In our mainstream society, people often find their own partners and parents may be the last, not the first, to know. In ancient times, the task of finding a bride fell to the father and the children may have been the last to know. Such is the case with Abraham and Isaac as recounted in this week's Torah portion – Hayyei Sarah.
The wife that Abraham's servant finds for Isaac must be of good character and the servant even sees to it that she is picked or at least "certified" by God:
And he (Abraham's servant, probably Eliezer) said, "O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water. Let the maiden to whom I say 'Please lower your jar that I may drink' and who replies 'Drink and I will also water your camels' – let her be the one whom you have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master." (24:12)
Rebecca is the chosen bride and seems eager to fulfill this role. It must be noted that Rebecca is the very opposite of passive. She takes it upon herself to fulfill the obligations of hospitality far beyond what is required:
When she had let him drink his fill, she said, 'I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.' (24:19)
Rebecca then invites the stranger to lodge with her family. She does not wait to consult her father or her brother:
There is plenty of straw and feed at home, and also room to spend the night. (24:25)
In what seems to be an unusual gesture, she is asked her opinion about the proposed marriage and is the one who makes the final decision to go:
And they said, 'Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.' They called Rebecca and said to her, 'Will you go with this man?' And she said, 'I will.' (24:57-58)
It was on the basis of this story that Jewish law holds that a woman must consent to her marriage. We may think this is silly, perhaps even insulting. Of course a woman should consent to her own marriage! Keep in mind that this in itself was a revolutionary concept. In so many ancient civilizations women had no rights and could simply be given in marriage by their fathers, even against their will.
Our lives consist of interwoven relationships – the healthy ones are egalitarian. We grow to love our families, our friends and our significant others not because we're able to control them, but precisely because we're not.
Written by Richard S. Moline, KOACH Director, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Chayei Sarah at MyJewishLearning.com.