Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Vayishlach sheet and share it with your friends and family.

What Does the Torah Have to Say About Thanksgiving?

With all the tragic events occurring in Israel and elsewhere around the world, it is a time of great anxiety. And yet, with Thanksgiving upon us, we must take a moment to reflect on the meaning of thankfulness. What should we be thankful for? How can we cultivate thankfulness in ourselves? Feeling grateful for all that we have received is not only morally and religiously correct, it also has tremendous benefits. As John Tierney wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, "Cultivating an 'attitude of gratitude' has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners."

The theme of gratitude appears front and center in this week's parasha as well. Yaakov, fearing his impending encounter with Esav, turns to God in prayer. He begins by acknowledging all that God has given him: "I am not worthy of the least of all the kindnesses, and of all the faithfulness which You have shown Your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps" (Breishit, 32:10-11). We understand why Yaakov prays to be saved from Esav, but what is the point of beginning with this expression of gratitude?

The answer can be found in the opening words: "Katonti," "I am not worthy." Yaakov can choose how he will approach God: He can come with a claim, or he can come with a request. He can say, "God, you made a promise to protect me. I've been Your faithful servant, and now you must save me. I deserve it; I am entitled to it." Or, he can say, "God, I am not worthy of all that I have received from You, or of the promise You have made me. But You in Your kindness have chosen to bless me and to make this promise. Although I am undeserving, please continue to bestow your kindness upon me." Yaakov, of course, chooses the second. He chooses to approach God with gratitude rather than entitlement, and his prayers are answered.

There is a theological underpinning to this approach: How can anything we ever do as imperfect, created beings be deserving of God's blessing? How can we ever truly live up to our obligations? And how can we "deserve" anything from God when all that we have - our lives, our food, our clothes, the very air that we breathe - has been given to us by God?

But theological issues aside, there is a key lesson here about gratitude. Gratitude becomes possible when we forgo our sense of entitlement and embrace a sense of unworthiness for all that is good in our lives, not unworthiness in the sense of low self-esteem, which is never good, but as a profound sense of awe: "What did I do to deserve all this?" Gratitude becomes possible when we stop focusing on what we don't have and begin to appreciate how blessed we are for what we do have.

How was Yaakov able to feel this way? Sefat Emet points to the second part of the verse: "for with my staff alone I passed over this Jordan." This event occurred twenty years earlier, but it is still fresh in Yaakov's mind. "It is no small thing," says Sefat Emet, "that a successful person will remember what little he had twenty years prior." By focusing on what we didn't have in the past rather than on what we don't have in the present, or alternatively, on what others don't have that we do, we will truly experience all that we have as a blessing.

Is what we have a blessing from God? If we perceive it to be so, it truly will become so. But how can we cultivate this mode of perception in our lives? Experts suggest developing a number of habits. These might include making gentle reminders to ourselves about what we are grateful for; starting with our senses - experiencing and savoring the smells, tastes, and sounds of the world; or keeping a gratitude journal to record the things that happen every day for which we are grateful, even if very briefly.

Interestingly, all of these are embedded in our religious practice. Sefat Emet notes that our daily recollection of the Exodus from Egypt should serve as a constant reminder of our own Exodus moments, those times in our lives when we too started "just with a staff," when we started with nothing in Lavan's house and emerged into a better place. And the Shmoneh Esrei that follows this recitation is nothing if not an acknowledgement of all that God has given and continues to give us. Throughout the day we also give ourselves gentle reminders when we stop to appreciate what we are eating, smelling, or seeing. We make blessings before we eat; we make blessings before we smell; we make blessings when we see beautiful things.

Of course, as we know, it doesn't really work that way. We have over-halakhicized these acts, giving so much attention to all the technical details of saying Shema, of prayer, and of blessings that the only values we inculcate from them are obedience and the importance of following the rules. If we can add God back into these acts we can imbue them with religious significance and make them into moments of katonti. They daily acts will become moments in which all we have in the world, all we are in the world, is transformed into a gift, a blessing.

But Yaakov's gratitude to God is only half the story. He was able to say katonti to God, to acknowledge his own shortcomings, his dependency, and even his mortal fear of Esav, but Yaakov was not able to say such things to anyone else. Never having received his father's full love or attention, and having been driven away from his home at an early age, Yaakov was a loner. He always had to do everything, and he would do it alone. Yaakov never learned to reach out to others for help. Sure, he called Rachel and Leah to the field, but he didn't genuinely ask for their counsel. He simply needed them to agree to a decision that he had already made.

