This week’s parasha starts with Rivka’s attempts to get pregnant:
Rashi makes an odd comment:
What does Shem have to do with anything? Where does that come from? And, within the narrative, why would Rivka go there?
Part of what’s bothering Rashi is the word ותלך. It doesn’t say ותדרש, so presumably Rivka was going somewhere. But why Shem?
Rashi’s source is the Targum and בראשית רבה. אונקלוס just translates פשט:
But the ירושלמי introduces Shem:
This is an important point: calling it a yeshiva is an anachronism; Shem did not have a building with classrooms and a trivia-night fundraiser. מדרש של שם meant he was a known צדיק, who had experienced the miracles of the Flood, who was blessed with (בראשית ט:כו) ברוך ה׳ אלקי שם and had something to teach others.
This idea, of learning with Shem (and his grandson Ever) comes up a few times in the aggada about the אבות:
Shem is specifically mentioned as one of the few righteous in the generations before Abraham:
But the idea of him teaching, of having a “yeshiva”, is from a textual hint, in our “midrashic” understanding of the word אהל:
Notice that Jacob, as the quintessential “man of Torah”, doesn’t learn from only one teacher. It’s important to get different perspectives to arrive at one’s own understanding of Truth. In this way בית מדרשו של שם acted as a “second opinion” to בית מדרשו של אברהם.
So we understand what בית מדרשו של שם means. But why would Rivka go there? Radak is bothered by this:
The Baal HaTurim has a cute hint in the text:
But that doesn’t address “why”. The Maharal has an amazing answer:
And that in turn suggests that she wasn’t going to the נביא for a prediction of the future. That’s not what נביאים are supposed to be about:
Note how the תרגום ירושלמי puts it: she went לְמִתְבּוֹעַ רַחֲמִין:
The Ramban emphasizes this point. לדרוש את ה׳ means to pray, not to ask G-d for soothsaying:
So Rivka is really going to the צדיק for a ברכה. We see from later in the parasha that when a צדיק gives a ברכה, it isn’t a magical incantation but a reflection of the spiritual connection between the person and the צדיק. The צדיק's ברכה is intended to improve the person. We don’t (or at least shouldn’t) ask a צדיק to daven for us; we ask the צדיק to daven with us.
So the fact that Rivka went to Shem was an indictment of her relationship with Isaac. Rivka couldn’t daven with him. The last time they tried, they were on opposite sides of the room.
As the Maharal said, Rivka was afraid of presenting her problems to Isaac. The Netziv puts it even more bluntly:
We have no reason to believe that Isaac himself ever felt that way about Rivka. The Torah testifies (בראשית כד:סז) ויקח את רבקה ותהי לו לאשה ויאהבה. But we see from this parasha that Isaac was more than physically blind. He was metaphorically blind as well—to Esav’s true nature, to Jacob’s potential, and, here, to Rivka’s fear and intimidation.