In Parashat Chayei Sarah, our first matriarch, Sarah, dies and we are introduced to our second matriarch, Rebecca.
Sarah’s life was one of complex struggles surrounding her marriage, her parenting and her relationship with God. When we met her, she was already married and had begun journeying to Israel. She was childless and suggested a solution by involving her maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine – to disastrous results.
After she finally gives birth, she is subject to the worst parental nightmare imaginable. The Midrash tells us she is aware that her husband has taken her child to sacrifice him on a mountaintop to please God. She desperately runs to stop it, but is too late. Believing her son is dead, she screams, wails and ultimately breathes her last.
“Chayei Sarah” literally translates as “the lives of Sarah.” She lived many lives and struggled to make sense of them. She was rarely asked to have a say in her life – not unusual for that time in ancient Mesopotamia, as women had little say in major life choices. In fact, we have writings that depict marriage markets in which all eligible women were gathered in the marketplace and auctioned off as brides. There were no exclusions and no protections.
Yet, when we meet Rebecca, we are suddenly introduced to a new concept: consent. Abraham commissioned his servant to find a bride for Isaac. When the servant meets Rebecca and is brought to her family, he outlines the arrangement, so she can return with him and wed Isaac. Gold is exchanged and everything seems locked down. But when it is time to depart, an interesting phrase appears: “Let us call the maiden and ask her.” She must agree of her own free will.
From that time onward, Jewish women must have a voice in their destiny. While Sarah enters the Jewish covenant amid a whirlwind between God and Abraham, Rebecca moves us forward with the concept of choice, with the subtle yet revolutionary words: “Ask the maiden.”