Detail from "Abraham's Servant Meets Rebecca" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
Detail from "Abraham's Servant Meets Rebecca" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

The deep meaning of the Torah’s first great love story

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:18

At the halfway point of the Book of Genesis, we’ve already encountered banishment, murder, global catastrophe, sexual debauchery, fire and brimstone, incest, domestic strife, wars, rupture, rancor and the near ritual sacrifice of a child.

But this week, our Torah finally gives us a love story.

The first appearance in the Bible of the root word a-h-v (love) is in Genesis 22:2, when God specifies Isaac as “the son whom you love,” before directing Abraham to bind that beloved son on an altar as a sacrifice.

But the Torah’s first reference to love between adult partners is in this week’s parashah. Abraham sends his most-trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac, three years after Sarah’s death. Rebekah is the answer to Eliezer’s prayer for a worthy partner for his master’s son, and when the couple meet in the fields at sunset, it is among the most romantic and touching scenes in the entire Torah:

“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she alighted from the camel. And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her veil, and she covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all that he had done. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother.” (Genesis 24:63-67)

We who came of age a few decades ago remember the playground chant intended to embarrass two young people who were behaving a little too familiarly: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes (usually the boy’s name) with a baby carriage.”

Though meant to tease, the implication was clear though subtle to young ears. Love was supposed to come first, then marriage.

But the Torah narrative makes plain that in the case of Isaac and Rebekah’s relationship, “their love was the result, not the prerequisite” (Rabbi Dr. David Lieber), for “however important it is that love shall precede marriage, it is far more important that it shall continue after marriage” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch).

Rabbi Dr. Gunther Plaut cited traditional wisdom when he taught, “The acceptability of arranged marriages was strengthened by an ancient belief that marriages were truly ‘made in heaven.’ It is kiddushin, holiness, a sacred partnership.”

But a delightful midrash (B’reshit Rabbah 68) suggests that even God has a mighty struggle to match each person with a bashert, a soulmate: A Roman matron asks a high-ranking rabbi what God has been up to since creating the world. She is told He has been making matches, at which she scoffs, “Is that all? Even I can do that!” “It may be easy for you,” replies Rabbi Yosi, “but for God it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds!” The matron tries her hand at it, fails miserably, and concedes to the Power that is Greater than All Things. Arranging marriages, she discovers, is a yeoman’s task.

We moderns mostly assume that love must precede any kind of life commitment.

But this is actually a recent phenomenon, as most marriages until the early 1800s were arranged primarily to solidify family connections, increase landholdings and economic advantages, and maintain or expand political control.

If love resulted, that was a fine bonus, although true love, rare though it was, was thought by some to be an unwelcome distraction from the smooth running of estates and countries.

We might fall off our camels, too, when learning that the percentage of arranged marriages worldwide today is still above 50 percent; in a few countries the rate is as high as 90 percent.

Arranged marriages involve role-players not unlike those in Isaac and Rebekah’s story. Close and extended family members, friends and matchmakers (and, in our time, countless online sites) sift and sort, recommend and hope, trying to connect eligible partners for lasting, productive relationships.

Arranged marriages are not supposed to be forced marriages. That is a tragic and still widespread phenomenon. But where communities and families engineer matches, divorce rates are very low (for a variety of reasons), and “love and physical desire” are not as highly placed on the list of expectations for a life partner.

Notably, Rebekah is not forced into her marriage to Isaac. She is asked, “Will you go with this man?” And like her future father-in-law, she accepts the call to “go forth” into history.

A common denominator of most successful marriages, arranged or not, is a quality called tzimtzum, the ability to withdraw one’s ego to make space for the other partner’s needs. This quality is on full display in Isaac and Rebekah, and may account for why their story begins so promisingly.

Rebekah showed generosity and hospitality to Eliezer and his camels, and respect and deference to her family. That she veiled herself is considered the epitome of modesty, for though she was beautiful, she withdrew her features rather than use them to seduce Isaac. Beginning her new life in Sarah’s tent, she had to be dutifully subordinate to the memory of her mother-in-law. She made space for Isaac’s grief, holding it and helping him to heal.

Isaac, too, exemplified tzimtzum. He could have shown no less in the moments he was bound on the altar, after all. His meditations in the field, which later inspired the afternoon Mincha prayer service, are quiet and introspective.

His story in the Biblical narrative is the least revealing of the patriarchs. These biblical ancestors are drawn with the character trait of anavah, humility, and the result is ahavah, love. Their marriage will take painful and soul-rending twists, as all do, but for now, as Sarah and Abraham pass from the world, a heartwarming tale of affection and tenderness is ours to savor for a few precious moments.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].