Since so many of you liked my writing on the first chapters of Genesis, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote on another Torah portion. I wrote this four years ago — we had just gotten Milo, and that year, this Torah portion came on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which as you can tell rather affected my reading of it. Enjoy:
I need to get rid of the leftovers. It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the leftovers are weighing heavy on my mind, my belly, and my refrigerator shelves. It’s been a week of shopping and cooking and planning, but at least I have a wonderful cleaning lady and a nearby Trader Joe’s; my mother got along well with our new dog, and vice versa; and my husband and I are blessed to actually like our families, so that time spent with them is as much pleasure as it is duty.
And duty has its pleasures too. I felt competent and strong this Thanksgiving. I was proud of the dinner I made. I was proud of the warm, book-lined rooms my family ate in, that I worked so hard to arrange and decorate. I was proud to show the local museums off to my mother, and to take her to shops the likes of which they do not have in Nixa, Missouri. I was proud that I knew when she was too tired to walk home after a morning’s shopping, and too proud, herself, to say so immediately, so I took charge and sent my husband off to retrieve the car.
And I wonder about the danger of that pride.
In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Rebecca, the second matriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham is concerned about finding a wife for his son, Isaac: he doesn’t want one of these flashy Canaanite broads, he wants a nice homegirl from Aram-naharaim, his old neighborhood. So he sends his servant off to collect a bride for Isaac. Wanting a kind as well as beautiful woman, the servant devises a test. He will wait at the well outside of town with his camels, and when he sees a young woman, he will ask her for a drink. If she not only gives him a drink, but offers to water his camels too—all 10 of them—he will know that she is the one.
As soon as Eliezer has thought this up, Rebecca appears, and he asks her for water. “When she had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not.” (Genesis 24:19-20.)
At this point in the story, we like Rebecca. We like her very much, even if we are intimidated by her scary biceps. (It takes a strong woman to draw enough water for 10 camels.) Isaac likes Rebecca too, when he meets her, and we are told that he “brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67.)
Does anyone else find that a little creepy? Does anyone else think that maybe Isaac is going to turn into one of those men who calls his wife “mommy”? Is anyone else remembering at this point that while the Greeks may have invented the Oedipus complex, it took the Jews to identify it?
We’re supposed to understand by this that Rebecca is the spiritual daughter of Sarah, and like her will be God-fearing and loyal. We’re supposed to understand that drawing water for the camels is a sign of chesed (lovingkindness). We’re supposed to believe that the things that Rebecca does later on — when she stage-manages a deception to make Isaac, on his deathbed, bless her favorite son, Jacob, rather his, Esau — are a sign of her intelligence and superior understanding of God’s will.
But I’m not so sure about that. I think maybe Rebecca is a control freak.
Her final deception of Isaac is hard to justify, no matter how you twist it around. Rebecca begins her story as a kind and well-intentioned person, but I wonder if the role of caretaker, hostess, Competent Woman Who Does It All, doesn’t eventually go to her head. She takes care of others until she starts believing that they cannot take care of themselves. She knows better than anyone else. And she loves to complain.
I think all women are at least a little bit familiar with this phenomenon. With the glow that comes from providing for everyone else. With the martyred pleasure of putting everyone elses’ needs before your own. With the belief that there’s no point asking for help, because it’s easier to just do it yourself.
Rebecca is a warning about what that kind of attitude can lead to. How easily caretaking can slide into a subtle form of contempt.
Eliezer just stood there watching her as she went to the well, again and again and again, watering all those camels. Rebecca had a choice. She could have asked him to help. Would she have become a different person if she had? A little less generous, perhaps, but also less manipulative?
I did a good job this Thanksgiving. I took care of my husband, and my mother, and my dog. I brought pleasure and delight to my family. And I had a pretty good time in the process, myself. But I need to be watchful of that glow of pride. I need to remember that the people in my life are responsible and competent and can take care of themselves — and even of me, sometimes. I need to relax my hold, my desire for control.
I need to get rid of those leftovers.