into satisfying and gratifying these emotions and instincts. There was no reasonable expectation that a girl from that culture could ever give up her idol worship and embrace the truth. The culture of Avraham’s homeland, where he was from and where his family still lived, also served idols. His own father even manufactured the idols they worshipped. However, the source of their idol worship stemmed from mistaken intellectual and philosophical premises. In such a society, it might be possible to show someone their mistake in thinking. Once the person would see their mistake a change in philosophy and behavior could take place. A whole new world of reality could open up. Such a person, now liberated from false ideas, could embrace the newly discovered truth.

This understanding of human personality and the motivation for human thought and behavior was behind Avraham’s directive to Eliezer. Undoing an entire personality is not possible. But in a society operating under false intellectual conclusions, it is possible to find people open to true ideas.  Only a woman who could live according to reality would be the right woman to be the wife of the next leader of the nation of Israel.

Such a woman was our matriarch, Rivka. Although raised in a culture steeped in idol worship, her mind was open to the truth. It was not corrupted. Not only does the Torah describe her refined character traits, her midot tovot, but later our Torah shows how she used her insight and intelligence, her brilliance, in a pivotal dispute with her husband, Isaac, to help bring about God’s will to create the Nation of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan