Do you remember the first time you laid eyes on your beloved? Do you recall your feelings the moment you saw the love of your life?
The Torah offers us a rare glimpse of such an encounter toward the end of this week’s portion when Rebekah, after the long journey from her home in Aram-naharaim, lays eyes on Isaac. He was out in the “evening to stroll in the field” (Genesis 24:63) when he sees a caravan of camels approaching. Isaac, who apparently at this point does not recognize that this caravan is Abraham's servant (possibly Eliezer) returning from his mission to bring back a bride for him, only sees the camels.
Rebekah, on the other hand, “looked up: seeing Isaac, she got off the camel” (24:64). “Got off,” may be an understatement because the Hebrew uses the root nun-pei-lamed to describe Rebekah’s descending from her mount, and that root usually means “fall.” What a sight that must have been! (In English we still describe being in love as “falling” for someone.)
Rebekah quickly recovers from her fall and asks Abraham’s servant, “Who is this man striding in the field coming to meet us?” (24:65). Is this a rhetorical question or is Rebekah clueless that he is her intended? Her question includes an unusual form of the adjective “this”—halazeh—a word used later in Genesis with regard to Joseph (37:19). Since the Torah affirms that Joseph was “fair of form and fair of appearance” (39:6), the Rabbis conclude that Isaac also must be good looking (see B’reishit Rabbah 60:15).
When she finds out that it is indeed Isaac who is coming to meet her, Rebekah immediately covers herself with a veil, which Nahum Sarna notes was part of the marriage ceremony in the ancient Near East. “It is an unspoken signal to Isaac that she is his bride,” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, p. 170).
This gesture confirms for Isaac that Rebekah is the one chosen to be his bride. Abraham’s servant then tells Isaac about his successful journey. Whereas previously the text described the process in great detail, here only a single verse says it all: “The slave then told Isaac all that he had done” (Genesis 24:66). With this brevity, the text hints that Isaac does not care about what happened in the past; he is now eager to embrace the future and specifically to insure the future of the Jewish people.
“And Isaac brought her [Rebekah] into the tent of his mother Sarah; he took Rebekah, and she became his wife and he loved her” (24:67). According to Nahum Sarna, “The first reference to love in the Bible (22:2) concerned the tie between parent and child; this, the second, relates to the bond between husband and wife,” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis [New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989], p. 170).
The midrash takes note of the fact that Rebekah has taken the place of Sarah. “You find that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud hung over her tent; when she died that cloud disappeared; but when Rebekah came, it returned. As long as Sarah lived, her doors were wide open; at her death that liberality [hospitality] ceased; but when Rebekah came, that openhandedness returned. As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough, and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Sabbath until the evening of the following Sabbath; when she died, these ceased, but when Rebekah came, they returned,” ( B’reishit Rabbah 60:16).
With this marriage, the torch is passed to the next generation. At the beginning of this portion Sarah dies; now Rebekah has taken her place as the Matriarch of our people, carrying on the important traditions that Sarah began. At the end of this portion, Abraham dies, meaning that Isaac is now the Patriarch of the clan. Together, Isaac and Rebekah will assure that all that Abraham and Sarah accomplished and stood for will continue.
Although the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was a classical arranged marriage, the description of their meeting indicates that they truly loved one another. Rebekah literally “fell” for Isaac and he responds by welcoming her into his life, filling the void that was left by the sudden and untimely death of his mother (immediately after and, some suggest, due to finding out about the binding of Isaac). Their love will be tested through barrenness, significant conflicts between their twin sons, and a long separation from their younger son, Jacob. Yet, we have every reason to believe that their relationship endures despite these challenges. In fact, unlike Abraham and Jacob, who take more than one wife and father children with a number of women, Isaac only has children with Rebekah, his one and only wife.
How is it that Isaac developed a love for Rebekah in such a short time? Although the text does not offer explicit reasons, we can infer the reasons from the details that are included. Rebekah veils herself indicating her commitment to Isaac. As far as we know, no words were exchanged between them. This simple gesture confirms for Isaac that Rebekah is willing to adopt the rituals of his community and to become part of his people.
Second, although we do not know the content of the conversation between Abraham’s servant and Isaac (Genesis 24:66), we can be sure that the servant shared about the hospitality Rebekah showed toward him (perhaps conveniently forgetting to mention that this was the sign that he was to look for to identify the woman). This detail confirms that Rebekah will be welcoming to strangers as Abraham and Sarah were according to tradition (Breishit Rabbah 60:15).
Finally, we know that Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent. Rebekah did not insist upon her own tent, as we might expect, but understands the importance of continuing the traditions and example established by Sarah. Imagine what it must have been like for Isaac, perhaps still grieving the loss of his mother, to bring Rebekah into Sarah’s tent, and thus affirm her place not only as his wife, but as a Matriarch of our people. All those emotions are summed up by the simple phrase, “he loved her” (Genesis 24:67), establishing love as the basis of the relationship between a husband and wife.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden is the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Tacoma, Washington. Rabbi Kadden and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, have written extensively in the area of Jewish education, including co-authoring three books: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities.
While it is true that love is and has always been an important, if not critical element in the lives of committed individuals (even in the Torah), love as a function of being in a committed, mutually uplifting relationship is not necessarily the Torah narrative, nor is it expressly portrayed in the story between Isaac and Rebekah.
We laugh at Tevye’s question to Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, “Do you love me?” We want so much for Golde to respond with a resounding yes, but we are left feeling disappointed. Caught off-guard by the question, Golde answers by reminding Tevye of all the things she does for him, not how she feels for him. We are left to imagine how she really feels and sadly we don’t know. Her voice on this matter remains a mystery.
So it is with Rebekah in this week’s Torah portion as well. The text reveals only six verses of speaking on Rebekah’s part and nothing that displays any hint of how she feels about Isaac. That she appears to fall off her camel at the sight of Isaac has probably more to do with a long painful camel ride than her immediately falling in love.
That Laban and her father ask her if she wants to go with Abraham’s servant to be Isaac's wife is more telling than anything else; Rebekah is clearly a woman who knows what she wants and her family clearly understands that as well. But to ascribe to her feelings of love toward Isaac would be to ascribe feelings out of historical context.
While it is true that Isaac, needing a comforting female presence in his life after the death of his mother, seems to transfer this love to Rebekah, I am sure that over time he genuinely loved her as a separate person for all that she was, and that Rebekah, after years of doing things for Isaac and the family as only a matriarch can do, would have answered Isaac’s question, “Do you love me?” similar to the way Golde did; after thinking to herself about all the years of marriage Rebekah would have said “Yes, I finally do.”
Rabbi Andrew M. Paley is Senior Rabbi at Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas.
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