Chayei Sarah 5780-2019: Rebecca and Isaac’s First Encounter: a Revealing Insight into the Future
- Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
- Nov 17, 2019
(updated and revised from Chayei Sarah 5760-1999)
In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the destiny-changing mission of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, to find a wife for Isaac.
Eliezer travels to Abraham’s homeland, אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִם —Aram Na’harayim (upper Mesopotamia), where he encounters Rebecca (Rivkah) at the well. By offering to give not only Eliezer water to drink, but also provide water for his camels, Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a special person, filled with the quality of loving-kindness, who would be an appropriate mate for Isaac, his master’s son.
Rashi cites the Talmud (Niddah 44b), to justify the Midrash’s (Geneisis 60:5) radical claim that Rebecca was only three years old at the time of her betrothal to Isaac. The apparent intention of this Midrash is to underscore Rebecca’s purity, that she was too young to have been molested by the people of Aram Na’harayim who were well known for violating the local women.
Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is so taken by Rebecca and her extraordinary kindness, that even before he finds out about her family and who she really is, he immediately bedecks her with jewelry. When he learns that Rebecca is the daughter of Bethuel, a close relative of Abraham’s family, he regards this as a Divine omen, confirming the success of his mission.
Eliezer and his entourage are welcomed into Bethuel’s home, where Eliezer meets Laban, Rebecca’s cunning brother, and negotiations for the woman’s hand in marriage begin. Eliezer relates, in lengthy detail, of the miraculous birth of Isaac to his aged parents Sarah and Abraham, explains how he chose Rebecca through the test of kindness, and beseeches the family to allow Rebecca to quickly return with him to Canaan so that she may marry the princely Isaac.
After showering the girl’s family with gifts, Rebecca is asked whether she wishes to go with Eliezer. When she enthusiastically accedes, the betrothal is completed, and Rebecca is sent off to meet her husband-to-be.
Laban, who tried to delay Rebecca’s departure, offers a beautiful departing blessing to his sister (Genesis 24:60), אֲחֹתֵנוּ, אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה , Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads! In effect, Laban blesses his sister, Rebecca, to become the progenitor of many generations of worthy children. This same blessing is recited, to this day, by fathers at the Badekin–the traditional veiling ceremony of the bride, as their daughters are escorted to the marriage canopy.
The servant, the bride and the entire entourage arrive in Canaan, where the first encounter between Rebecca and her future husband, Isaac, takes place. It is this encounter which provides many insights into the future relationship between Rebecca and Isaac.
Rebecca has left her entire family behind in Aram Na’harayim, and has traveled many hundreds of kilometers to Canaan with Eliezer, a servant, whom she hardly knows, and his entourage. Only her nurse and a few of her own maidens accompany her on this extraordinary journey. Even if she were not a three-year-old girl, certainly such a journey, without friends or family, must have been exceedingly traumatic. It’s true, that according to many commentators, Rebecca couldn’t wait to get out of the house of wicked Bethuel and Laban, and into the holy environment of Abraham’s home, but, still, it must have been thoroughly frightening.
The Torah, in Genesis 24:62, describes the first meeting between Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac was coming from having gone to בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי —B’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the Well of the Living G-d. It seems that after the Akeidah, after almost being offered up for slaughter by his father Abraham, Isaac chooses not to dwell near his father, but rather to reside separately in the south country. Perhaps, because of the trauma of the near-death experience, Isaac frequently visits B’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the well, known as Ishmael’s well, where G-d appeared to Hagar and told her to return to Abraham and Sarah’s home, and suffer humiliation under the hands of Sarah, because she was to give birth to a child, Ishmael.
According to a Midrashic tradition cited in Rashi, Isaac had gone to B’er L’Chai Ro’ee to bring Hagar back to Abraham, now that his own mother Sarah was deceased, so that Abraham would not be left without a wife. Propitiously, G-d brings a wife to Isaac as a reward for his special kindness to his father, Abraham.
Isaac goes out to meditate in the field before evening, perhaps to pray. He lifts his eyes and sees camels coming. Genesis 24:64 is very revealing, וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת עֵינֶיהָ, וַתֵּרֶא אֶת יִצְחָק, וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל , And Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac, and she fell off the camel. She asks the servant, Eliezer: “Who is that man coming before us in the field? Eliezer answers that the man is our master, Isaac. Rebecca promptly takes a veil, modestly covering her face. Eliezer proceeds to tell Isaac all the fascinating details that had occurred to him at the well and how he came to choose Rebecca. Scripture states that Isaac then brought Rebecca into the tent of Sarah his mother, takes Rebecca as a wife, loved her, and is comforted after his mother.
From this first encounter between Isaac and Rebecca, we behold a bride and groom who appear to be carrying much emotional baggage with them. It could be that Isaac has not yet fully recovered from the trauma of the Akeidah, the binding. He is constantly praying, trying to do good deeds, to justify the fact that he was spared from almost certain death. Isaac has climbed to unprecedented heights on the spiritual ladder, for being prepared to give up his life for the sake of heaven, without a word of protest. Rebecca, on the other hand, is but a young child who comes from Aram Na’harayim, a decadent and idolatrous background. Although she is related to Abraham’s family, her parents and siblings are idolaters of low ethical character. Given this background, and the stark contrast with Isaac’s noble spiritual background, Rebecca feels wholly unworthy and inadequate. Subsequently, when she encounters the exceedingly spiritual Isaac coming toward her from prayer before evening, she falls off the camel and covers her face. While Isaac loves Rebecca, it seems to be a relationship between polar opposites.
Perhaps this explains why Rebecca (Genesis 27), resorts to deceiving her husband and having Jacob dress up as Esau, when she fears that Isaac is prepared to give the blessings to Esau. Why does she not speak with her husband, Isaac? Why doesn’t she confront him directly? Perhaps because those same feelings of inadequacy, that she had when she first encountered this great spiritual man, have come back to haunt her. “How can I, Rebecca, the sister of Laban, the daughter of Bethuel, born in a den of iniquity and idolatrous decadence, confront my husband, Isaac, the son of the great spiritualist Abraham, who was prepared to give his life on the Akeidah for G-d?” Instead, she resorts to deception.
Oftentimes, we tend to idealize the stories of the Bible, as well as the characters of the patriarchs and matriarchs. But, the Torah is determined to teach us how human they were, and consequently underscores the daily human challenges that they too faced. Our patriarchs and matriarchs lived in a world that was in turmoil. There were many negative influences assaulting them from all sides. The challenges that they faced were daunting, certainly as great as those we face today, perhaps even greater, because they were alone in their struggle to live godly, ethical, and moral lives.
While we each face challenges, we can learn much from the challenges of our patriarchs and matriarchs. For, after all, despite all the many negative factors, the patriarch Jacob ultimately succeeds to nurture 12 disparate tribes and meld them into one great Nation of Israel, notwithstanding their radically different personalities and characters.
As is always the case, we can learn much from studying the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs and from the abundant invaluable insights that are to be found in the vital details of our Torah.
May you be blessed.
When Rebecca raises her eyes and first beholds Isaac from afar, she falls off the camel and promptly covers her face with a veil. Rebecca’s actions may very well reflect her feelings of inadequacy about coming from a decadent and idolatrous background, and being betrothed to an intensely spiritual man. This encounter may explain the fraught relationship that the future couple will have.