Parashat Chayei-Sara tells the story of Avraham’s servant’s journey to Aram Naharayim, Avraham’s hometown, where he was to search for a bride for Avraham’s son, Yitzchak. The servant invokes God’s assistance, asking that the girl destined to marry Yitzchak should be the one who offers water for him and his camels after he asks her for water at the well outside the city. Sure enough, he sees a girl going to the well, and in response to his request, she offers water for him and his animals. This girl turned out to be Rivka, the daughter of Avraham’s cousin, Betuel, and thus a suitable match for Yitzchak.
The servant tells of his experiences at the well to Rivka’s family, hoping to show them that God Himself chose Rivka as Yitzchak’s wife. Indeed, after he finishes speaking, the family responds, “The matter has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you evil or good” (24:50).
Most commentators understand this to mean that Rivka’s family members felt they had no say in the matter one way or the other. Once God had clearly demonstrated that Rivka was selected to marry Yitzchak, they have neither the authority to refuse nor any reason to express consent. The decision has been made, so they have nothing at all to say. As Seforno writes, “We cannot speak to you evil, to annul His decree, or good, to affirm it, as if it requires our affirmation.” This general approach is also taken by the Rashbam, the Radak and Abarbanel.
Rashi, however, interprets the family’s response differently, explaining that both “evil” and “good” refer to refusal. According to Rashi, the family tells the servant that they could refuse neither with a “bad” excuse, nor with a “good,” or valid, reason. Even if they had a legitimate reason to deny the servant’s request and not allow Rivka to marry Yitzchak, they could not do so, once God had made it clear that this is her destiny.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, in his Emet Le-Yaakov, explains Rashi’s comment by referring to the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Kiddushin (49a) regarding the case of a betrothal which a woman accepts on mistaken assumptions. As a general rule, the betrothal in such a case is not binding, as the bride accepted with certain understandings which turned out to be incorrect. However, Rabbi Shimon (48b) ruled that if the woman had assumed that the groom was poor, and after accepting the betrothal she discovered that he was wealthy, the betrothal is valid. Since the groom’s financial condition was in fact better than she expected, it is assumed that she would certainly have been happy to accept had she known the truth about his financial status. (The majority view among the Tanna’im dispute this ruling.) However, the Gemara comments that Rabbi Shimon would not apply this ruling to the case of a mistaken assumption regarding yichus (family background). If the woman accepted betrothal without realizing that the groom comes from a distinguished family, the betrothal is not valid, even according to Rabbi Shimon. Even if a woman who accepted betrothal from a man whom she thought was poor could be assumed to have certainly accepted if she had known he was wealthy, we cannot assume that a woman who accepted thinking the groom came from a simple family would have accepted if she had known about his distinguished family background. In such a case, the woman might say, in the Gemara’s words, “I do not want a shoe that is larger than my foot.” Meaning, not everybody wishes to join a prominent family, as they might feel uncomfortable and insecure. Therefore, if a woman accepted betrothal unaware of the groom’s distinguished background, the betrothal is void.
Rav Kamenetzky suggests that this may have been the legitimate grounds of refusal to which Rivka’s family referred in their response to the servant. Their intent was that even if they wished to refuse the match, feeling uncomfortable with their daughter marrying the daughter of somebody as distinguished as Avraham, they could not refuse, once God had decreed that Rivka should marry Yitzchak.
One of the difficult challenges that we often confront over the course of life is determining when the “shoe” is too “large” for our “foot,” which undertakings are within are reach and capabilities, and which are beyond our limits. Sometimes, we feel the need to refuse an opportunity because we see ourselves as too small, as unqualified for the task. Rashi’s interpretation of Rivka’s family’s response perhaps reminds us to always remain open to the possibility that we are qualified even when we feel we are not. While certainly our intuitive feeling of “smallness” is often correct, sometimes it is not. Just as Rivka’s family was shown that Rivka was, in fact, chosen for the distinction and challenge of joining Avraham’s family, we, too, may at times be shown that we are capable of more than we had previously thought. We must be both realistic and honest in determining our capabilities, ensuring not to pursue goals that lie beyond our limited reach, but never tiring of working to reach those that lie within it.