Yaakov never let anyone see his vulnerabilities. He cloaked himself in Esav's clothes - the clothes of the strong, independent, fearless hunter - so that no one could see him underneath, the not always strong, not always confident herder of sheep. Consider his unfeeling response to Rachel when she complains to him about her barrenness: "Am I in God's stead, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?"  (Breishit, 30:2). The Rabbis were rightfully shocked: "Is this how you respond to those in distress?!" (Breishit Rabbah). But what made him respond this way? It was the challenge he found in being present for another person who was feeling and expressing her vulnerability. He could not expose this part of himself to others, so he could not relate when others opened themselves to him in this way. "You have to be strong. If you have any issues, talk to God like I do. Don't turn to others for help."

To project such strength is great when everything works out like it does in the beginning of our parasha; Yaakov's strategy - his actions and no one else's - save them from Esav. But what about the times when he can't handle it all himself? At those times, he is unable to turn to others, and he is paralyzed. Consider. Yaakov's daughter Dina is raped by Shechem, and he does nothing. He hears, and he is silent. He waits for his sons to return, not to consult with them, but because he is paralyzed. When they take over tragedy ensues, and all Yaakov can do is lash out. Where was his voice earlier, when it was needed?

Reuven sleeps with Bilhah after Rachel dies. What does the verse say? "And Israel heard." And then? Nothing. Yaakov is not able to handle this alone. Does he turn to anyone for help? No. He remains in silent paralysis. Yosef is presumed dead, and Yaakov's whole family attempts to console him. But they have nothing to offer him; he is committed to being alone in his suffering. Better to suffer alone than to let people see you in weakness, to let people see that you need them.

This was Yaakov. Va'yivater Yaakov livado. At the end of the day, with all his wives, children, and sheep, he is left alone. He has chosen to be alone. He must be strong. He must do it all himself. Perhaps this was the lesson of the struggle with the mysterious man and the wounding of the sciatic nerve. You can't overcome every struggle alone, Yaakov is being told. You have shortcomings as we all do. You, too, have your Achilles heel, your gid ha'nashe. If you can acknowledge when you need help and can turn to others when you need them, if you can allow your limp to show and can let it be a part of you, then you can truly become complete. You will not have to be Yaakov in Esav's clothing. You can be Yisrael.

We must all work to learn the lesson of katonti, to accept that we are not expected to do everything on our own. We must not only accept gifts from God, we must also allow ourselves to accept gifts from others, to ask others for help. Doing so is not a sign of weakness but a sign of maturity. It will allow us to succeed. Asking for and receiving help from others can turn a culture of competition into a culture of collaboration. If we can do this, we will live each day in a state of gratitude for what God has given us, and for what we receive every day from others in our lives: our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, and our coworkers. If we can do this, we will turn our lives into a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Vayeitzei sheet and share it with your friends and family.

A Marriage of Equals?

In the Torah story of Avraham's servant and his interaction with Rivka, her brother, and her mother, we saw that society in Padan Aram had an unusual family structure. As a matrilineal society, households were comprised of the children of the same mother, and the head of the household was the mother's oldest brother, perhaps at times working in conjunction with the matriarch. We encounter these differing societal realities again in this week's parasha when Yaakov flees to Padan Aram to escape Esav and to seek a wife.

When Yaakov first encounters Rachel, her father Lavan is the head of the family. While this may suggest that society in Padan Aram is now working within the normal patriarchal configuration, this is not necessarily the case. Let us not forget that Lavan was the head of the family at the time that Rivka was living there, and may have remained so now. It is also possible that Lavan's wife had died and had no older brothers, thus leaving him as head of the household (cf. Rashi, 29:12 and 30:27).

The first evidence in our parasha that points to the continued existence of the matrilineal structure is the repeated reference to Lavan as Yaakov's mother's brother and, conversely, to Yaakov as Lavan's sister's son. This is repeated three times in one verse (29:10) and five to six times more in the three following, and there are earlier, similar references in 28:2 and 28:5. Consider what this means in a matrilineal society: as his sister, Rivka is considered part of the family of which Lavan is the head. Her children, then, are ultimately part of his family. Yaakov is thus a quasi-son to Lavan. Hence Lavan's declaration, "Behold you are my flesh and bones," and more significantly his assertion when he catches up with a fleeing Yaakov that "the daughters are my daughters and the sons are my sons and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine" (31:43). This claim seems totally baseless until we realize that, from the matrilineal perspective, Yaakov was a member of his household, and thus Yaakov's children and his wealth all belonged, ultimately, to Lavan.

