FOUR ARE THE MOTHERS
Rabbi David Walk
These past couple of weeks I've been writing about the Patriarchs. I can't in full conscience do Ya'akov until next week, because he's not born until then. So, it's appropriate this week to say something about the Matriarchs, because in this week's parsha we have the changing of the guard from Sarah to Rivka and the traditional yahrzeit of Rachel (11 Marcheshvan) was just a few days ago. Before I try to analyze their role, I must say how important it is to have these marvelous women in our tradition, because our daughters need role models as much as our sons do. Our Tanach thankfully has strong female characters for us to recognize the contributions of women to our nation's destiny. When preparing for Sukkot I always suggest having Ushpizot (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth and Esther), along with the traditional Ushpizim. So, it's crucially important for our people to understand these great personalities, and endeavor to emulate them in our own families and lives.
These women are initially seen as wives, and even though that's very important it's not enough to fully understand either the totality of their roles or of themselves. Marriage in Judaism is, of course, extremely important. We have many proverbs about marriage, but I'd like to quote two: "He who has found a wife has found happiness" (Proverbs 18:22). Closer to home, we recently read, "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him" (Genesis 2:18). We believe that it's only in the marriage setting that individuals become whole humans. Not that there aren't marvelous people functioning well as singles, but the ideal and the norm is as couples. Even as couples, we have two visions of the phenomenon. There is the biological model in which the main purpose of the union is to propagate the family and the race. As humanity passes the seven billion mark we may want to back off a little from that one. But Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1994) discusses at length another aspect of marriage. He refers to it as covenantal marriage. This describes a much more profound relationship in which the two partners join together for a purpose greater than just reproduction. Perhaps this is why three of the Matriarchs were infertile, to demonstrate that there was more to their relationships than biology.
So, these women were more than just a source for DNA for the nascent nation. They were partners in the enterprise. It's interesting that in our times we've seen such marvelous women. Two of the giants of the previous generation were the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) and Rabbi Soloveitchik. They both had wives who famously contributed immensely to their missions in life. Mrs. Tonya Lewitt Soloveitchik (1904-1967) had a doctorate in Education from
The Rav in a number of essays wrote about the differing roles of men and women in marriage, but he always stressed that these are typological categories. It would be fine in any specific case for the roles to be fulfilled by either spouse. Having said that, the Rav explained the particular roles traditionally assigned to parents. The Rav's view was that "the teaching and training of the child involves a double task, intellectual and experiential," and went on to state that "the typological father bears responsibility for the former, the mother for the latter." In short, generally the father is in charge of IQ and the mother is in charge of EQ.
Our Matriarchs taught us, perhaps, the most important lesson of being a help mate (ezer k'negdo). That idea is that the best partner furthers the enterprise through honesty, not through sycophancy or flattery. These women were not afraid to speak their minds and push the agenda which they saw was best for the future of the Jewish people. It can't have been easy for Sarah to demand that Yishmael be banished, and Avraham didn't initially take it so well. It actually took Divine intervention for him to accept this harsh decision. We take God's instruction to heed Sarah very seriously. She has a voice. Rivka took a stronger stance by convincing Ya'akov to defy Yitzchak. Most commentaries understand Yitzchak's statement 'indeed he shall remain blessed (Genesis 27:33)' as an acceptance of the initiative of Rivka and Ya'akov. Difficult challenges from the wives end up being accepted by the husbands, because there is an understanding of the nature of the partnership. These women pull their weight in ways which were unusual for that era, and must be continued in our own.
No one would have the chutzpah to deny the place of a strong mother in the Jewish family and community. I'm sadly disappointed when that honor is not extended to women in general. Yitzchak understood this reality. He clearly saw Rivka as a replacement for the strong role of his mother in his life (Genesis 24:67). This week's celebration of the life of Sarah should remind us of the crucial role of women in our nation's past. Let's work to make sure that we utilize their talents for our people's present and future.
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