Chayei Sara 5778
Rabbi Englander's Sermons

Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sara 5778

When it comes to the narratives of how our patriarchs and matriarchs met and married each other, we have only two of three stories to go on. Why? Because when we first meet Abram and Sarai, they are already married. What drew them together, whether it was their own free will or arranged, whether it was a romantic or as was common at the time an arrangement between their families, or both or maybe neither, is lost to us. But in the stories of Rebecca and Isaaac, and Leah and Rachel and Jacob, we have some details which to me include one of the saddest verses in the Book of Genesis and another verse which is surely one of the most empowering.

Starting with the second and in an account you no doubt remember, Jacob, of course, wanted to marry Rachel and his future father in law swapped her out for her older sister Leah. Some say this was a kind of ‘just desserts’ for Jacob, who had already done some deceiving of others, but most do not excuse Laban’s trickery for any reason. The verse that is so searing is what is reported when Jacob wakes up next to Leah: “When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me!” It speaks to Jacob’s anger, the whole story smacks of being insulting to Leah. The subtext is that her father thought that without this act of deception, no one would have married her, and how she felt about all of this is unaccounted for except that there is clear strain between her and Jacob going forward. And although Jacob can’t be blamed for the event, it is, and he realizes it is, an assault on his independent choice and on his body too – he chose Rachel and there was Leah.

There is a strong contrast between that narrative and one we read in our Parasha today about the events leading to the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. You recall the basic background. Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer makes kindness and generosity a precondition for the one who will be chosen. Rebecca meets these criteria, and an arrangement is made with Laban to bring Rebecca back to Isaac. Then Laban suggests that Rebecca stay at home for 10 more days but Eliezer objects, saying he does not want to keep Abraham waiting any longer. And here is the verse I think represents something approaching a lynchpin of the values that we are still striving to uphold: “They called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will.”

Now it is important note that the arrangement for Rebecca to marry Isaac had already been made, but even Rashi looks at this inquiry as representing the idea that compelled marriages are to be avoided. The law allows for a father to marry off even a young daughter – but using this verse and other textual interpretations, Judaism often found itself respecting the authority of a woman to make her own decision regarding marriage more so than in other places. And to be fair as well, we often mirrored what was going on in the societies within which we lived, and pre-modern versions of being “progressive” on this issue were still decidedly less empowering than we might have liked to see, or what we imagine for ourselves and for our children.

Yet, there is a big difference between having to build into a tradition something that was not inherently a part of it (egalitarianism comes to mind) and affirming or building on a values-laden practice that is stated explicitly. In asking Rebecca if she would go with this man, Rashi says that this shows or proves that no one should be married without their consent. This understanding is reflected in the Talmud, which in part teaches that “It is forbidden to force marriage on anyone. According to Kidushin 41, a father may not make use of the right to marry off his daughter, the minor, unless she is old enough to understand the implication of giving her own consent, by saying: “I want to marry so and so.”

And while the law allows for these arranged child marriages, Maimonides says it is to be avoided. Tosafot say that it only happened during times when economically it was advantageous to marry off young girls due to the uncertainty of Diaspora living – if a dowry could be found now, and might not be found later, then it was deemed best for the girl to arrange such a marriage, but it was considered thankfully unethical – and hopefully unimaginable – for a young girl to be touched until she was of age, even to the man to whom she was betrothed. It would be nice to think that such a standard was always adhered to.

I’m not sure I would have focused on this part of the text had it not been for that phrase, that a woman should not be married unless she can say “I want to marry so and so.” She had to be able to say it. Like Rebecca she had to have the opportunity to respond to the question “do you want to go with this man” with here affirmation. We are facing a torrent of news of inappropriate behavior of powerful men toward women. It is difficult to read, both because of what has happened and because there was previously no outlet for women to report these abuses, these violations, without fear of them going unaddressed, or worse, for these same women being labelled as troublemakers who would be fired, or not put up for a promotion, or otherwise intimidated. It was sickening in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein downfall that it came out that ex-Mossad agents were hired to compel some of his potential accusers not to report what had happened to them.

And it will sometimes be difficult to separate out what was a crime and what was distasteful and inappropriate, how to process competing and conflicting claims, and what it means to hold an offender to account. But it is a better world when men will know that it is more likely than not that their behavior will come to light. One would think that this knowledge will cause a significant decline over time, but the behavior is so ingrained in some parts of our society, and unfortunately in many parts of the world, that it will take much more than a few newspaper articles or even court cases to truly turn the tide. The capacity and commitment to teach our young men and women to talk about what they would like to do with each other’s bodies before they become physically involved and connected is a pretty good place to start. Conversation and consent, along the lines of Rebecca in our parasha, cannot fix what has already happened, but can go a long way toward preventing future stories of harassment and abuse.

I’m involved as you know with AJWS and I’m continually proud of their work, which includes their leadership in an international consortium of “civil society organizations” on an initiative called “Girls Not Brides” which you can Google and find out much more about the sad topic and the work being done to end it. (including this line: And I’m glad to know that the one of the foundational texts that is still referenced when it comes to declaring that Judaism has for a long time affirmed that women have a say when it comes to the way their lives unfold appears right here in our Parasha. Our track record is not perfect when it comes to establishing the trajectory that will result in everyone’s bodies, humanity, dignity, and potential being affirmed every moment of every day, but that is our goal and we will not stop insisting that it is a goal the rest of the world should share in common until it is achieved.