It is also worth noting the frequent use of the word "brother" in reference to Lavan's relationship with Yaakov, Lavan's family members, and Yaakov's family members (see 29:12, 15 and 31:23, 25, 32, 37, 46, 54). This is another indicator that the family was organized more laterally than vertically, that is, through the brother rather than the father.

This brings us to a deeper understanding of the events surrounding Yaakov's decision to return to his ancestral home. When he realizes that it is time to leave, he calls Rachel and Leah out to the field to solicit their opinion (31:4). This is unusual in itself. While Avraham listened to Sarah and Yitzchak listened to Rivkah when they spoke up, this is our first example of a husband soliciting his wife's (or wives') opinion. Not surprisingly, the only time prior to this when a woman is asked her opinion is when Rivkah is asked if she would agree to go with Avraham's servant.  It is here, in Padan Aram, that women have a say. More than that, part of Yaakov's challenge in extracting himself is that in Padan Aram he is not the head of the household. He is part of his wives', and therefore also Lavan's, household and cannot leave without their permission.

Rachel and Leah's response to Yaakov is, on the face of it, quite puzzling:

And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, "Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father's house? Are we not counted of him strangers for he has sold us, and has quite devoured also our money?" (31:14-15).

Rachel and Leah are outraged that Lavan has made it clear that they will be denied a portion of his estate. But why is this surprising? It was not until hundreds of years later, when the daughters of Tzlafchad complained to Moshe, that daughters were considered to be heirs to their father's estate, and then only in the absence of sons. Clearly things were different in Padan Aram. Daughters inherited as a rule, and Rachel and Leah are outraged that they will be robbed of what is rightfully theirs.

They are similarly outraged that Lavan has sold them, which obviously refers to Lavan having married them off in exchange for fourteen years of labor from Yaakov. They are offended that they have been treated as mere property, as chattel to be sold. But we may again ask why this is so unusual. In many places the Torah refers to a mohar given to the father of the bride by a groom as a means of effecting a marriage (see Shemot 22:15-16). This was a large sum of money (fifty shekalim according to Devarim, 22:29) and is understood by many scholars as a bride price, that is, a purchase price paid to the father. Assuming this is the correct meaning of the institution of mohar and that it was the norm, why are Rachel and Leah so offended by having been treated this way?

The answer again lies in the different nature of their society. While this might very well be the practice in patriarchal societies, where women did not have a say and could at times be treated like property, this was not the case in Padan Aram. Remember that Rivkah was asked her opinion about whether she wanted to marry Yitzchak, and that, while Avraham's servant did give gifts to Rivkah's mother and brother, he did not give them a bride price. Thus, to ask for and receive a bride price was decidedly against the norms of this society, and Rachel and Leah rightly objected to this treatment.

This then brings us to the last part of their statement. What did they mean when they said that Lavan had devoured their money? How is this different than stating that he had sold them? The answer lies in understanding that the mohar could function in two ways. In some societies it was undoubtedly a bride price whereas in others it may have functioned as a proto-ketuvah, money held for the sake of the wife, money on which she could live in the event that her husband died or divorced her. In fact, Rashi understands this to be the general meaning of mohar in the Torah (Shemot, 22:15), and although that is debatable (Ramban, ad. loc.), it certainly served for the Rabbis as a model for the Rabbinic ketuvah (whose value was set at 200 zuz, the equivalent of the Biblical 50 shekalim). In fact, the Yerushalmi (Ketuvot, 8:11) explains that the ketuvah was originally given up front to the father to hold onto, in escrow, for the bride, and only at a later stage did it become an outstanding debt of the husband to the wife.

It is possible, then, that the work that Yaakov did for Lavan was not seen initially by Rachel and Leah as representing their purchase. Perhaps it was a proto-ketuvah mohar; perhaps it would be banked for them for their future benefit. What Lavan had done with the money made it clear that this was not the case: he used it for himself! If that's what he did, then it is clear that this was not ketuvah money but rather a purchase price. In fact, the JPS translation phrases it exactly this way: "... that he has sold us and used up our purchase price." We know that he has sold us because he pocketed the money.

