Chayei Sarah - The Maids of Rebecca

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

The purpose of this monthly d'var Torah is to alert us to the most hidden and obscure female presences in the Torah, named or unnamed, and to use these hidden voices to understand our inner truths.

“And they blessed Rebecca and said to her:
Our sister, may you grow into thousands!
May your children inherit the gates of their enemies!”
Then Rebecca and her maids arose,
mounted the camels, and followed the man.
So the servant took Rebecca and went his way.”

Has your life ever changed because of someone else’s decision? There are a number of women in Parashat Chayye Sarah who leave their homes forever because of someone else’s choice. Who are they? What are their stories? Do they receive the kind of blessing that Rebecca receives when departing her native land? How can we use their story to make our own choices?

In this Torah portion, the matriarch Sarah dies, and Abraham decides that it is time to look for a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his servant, who in Jewish legend is called Eliezer, to Abraham’s home country of Haran to look for a wife from Abraham’s family. The servant finds a girl who is kind and generous— she offers to draw water for Eliezer and all of his camels— hundreds of gallons! She also embodies the courageous spirit of Abraham and Sarah. When Eliezer asks Rebecca to leave her home and travel to a completely new land to marry Isaac, Rebecca says: Elech (I will go), echoing God’s command to Abraham: “Lech lecha” (go forth). She is willing to become Abraham’s spiritual heir. Her family, astonished that’s he is willing to leave on this long trip immediately, blesses her, saying: “Our sister, may you grow into thousands!” This prayer is like the blessing of Abraham, mentioning fertility and abundance. Rebecca’s choice is necessary for the Israelite people to survive.

But Rebecca isn’t the only one who goes on this trip. She leaves with her nurse, whom we’ll mention in a later parashah, and she also takes with her a number of maids to serve her in her new home. We know nothing about these maids— whether they believed in Abraham’s God, whether they had families they would miss, whether they even wanted to go on this long journey and live in a new place. We don’t know whether they love and cherish Rebecca and want to accompany her, or whether they are simply part of her dowry.

It has been common throughout history that when wealthy and powerful people move from place to place, many other people go with them. Abraham and Sarah too take many people with him when they leave their native land (Gen. 12:50). According to the ancient rabbis, these people were converts— they went with Abraham and Sarah because they believed in God’s covenant. But it’s also possible that those household people were servants who had no choice about whether to leave their homes and families. The mention of Rebecca’s maids reminds us that when we make choices, we should think about the people around us who may be affected by our decisions even though they were not consulted. Before we take someone on a “long journey” with us, by committing them to some promise we’ve made or involving them in an action we take, it’s important to talk to our loved ones and learn how they feel about our plans. Sometimes the impact we have on others is hidden, but it can still be important.

But Rebecca’s maids also remind us of something else. Throughout the Bible, women use their maids— who are also their female companions— as sources of support and strength. Pharaoh’s daughter, when she adopts the Hebrew baby Moses as her son, sends a maid to fetch the baby’s basket from the river: “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it (Ex. 2:5). Pharaoh’s daughter is disobeying Pharaoh’s command by doing this, but none of her maids turns her in. Esther, the hero of Purim, does something similar. When Esther is planning to beg the king of Persia, her husband, not to kill the Jews, she fasts for three days to purify herself. He maids fast with her. Esther says to her cousin Mordechai: “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day— I and my maids will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king” (Esther 4:16). While we don’t know how these maids reacted to the danger their mistresses faced, we do know that, by getting the support of these other women, Esther and Pharaoh’s daughter were able to carry out their sacred missions.

Perhaps Rebecca, too, needed the strength of others in order to pursue her destiny as a mother of the Israelite nation. Perhaps she took with her friends who would help her to feel cared for in a new and strange environment. And perhaps, like many other immigrants who helped to bring friends and relatives to a new land, Rebecca was able to give the women she brought to Canaan a better life. We too, as we make choices, have the opportunity both to benefit from the help of loved ones and community members, and to help others through our actions. By becoming aware that, as a song in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods reminds us, “No one is alone,” we can be more aware of how our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. This is equally important on a global level— whenever we put something into the earth, air, or water, or take something out, we take the whole planet to a new place. So we should act with care and concern for our environment as well as other people.

Rebecca’s family gives her a blessing as she leaves them. Whether the maids’ families come to bless them we do not know, because the Torah does not tell us. But we do know that, because of them, Rebecca does not leave her home alone— and that in itself should earn them a blessing.