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Bereishit - Chayei Sarah

I’m sure we’ve all come across clickbait headlines like “The 2 most shocking rules the royal family has to keep”. I followed one of these recently (I know, I’m easily distracted) and was entertained to learn rules such as

  • 2 heirs to the throne cannot travel together

  • The Queen’s handbag has its own set of rules. When she places her clutch on the table at dinner, it means it's time to wrap things up. When she swaps her purse from her left hand to her right, it means she'd like to finish up her conversation.

  • There’s a special way to drink tea, to walk and to bow or curtsey

  • The dress code is highly curated

  • Public displays of affection are frowned upon

I could go on. The gist seems to be to create a formal system which preserves the safety and dignity of the royals. Rules prevent them from getting into undignified situations. And if there is an undignified situation (there have been a few) they are quick to cover it up and move on.

I find this an interesting parallel with something that happens in our parasha, which for some time was my favourite line in the whole Tanakh.

The scene is that Avraham’s servant Eliezer is returning from a journey to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzhak. It was a successful journey - he met Rivka, she met his requirements of kindness, beauty and a family connection, and she agreed to follow him to Canaan. So we have a cinematographic film scene of a caravan of camels approaching. On one side, sits Rivka, expectant about meeting her future husband. On the other side of the scene we see Yitzhak. Now the Torah has not mentioned Avraham and Yitzhak speaking since the Akeidah, so we don’t know if or what Avraham has said to his son about this wife project. For all we know it is a complete surprise to Yitzhak.

Let’s see what happens.

וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב

This is understood to be the Biblical source for Mincha - much to learn from the idea of “sicha” as prayer - a conversation with God

וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים׃

Cinematographic - we see from Yitzhak’s eyes, and then from Rivka’s

וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל׃

JPS: Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel

Everett Fox: she got down from the camel

Koren: she descended from the camel.

Why does nobody translate this literally??

When we turn to our commentators, there is even more obfuscating

Rashi: הִשְׁמִיטָה עַצְמָהּ לָאָרֶץ - she let herself slide to the ground

Ibn Ezra: ברצונה - intentionally

Rashbam: she got down from the camel out of modesty because she had been riding like a man

Seforno: הכניעה ראשה בהיותה על הגמל לכבוד יצחק - she bowed her head while she was still on the camel out of respect for Yitzhak (but this contradicts the plain meaning in the following line where she asks the servant who the man ahead is)

What’s going on is a reticence to say that Rivka actually fell off the camel - that would seem to be too crude, human, flawed. What’s going on is a royal family cover up. It’s the moment that Kate’s skirt went all Marilyn Monroe on an RAF visit in 2011 and it felt somehow very un-Royal Family.

But what was behind Rivka’s fall? While Yitzhak doesn’t know who the woman on the camel is, Rivka knows exactly who she’s heading towards. Could she have been straining to see him and leant a bit too far? Was she impressed by this spiritual man in the field? Was she overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment? Did her excitement suddenly turn to fear? Was she literally falling in love? Either way, seeing her fall as a real fall opens up a world of real feeling, emotion and romance.

Perhaps our ancestors, with their own historical lenses, couldn’t countenance one of our imahot having what they say as an undignified moment, or even falling in love, because the modes of the day were composure and arranged matches. But today when we love a good love story, and a tumble from a camel would make an excellent scene in a rom com, and where we appreciate the humanity in those we hold high, this small detail in our text is a truly beautiful one.

And so while I love our mafarshim, our commentators, I’d like to make the argument that sometimes we should give the Pshat a chance. Pshat means the most obvious, surface reading of the text and there has recently been a movement in Tanakh study to focus on this - Tanakh b’gibor enayim - Tanach at eye level.

Without this, we’re in a world of confused Pshat and drash - drash meaning the rabbi’s commentary and meaning-making. I’ll give some examples. Nechama Leibowits famously used to get her students to look through the Tanakh for the story of Avhraham choosing between the golden crown and burning coal. They couldn’t find it because it’s not in the Tanakh, it’s midrash! How many people were taught that Vashti was ugly or had a tail or spots? Midrash again? Or in this week’s sedra, when Lavan runs towards Eliezer, embraces him and blesses God, the mefarashim interpret it as his greed, searching Eliezer’s person for gold and jewels.

All these are fascinating midrashim, and should be learnt, but we should be taught to separate them out. Primary school teachers with pshat and drash mats in the classroom…

And so too with our parasha and Rivka. We should be taught that the pshat is that she fell off the camel. The translators and commentators should trust us with that detail. Because it’s a delicious one which brings our portrait of the young Rivka to life.

Shabbat shalom


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