A Marriage Made In Heaven?

Isaac and Rebekah serve as a paradigm for Jewish marriage, and yet, their relationship is more complex than it may appear.

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"From the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi." To pray in that place, in which was heard the prayer of the slave woman [Hagar]. And even before he prayed, the matter had already been concluded in Haran, and his wife was on her way to him. As it says, "Before they call out, I respond" (Isaiah 65:24). He left the road to pour out his prayer to God in a field so that passersby would not interrupt (Sforno on Genesis 24:62).

"To the tent of his mother, Sarah." He brought her [Rebekah] to the tent and, behold, she was Sarah, his mother! That is to say, she followed Sarah's example. For as long as Sarah lived, a candle burned from erev Shabbat to erev Shabbat, and there was a blessing in the challah dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, all these things disappeared. And when Rebekah came, they returned (Rashi on Genesis 24:67).

"After his mother's death." The way of the world is that as long as a man's mother is alive, he is bound up with her. And when she dies, he is comforted by his wife (Rashi on Genesis 24:67).

Rabbi Jose says: For three years, Isaac mourned for his mother, Sarah. After three years, he took Rebekah and forgot the mourning for his mother. From this you learn that until a man takes a wife, his love follows his parents. When he takes a wife, his love follows his wife, as it is said, "Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and clings to his wife" (Genesis 2:24). But does a man depart from the mitzvah (commandment) of honoring his mother and father? Rather, his love clings to his wife (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 32).

"Rebekah saw Isaac." She saw him majestic, and she was dumbfounded (Rashi on Genesis 24:64).

What Rebekah sees in Isaac is the vital anguish at the heart of his prayers, a remoteness from the sunlit world of chesed (kindness) that she inhabits. Too abruptly, perhaps, she receives the shock of his world. Nothing mediates, nothing explains him to her. "Who is that man walking in the field toward us?" (Genesis 24:66) she asks, fascinated, alienated. What dialogue is possible between two who have met in such a way?

A fatal seepage of doubt and dread affects her, so that she can no longer meet him in the full energy of her difference. She veils herself, obscures her light. He takes her and she irradiates the darkness of his mother's tent. She is, and is not, like his mother; through her, his sense of his mother's existence is healed. But the originating moment of their union is choreographed so that full dialogue will be impossible between them (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, pp. 142-143).

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Rabbi Stephen Cohen

Rabbi Stephen Cohen is the executive director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif.