November 20th-21st, 1998
2 Kislev, 5759
"Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from
Paddan Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean, as a wife for himself. Isaac entreated
Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem allowed Himself to be
entreated by him, and his wife Rebecca conceived." (25, 20-21; Artscroll
The first verse quoted above seems to repeat information we already know about Yitzhak's
wife, Rivka: who her father and brother were, the name of her hometown. That's strange:
we've all heard that the Torah (unlike, say, some parsha sheet purveyors) never allows
itself to state what's superfluous.
If we want, we can just say the Torah is encapsulating some basic facts relating to the
parents -- Yitzhak and Rivka -- before taking up the main subject of the whole parsha, the
birth and development of their offspring (toldos), Ya'akov and Esav. Sounds like a
plausible enough possibility ... though whether it could stand up to hours of intense
questioning from the House Judiciary Committee is not certain.
In any case, our Sages have taught us that this modest little verse is, in fact, revealing
to us the great righteousness of our matriarch, Rivka. Daughter of Bethuel the
Aramean, from Paddan Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Paraphrasing the Midrash
Rabbah, Rashi comments: "Has it not already been written that she was the daughter of
Bethuel and the sister of Laban from Padan Aram? Rather, [the Torah states this
information] to tell her praise--that she was the daughter of a wicked person, and the
sister of a wicked person and her place [was one] of wicked people, but she didn't learn
from their actions." [Italics mine]
Now, our tendency in learning Torah is to rush on
blindly to the next idea: "Very nice, she didn't learn from their
wickedness...Veiter! [A yiddish word used frequently in yeshivos, meaning
"further," i.e. Onward! Gidde'up!]" Since the Torah is quite
large, and there's a lot of great sights to see, it's not a bad impulse to want to keep
moving. On the other hand, to more deeply understand Torah ideas--not to mention,
internalize them--requires a more leisurely pace of travel that allows for investigation
... and meditation. As one of my great teachers, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, was
fond of saying, a statement of our Sages needs time to percolate inside of us. (And
he told us that Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, zt'l, one of the premier 20th- century expositors
of the ethical statements of our Sages would not lecture on such a teaching until he had
"lived with it" constantly for a period of time...six months, I believe he
So let's pause, and let this idea percolate. (If you suddenly crave Starbuck's, I
perfectly understand.) Daughter of Bethuel...from Padan Aram, sister of Lavan.
Rivka was completely surrounded by wicked people, yet she didn't learn from their
As the Gur Aryeh--a famous analysis of Rashi's commentary on the Torah, by the Maharal of
Prague -- explains, we might have thought that since Rivkah was a young girl when she left
her parents' house to marry Yitzhak (see the first Rashi on verse 20), she had not yet
attained the intellectual maturity "to learn evil." To disabuse us of just
this notion, the Torah repeats to us the details of her background for the purpose of
teaching us that she had the capacity to be influenced negatively by her surroundings ...
but she wasn't.
He goes on to write that there are three basic reasons a person is drawn after evil
actions like idolatry. First, he may fear a certain individual and, therefore, feel
compelled to follow that person's behavior--Daddy's doing it. On the other hand, he
may be led to an action from the feeling of love he has for the person doing it--Brother's
doing it. Lastly, he may be swayed by the custom of society--Everybody's doing it!
Although Rivkah was subjected to all of these powerful pressures, as the verse
hints to us (she grew up in a home and society of idol worshippers and swindlers), she
Rabbi Levovitz, the great Percolator mentioned above,
wonders: if the Torah wanted to go out of its way to praise Rivkah, couldn't it have found
some other appropriate praise for her? "It would seem, though," he
concludes, "that this suffices, specifically since these three things together
surrounded her--daughter of a wicked person, sister of a wicked person, and a place of
wicked people--and she didn't learn from their actions. This is certainly a
wonder..." (Da'as Torah I, p. 62)
A wonder! How powerful the effects of our surroundings on ourselves. (And how rarely
in our daily lives do we stop to contemplate this fact.) Not just on what we do, of
course, but on everything we think as well. As Maimonidies notes at the start of
Chapter Six of Hilchos Deos (Laws of Moral Dispositions), "It is natural to be
influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one's neighbors and associates, and observe the
customs of one's fellow citizens." (Translation by Twersky, A Maimonidies Reader, p.
59) It is human nature, Rambam is telling us, to be shaped by those around us.
It's not easy--not natural, we should say--to buck the crowd.
Based on this foundation, Rambam goes on in that
chapter to discuss our resulting obligation to associate with people who are righteous and
wise. Since we're swayed by the company we keep, it's a mitzvah to be in the company
of the wise (and not wise guys!) as much as possible. Not to hear their learned
discourses per se, but "to learn from their practices." We must move to
another country if need be, Rambam tells us, to flee wickedness. If that is not
practicable, if all countries do not follow the right way ("as is the case in our
times," he writes!), he should keep to himself and not mix with others. And if
they won't let him do this, but insist that he join in their wickedness, "let him
withdraw to caves, thickets, or deserts..."
These words of the Rambam might strike us as a bit odd. If so, we shouldn't be
surprised. It just goes to prove the point he began with! We have been so
affected by our surroundings, the society in which we live--with its irony and cynicism
and materialism--that righteousness doesn't seem so precious a goal to strive for...nor
wickedness so repulsive a companion to flee from.
Our forefathers were different in this regard. Starting with Avraham, who stood
alone in opposing the wicked behavior and wrong ideas of his contemporaries. The
word Hebrew, Ivri, comes from the word, "across." In relation to Canaan
and Egypt, Abraham came from across the river Euphrates (see Rashi on Bereishis 39, 14).
A deeper meaning of that appellation, however, is pointed out by different
commentators: Abraham stood across from, opposite...the whole world. To oppose
wickedness alone, if need be--that's our heritage as Jews.
There's no greater praise the Torah can say about
Rivkah than this. Daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Padan Aram, sister of Laban the
May we all find the strength to walk in her footsteps.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP). Phone: 912-355-0157;
fax: 912-354-9923; e-mail: Yosef18@aol.com
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DON'T MISS RABBI NOACH ORLOWEK, THIS SUNDAY
NIGHT AT 8PM, AT THE J.E.A., SPEAKING ON "GRATITUDE: KEY TO A HAPPY LIFE."
He was one of my personal teachers in Jerusalem,
and he is a fantastic and inspiring speaker. Also, Tuesday Night, at 7:45, at the J.E.A.,
Judaism and Modern Science continues: "E.T., Apes and Us: Torah View of Evolution and
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