This explanation also clarifies the meaning of the word nachriyot, usually translated as "strangers." The word nachri, however, has another meaning: "foreigner." What they are saying is clear: Our father, Lavan, is treating us like foreigners, like we are from a different country, from a society which is patriarchal, from a society in which we have no rights. This is evident from the fact that he has sold us, the type of thing done to daughters in a patriarchal society. Given that, he will likewise disinherit us, again applying to us the rules that govern women in a foreign, patriarchal society.

If this is how things stand, Rachel and Leah are saying to Yaakov, then the wealth that you have earned is yours, and you are free to return to your land. You and your property are not, in this patriarchal figuring, a part of Lavan's household. And as for us, if we are being treated as members of a patriarchal society anyway, then there is nothing keeping us here; we might as well go with you to the land of Canaan."

So begins Yaakov's return to Canaan. And while he was returning to a very different society than that of Padan Aram, an interesting hybridization was beginning. For the exact rights that Rachel and Leah felt robbed of-the right to inherit, the right to a ketuvah, and the right to participate in marriage instead of being sold into it-would ultimately become a part of the halakhic system, a part of our mesorah, a mesoret avot and a mesoret imahot, a tradition of our fathers and a tradition of our mothers.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Toldot sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Maintaining Stability or Effecting Change?

Finally, it looks like Yitzchak's story will be the major theme of this week's parasha. Until now, Yitzchak has only played a part in other people's stories: Avraham offering him up at the akeida and the servant finding him a fit wife. It is now Yitzchak's turn to write his own story...

Or so it would seem. The first verse of Parashat Toldot tells us what his story actually is: "V'ela toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzchak," "These are the generations [or stories] of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham sired Yitzchak." The story of Yitzchak is that he is Avraham's son; he will live his life as a continuation of his father's. He prays to God for a son just as Avraham had. Like Avraham, he goes into a foreign land as a result of famine, not Egypt as God prevented this, but the land of the Plishtim. He tells the people of the land that his wife is his sister, and as it did with Avraham, trouble ensues when she is taken by the local ruler. He quarrels with the Plishtim over ownership of wells, and he makes a covenant with Avimelekh as Avraham did before him. He also spends a lot of time re-digging Avraham's wells. And then....that's it. His story is over, and we move on to the story of Yaakov and Esav.

There is little that is new or innovative in Yitzchak's life. He chose not to set out on his own but to continue in the way of Avraham. It is easy to dismiss such a life as mundane and meaningless, but in fact, without Yitzchak we would not have survived. Yitzchak took all of Avraham's creativity, all of Avraham's innovations and vision, and ensured its continuity. Avraham was the creator, the founder, the charismatic leader; Yitzchak was the one who took that charisma and creativity and institutionalized it.

Avraham was chesed, bursting out of bounds and overflowing with ideas and energy. Yitzchak was din, the one with boundaries, with limits. He had rules, laws, and a fixed way of doing things. Yitzchak could not go out of Canaan; he could not explore new vistas. He had to stay in his father's land and invest all of his energies into building on the foundations that had already been laid, re-digging the wells to ensure that the water would keep flowing.

If another Avraham had followed the first there would have been no progress. All the amazing ideas, visions, and goals of Avraham would have been forgotten in the excitement and passion of his successor. Re-digging the wells, doing the hard day-to-day work necessary to sustain the vision one has inherited and bring it into the next generation, can often be unexciting and thankless. Such was Yitzchak's task. But had it not been for him, all of Avraham's contributions would have been lost.

As a people, we have had a few Avrahams: Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Ari, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rav Kook, to name a few. But had Yitzchaks not followed them - taking their ideas and programs and turning them into reality, committing to the day-to-day effort needed to bring their ideas into the next generation - their legacies would have been lost to us. While it is exciting to be an Avraham, we have only survived as a people because of our Yitzchaks. Our Yitzchaks have not only kept the innovations of our Avrahams alive, they have preserved for us our mesorah, our tradition, and our way of life.

Yitzchaks are the backbone of our people. They are those countless mothers and fathers who have sacrificed everything so their children would have a Jewish education and a Jewish home. They are the ones who learned Torah every day not in hopes of becoming great scholars, but because it was the lifeblood of the Jewish people. They are the ones who toiled to provide for their families, enduring hardship to keep the mitzvot, refusing to give up or compromise their Jewish identity no matter the cost. They are the ones who, day-to-day, with or without hardship, have lived and continue to live a committed life of Torah and mitzvot, keeping the core of our tradition alive for themselves and passing it on to the next generation. They are the ones who continuously re-dig the wells to keep the water flowing.

