Going out toward evening to stroll in the field, Isaac looked up and saw—camels coming! And Rebekah looked up: seeing Isaac, she got off the camel and said to the slave: "Who is this man striding in the field coming to meet us?" "He is my master," said the slave. Taking a veil, she covered herself. The slave then told Isaac all that he had done. And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah; he took Rebekah, and she became his wife and he loved her. Thus did Isaac take comfort after [the death of] his mother. (Genesis 24:63-67)
Abraham, feeling old and tired, bereft after losing his beloved Sarah, decides that it is time for Isaac to marry. He sends his servant Eliezer out to find Isaac a wife. Abraham does not provide any of the expected prerequisites for a suitable mate. He does not tell Eliezer that the woman should come from a family of wealth or fame. And Abraham says nothing about the appearance he desires for Isaac's bride: tall or short, dark or fair.
Without any clear direction other than that he should not find her among the Canaanites. Eliezer prays to God, describing a drama that may take place at the well. He tells God that if the drama comes to life, he will recognize this as a sign that his prayer has been answered. The right woman will be the one who, upon Eliezer's request, offers water not only to him, but also to his camels. Rebekah fulfills the conditions of the prayer and the story unfolds. Is this, then, a marriage made in heaven?
What does God see in Rebekah and in Isaac that assures them a successful—and indeed a loving—relationship? Perhaps the answer lies in each of their family stories. Rebekah longs to be free of a home where we know trickery and deceit thrive. Rebekah is the water drawer. She is the life giver and the one who embraces all of God's creatures. Isaac is the damaged one, almost physically destroyed by his father; certainly emotionally destroyed by him. Isaac's mother is gone, and he is alone. With Isaac, Rebekah will find the freedom to establish herself as a strong, independent woman. With Rebekah, Isaac will find the healing he so desperately needs, which will allow him to grow and become the man he is meant to become-a transmitter of the covenant.
The clues to this story are imbedded in the text. It is remarkable that the Torah describes the actions of Rebekah and Isaac using a form of the Hebrew root nun-sin-alef, which means, "to lift up." On the verge of their very first meeting, both Rebekah and Isaac "lift up their eyes" and see each other.
Rebekah looks up and sees Isaac. Isaac looks up and sees Rebekah. They look up at each other and there find love. What does it mean to "lift up" your eyes? For Rebekah and Isaac there are at least three possibilities. First, by lifting up their eyes, they are able to see heaven. They can see the Divine in each other. Next, in looking up, Rebekah and Isaac can see the potential beyond the surface. They can each look beyond their beginnings and see the light within. And finally, in lifting up their eyes, they can see the future. Rebekah and Isaac can imagine the blessings that will be a part of their life together. Each can see beyond the present to the promise of what lies ahead.
Romantic love, according to the Torah, is a gift from God. It comes in the blessing of being able to see beyond the surface. We find love when we are able to "lift up our eyes." Recently, I listened to a local talk radio program on this very subject. Time and again I heard stories about how people found their life partner when they were not really looking for one. In "lifting up their eyes" they were able to see something that had eluded them before and find love. We find love when we see the future in another. When we are able to see beyond the moment, beyond the initial spark of attraction, we see what lies ahead and the blessing that is possible.
By the Way
- Sarah the Ancient One breaks in: Love did not come easy to Isaac. When he was a child, his half-brother, Ishmael, hated him for dispossessing him. Later, his father undermined their relationship when he almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah. And I, who had waited ninety barren years for him, did not—could not—love him enough to stop Abraham from leading him off to the slaughter. So, what could he know of normal love? How could he trust that his God-intoxicated father would choose a proper wife for him? It was only after marrying Rebecca and bringing her into my tent that Isaac discovered that love can heal as well as wound. As it is written: "Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death" (23:67). (Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996], p. 37)
- So it is that a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
- Isaac mourned his mother Sarah for three years. At the end of those years he married Rebekah and stopped mourning his mother. Thus we see that until a man takes a wife, he directs his love toward his parents. Once he marries, he directs his love toward his wife. (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 32:2)
- Regarding the text from Genesis, are we only able to become whole once we leave our parents and find a partner? Is the goal of our existence to become one with another human being and to lose our identity as an individual?
- Consider the relationships we form with our parents and our siblings. What does the passage from Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer tell us about changing these relationships or how forming one necessarily alters the other? Does the love we feel for our parents change when we have found our life partner?
- In Ellen Frankel's midrash, what is Sarah telling us about the power of love? How is it that love heals and wounds? Is love another type of homeopathic remedy for the wounds we suffer in our relationships?
Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., is the senior rabbi of Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, Illinois.