Only Connect

In their relationships with each other, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau, struggle between models of unity and connection and separation and deceit.

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"Isaac pleaded with Adonai:" (Genesis 25:21) R. Azariah said in the name of R. Hanina b. Papa: Why were the matriarchs so long childless? In order that they should not put on airs toward their husbands on account of their beauty. R. Hiyya b. Abba said: Why were the matriarchs so long childless? In order that the greater part of their lives should be spent without servitude. R. Levi in the name of R. Shila said: Why were the matriarchs so long barren? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, longed to hear their prayers (Song of Songs Rabbah, chapter II,14:8).

"On behalf of his wife:" (Genesis 25:21) This teaches that Isaac prostrated himself in one spot and she in another (opposite him), and he prayed to God: "Sovereign of the universe! May all the children that Thou will grant me be from this righteous woman." She, too, prayed likewise (Genesis Rabbah 38.5).

"Facing his wife:" He stood in one corner and prayed, while she stood in the other corner and prayed. (Rashi on Genesis 25:21)

"Facing his wife:" We need to understand why they prayed from opposite sides. R. Yehoshua b. Levi explained (Bava Batra 25): Later on, the men of the Great Assembly decided the direction one should be facing while praying. But because Isaac and Rebekah did not yet know the proper place to pray, they came up with a plan: Isaac would stand in one corner and Rebekah in another corner so that one way or another, one of them would be facing the right direction (Mayim Chayim in Itturei Torah I on Genesis 25:21).

"The children struggled within her" (Genesis 25:22). R. Johanan said: Each ran to slay the other [deriving the word "struggled," vayit'rotz'tzu, from the root r-u-tz, meaning "run"]. They sought to run within her. When she stood near synagogues or schools, Jacob struggled to come out. When she passed idolatrous temples, Esau eagerly struggled to come out" (Genesis Rabbah 53.6).

"Only connect." (E. M. Forster, Howard's End, chapter 22)

Your Guide

Both Rashi and the Mayim Hayim prefer the translation "facing his wife," yet they offer different interpretations of the scene. Rashi's interpretation evokes the boxing ring--Rebekah in one corner, Isaac in the other, both waiting for the bell. This competitive vision is tempered by that of the Mayim Chayim, who transforms the antagonists into a pious couple. From your understanding of these two characters, is there truth in either or both of these interpretations?

The translation of l'nochach ishto as "on behalf of his wife" presents Rebekah as mute while Isaac prays for her. Why does Genesis Rabbah add, "She, too, prayed likewise"? Compare this midrash with that of Song of Songs Rabbah. What is Rebekah's role in these explanations? Does God want to hear women's prayers as well as men's?

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Rabbi Ruth Gais

Rabbi Ruth Gais is the director of The New York Kollel and Community Outreach at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, NY.