With so many matchmaking and online dating services, it's no surprise that people are looking for love, but as a recent Pew study1 shows, their search results in marriage less and less often. That's because relationships of any kind are seldom easy. As a professor of mine said, "the thing about relationships is, you have to do them with someone else." Marriages take a lot of work, and that's only after finding a person that is appropriate for you. In the Western world, we are long past an era of arranged marriages, but we can still learn something from the Bible's account of one such match that was successful.
The story of the search for—and discovery of—a bride for Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, is the subject of this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. It is, perhaps, not only the earliest account of an arranged marriage, but also a romantic account of how God brings Isaac and Rebekah together.
Abraham understood that his son Isaac needed a wife. His own wife Sarah had given up an easy life in Haran in order to follow Abraham to places unknown after God gave the call. They went with all their possessions and nephew Lot in tow, a journey across the Fertile Crescent and down south and finally back up to Hebron, where Sarah died at the advanced age of 127.
Isaac was depressed after the death of his mother, who had given birth to him late in life. Abraham understood that Isaac needed a wife but he knew his son was incapable of making the choice himself. So Abraham sent an unnamed servant out to find a wife for Isaac with instructions for that no Canaanite woman would suffice as Abraham's future daughter-in-law.
The servant's assignment was carried out prayerfully. In fact, this servant first laid eyes on the beautiful Rebekah while in the middle of a conversation with the Eternal in Genesis:
Eternal One, God of my master Abraham, please bring me luck today, and do a kindness for my master Abraham. Here I am standing at the water-fount, and the daughters of the townspeople are going forth to draw water; the girl to whom I say, "Tip you pitcher and let me drink," and who replies, "Drink; and let me water your camels, too"—let her be the one You have designated for Your servant Isaac; that is how I shall know that You have done a kindness for my master. (Genesis 24:12-14)
While the servant was speaking, Rebekah showed up, said all the right words, offered the stranger a place to sleep that night, and then told her family her news, wearing a newly acquired nose ring and bracelets on her arms.
Would Rebekah accept the mission this servant proposed? The bling probably didn't hurt: Flocks and herds, silver and gold, slaves, camels, and donkeys—these too would be hers if she said yes.
But Rebekah knew very few details; she could not have known that her acceptance would make her a crucial figure in God's great plan. She would have twin sons. The name of one of those sons would become Israel. Her grandchildren would become the 12 tribes of Israel. She knew none of this, but said "yes" anyway.
I believe this chapter comprises one of the Bible's great love stories, but not so much because of the love of Rebekah for Isaac, or Isaac for Rebekah. It was nothing more at this point than a blind date with a lifetime of marriage automatically to follow. Not so romantic, that. Some may argue that the marriage itself left a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, it is a great story because it shows God's abiding interest in our personal lives. God understands our needs and desires. Isaac, depressed and in grief, and without a life's companion, was in desperate need of a reason to live. And God gave that to him.
God was also faithful to Rebekah, one of the great women of the Bible. How innocent that trip to the well must have appeared that morning. In her respect for welcoming the stranger and taking care of animals, God saw in her someone with whom to entrust the fate of an entire nation.
When Isaac looked up and saw camels coming, he could not know that they brought with them his future, his destiny, his great love. When Rebekah looked up and caught a glimpse of the one she had heard about, she prepared to meet him face-to-face. In great humility for the moment she covered her face with a veil, inspiring countless Jewish brides to do the same. In Sarah's tent, Rebekah was loved. Isaac was comforted. God had given them new reasons to live.
The God of this story is not so much the Creator of the universe as a family friend, helping to guide this family on the right, if rocky, course toward the people that we would become. From the passionate prodding of Abraham to the beseeching of the servant for good fortune in his mission, to the intrepid Rebekah and the searching Isaac, the story unfolds like a modern novel. I imagine its pastoral setting and providential power were a great source of comfort to a people looking for reassurance in an often dark and troubling time.
Isaac and Rebekah's marriage—and their lives—will not be easy. But their finding each other, through the workings of God, enable us to believe, albeit carefully, in the kismet of relationships. Or what we say in Yiddish, our bashert.
1. See "No Reversal in Decline of Marriage" at www.pewresearch.org/
Real prayer comes in many forms, just like love. The whole Book of Genesis might be seen as an epic love story between our foremothers and forefathers, them and their children, and each of them and God. But each of these love stories is framed by prayer: real prayer—the kind of prayer that helps to solidify faith, establish a covenant, and give birth to the future.
Sometimes real prayer emerges spontaneously from an individual facing a particular challenge or experiencing enormous joy. But sometimes real prayer also springs forth from us—even when we least expect it—during fixed, planned choreographed services and events. Some of the best spontaneous, unplanned, and very individual prayers of our biblical predecessors appear in this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. An example of such a moment is the prayer Abraham's servant utters asking God to grant him "luck" that he find the "right one" for Isaac—as Rabbi Goldberg discusses here.
When Abraham loses Sarah, he becomes the first Jewish mourner letting go of the love of his life (Genesis 23:1-2). But it's not until their son Isaac meets Rebekah that the narrative reveals what real love does. First of all, real love excites: Rebekah literally falls off her camel when she first lays eyes on Isaac. But preparation for real love demands—among other things—being able to understand our full individuality in the world and in God's eyes. How do we know this? Because when Rebekah meets Isaac, he has just returned from being alone in the field—talking or praying or meditating—in the early evening. Thousands of years later, the Sages of the Talmud will anachronistically point to this prayer as the inception of Minchah, the Afternoon Service (see Genesis 24:63-65; Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 26b).
Lastly, real love can heal. After Isaac takes Rebekah back to his tent, the text tells us that he is—after a long period of mourning—finally comforted.
These two souls go on to face their own challenges together and separately but they never abandon their sense of God's presence in their lives. Their dialogue with God deepens and their love increases.
Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 156–167; Revised Edition, pp. 153–167;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 111–132