We all need to be more thankful for the Yitzchaks in our lives, and to recognize the profound value of our own work as Yitzchaks, the things we do daily to keep the Torah alive for ourselves, our families, and our communities. And we need to appreciate those who are truly moser nefesh for the Jewish community, ensuring that it will continue to survive from one generation to the next.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that there can be a danger in being too much of a Yitzchak. One who is only a Yitzchak repeats and entrenches the practices of the past and may thus carry on his predecessor's mistakes, or perhaps not even mistakes per se, but strategies that once made sense and are counterproductive in the present.

We find this with Yitzchak, for while he repeated Avraham's successes, he also repeated his missteps. Like Avraham, Yitzchak says that his wife Rivkah is his sister, and once again disaster is only narrowly averted. For Yitzchak, repeating Avraham's actions seems almost like a reflex; he acts without stopping to learn from the past. If he had done so, he could have concluded that such deception was never a good course of action, and he could have seen that, as opposed to Pharaoh, it was certainly not necessary in dealing with Avimelekh.

Today we are all Yitzchaks, coming as we do thousands of years after those who laid and built upon the foundation of Judaism. We must do all that we can to ensure that the structure remains strong and lasts for all future generations. We must do all that we can to ensure that we and our children uphold the commitments and ideals of our forbearers each and every day and in all that we do. But we must also ask ourselves if there have been mistakes in the past, mistakes that we can learn from and correct in the present. Have there been adaptive strategies that may have made sense in the past but are counterproductive now? Are we truly grappling with the challenges of the present and assessing matters as they are, not just thinking about and dealing with issues in a manner to which we have been habituated? Only when we combine the best of Avraham and the best of Yitzchak will we truly be able to live up to our mission of holding fast to our tradition and bringing it forward thoughtfully and with integrity to deal with the challenges of the present.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Chaye Sarah sheet and share it with your friends and family.

This column, originally published in 2014, speaks directly to issues that have arisen this week regarding the right of women to serve in positions of religious leadership. As such, we feel it appropriate to rerun it now as part of the ongoing dialogue on this critical subject.

Was Rivka a (Gasp!) Feminist?

When Avraham charges his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak, the servant asks a strange question: "Perhaps the woman will not desire to follow me to this land. Should I return your son to the land which you came from?" (Breishit, 24:5). The servant's concern that the woman might resist is unexpected. Laws appearing later in the Torah make it clear that a father controls and speaks for his daughter, but here, the father and his possible refusal to give his daughter is not an issue. The possibility that Yitzchak will be asked to go live with his wife is also considered. This is quite strange, as normally the woman would have been taken into the husband's home. Certainly there must have been exceptions, but the more natural question would have been: "If she refuses, can I then find a wife from somewhere else?" It seems that Avraham's servant knew something about this particular society that shaped his concerns, focused as they were on how the woman would act and what she would demand.

Questions of the place of women in Aram society come up again when the servant arrives there and interacts with Rivka and her family. After Rivka passes his test by offering water for him and his camels, the servant asks her, "Whose daughter are you?" She responds, "I am the daughter of Betuel, who is the son of Milkah, whom she bore to Nachor." This manner of familial identification is a departure from the norm. A classic example of identification by father can be found at the beginning of next week's parasha: "These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham begat Yitzchak" (25:19). Following this, Rivka's answer would have been, "I am the daughter of Betuel, the son of Nachor." What is Milkah's name doing here?

Milkah actually showed up at the end of last week's parasha as well. "After these things it was told to Avraham saying, behold Milkah has given birth to Nachor your brother" (22:20). Notice again the unusual focus on the mother. It seems that the family structure is different in Aram Naharaim. This society is not a patriarchy, where a child is identified through his or her father and genealogies come in the form of father-son, father-son. Aram Naharaim seems to be a matriarchy, a society in which the family structure is defined by the mother. (I owe this insight to Nancy Jay's book, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity.)

A matriarchal society is not necessarily one in which mothers hold political power. In fact, there is doubt as to whether a society has ever existed in which women are the holders of political power. Rather, a matriarchal society is one in which family lines are defined by matrilineal descent, one in which women do, as a result, have more rights and a greater voice. The benefit of this structure is obvious: In such societies, the question of the identity of a person's father - which can always be in doubt - was nullified. It was the identity of the mother that mattered, and this was always known. The head of the household would not be the (presumed) father but the mother's brother or her oldest son. Thus, while a man was at the head, the matriarchal structure removed the anxiety around paternity that existed in patriarchal societies. Consider Rashi's comment on the verse, "Avraham begat Yitzchak": "Since the mockers of the generation were saying that Sarah had been impregnated by Avimelekh....God formed Yitzchak's facial appearance to be similar to Avraham's, so that all could testify that Avraham had sired Yitzchak" (25:19).

We can now understand why Rivka identifies herself as the granddaughter of Milkah. However, when the servant repeats the story, he reframes Rivka's answer in his own cultural norms: "And she said, 'I am the daughter of Betuel the son of Nachor, whom Milkah bore to him'" (24:47). While Rivka said that Betuel was the "son of Milkah," in the servant's version he is the "son of Nachor," just as he would be described in a patriarchal society.

Similarly, the servant asks Rivka, "Does your father's house have a place for us to stay?" (24:24). What is Rivka's response? "And she said to him, 'We have much straw and fodder, and also a place to sleep'" (24:25). For Rivka, there was no "father's house"; in her society the father was simply not in the picture. Thus, when Rivka leaves the servant we read, "And the young woman ran and she told her mother's household according to these events" (24:28). This is perhaps the most revealing verse of all. Rashi notes how unusual it is to refer to a "mother's household" and resolves this problem by interpreting the phrase to mean a physical house or room that a mother had to herself, saying that Rivka ran to such a place to confide these events to her mother. There is no question, however, that the simple sense of the verse is that it was her mother's household; the mother, not the father, was at the head of, or defined, the household.

In fact, Rivka's father, Betuel, is quite invisible in this entire episode. It is not Betuel who greets the servant but Lavan, Rivka's brother. And when the servant completes his story, we read that "Lavan and Betuel responded, 'From God has this matter come!'" (24:50). Why is Lavan, the brother, mentioned before Betuel, the father? In this society, the brother and mother head the family, not the father. And thus, the servant gives gifts not to the father, but to Rivka's "brother and mother" (24:53).

It thus comes as no surprise that the father is nowhere to be found when the final decision is made: "And her brother and her mother said, 'Let the lass stay with us a year or ten months" (24:55). Rashi, assuming the norms of a patriarchal society, asks, "And where was Betuel?" His answer: "Betuel wanted to refuse to give Rivka and an angel came and smote him dead." As we have seen, this question disappears once we realize that we are dealing with a matriarchal society. This is also why Lavan and Rivka's mother send Rivka away and bless her, referring to her as "sister" and not daughter (24:59-60). With Lavan as the head of the family, Rivka is the family's sister, not its daughter.

Returning now to the beginning of the parasha, we can understand why Avraham's servant was concerned that the woman would stay put and Yitzchak would be asked to relocate, and why he was concerned about what the woman, and not her father, would say. For in matriarchal societies, the husband would move into the woman's house and women had a voice regarding their fate. And, lo and behold, we find that unlike cases in which a father marries off his daughter unilaterally, here, when the critical moment comes, the final decision is given to Rivka. "And they said: Let us call the lass, and ask for her answer" (24:57). In fact, this is a value that finds its way into halakha. It is from this that the Sages learn that a father is forbidden to marry off his underage daughter, that he must wait until she is an adult and can choose her own husband (Rashi and Nachalat Yaakov, Breishit, 24:57 and Kiddushin 41a).

Perhaps this helps explain why Avraham was so insistent on the servant going to Aram. Maybe Avraham wanted to make sure that Yitzchak's wife would be a woman who had a voice of her own. Avraham had learned this lesson well: "Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice" (21:12). Sarah, also from Aram, did what was necessary to ensure the survival of her family. And for this family, this new religion, to succeed, it would require not just strong men, but strong women as well. It would require women like Sarah and Rivka. For as we will read in next week's parasha, it was Rivka who, using her strength and her voice and finding a way to operate in a patriarchal society, followed in Sarah's ways and acted to ensure the continuity of the Jewish family.

It is unhealthy to have only men in positions of power. We need to learn to follow Avraham's example, to seek out strong women, to seek out women's voices, to be led collaboratively by men and women working to ensure our survival as a people who will sanctify God's name in the world.

Shabbat Shalom!