“The First Encounter Between Rebecca and Isaac, a Revealing Insight Into the Future”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sara, we read of the famous mission of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer travels to Abraham’s homeland, Aram Na’harayim, and there encounters Rebecca (Rivkah). By offering to give not only Eliezer water to drink, but even his camels as well, Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a person filled with special lovingkindness, who would be an appropriate mate for Isaac, his master’s son.

While it’s true that the Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, says that Rebecca was only three years old at that time, the intention of the Midrash is to underscore Rebecca’s purity, that she was too young to have been molested by the people of Aram Na’harayim, who were well known for violating women.

Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is so taken by Rebecca and her extraordinary kindness that, even before he finds out about her family and who she really is, he immediately bedecks her with jewelry. When he learns that Rebecca is the daughter of Bethuel, a close relative of Abraham’s family, he regards this as a Divine omen.

Eliezer and his entourage are welcomed into Bethuel’s home. Eliezer meets Laban, Rebecca’s cunning brother, and negotiations for the woman’s hand in marriage begin. Eliezer proceeds to tell, in lengthy detail, of the miraculous birth of Isaac to his aged parents Sarah and Abraham, explains how he chose Rebecca through the test of kindness, and beseeches the family to now allow Rebecca to return with him to Canaan so she may marry the princely Isaac.

After showering the girl’s family with gifts, Rebecca is asked whether she wishes to go with Eliezer. She accedes, the betrothal is completed, and Rebecca is sent off to meet her groom-to-be. Laban offers a beautiful departing blessing to his sister, “Achoteinu at ha’yi l’alfei re’va’vah,” Our sister, may you be to the thousands of myriads! In effect he is saying, Rebecca, may you be the progenitor of many generations of Jewish children. This same blessing is still recited to this day by fathers upon their daughters at the Badekin–the traditional veiling of the bride–as they are sent off to marriage.

The servant, the bride and the entire entourage arrive in Canaan, and the first encounter between Rebecca and her future husband takes place. It is this encounter which provides us with many insights into the future relationship between Rebecca and Isaac.

Rebecca has left her entire family behind in Aram Na’harayim, and has traveled many hundreds of kilometers to Canaan with Eliezer, a servant whom she hardly knows, and his entourage. Only her nurse and a few of her own maidens accompany her on this momentous journey. Even if she weren’t a three-year-old girl, certainly such a journey, without familiar friends or family, must have been exceedingly traumatic. It’s true that according to many Midrashim, Rebecca couldn’t wait to get out of the house of wicked Bethuel and Laban and into the holy environment of Abraham’s home, but still, it was a traumatic change.

The Torah, in Genesis 24, verse 62, tells us that when Isaac and Rebecca meet for the first time, Isaac was coming from having gone to B’er L’Chai Ro’ee, the Well of the Living G-d. It seems that after the Akeidah, after almost being offered up for slaughter by his father Abraham, Isaac chooses not to dwell with his father, but lives separately in the South country. Perhaps because of the trauma of the near death experience, Isaac pays a visit to Be’er L’Chai Ro’ee , the well, known as Ishmael’s well, where G-d appeared to Hagar and told her to go back and suffer humiliation under the hands of Sarah, because she was to give birth to a child, Ishmael. According to one tradition brought down in Rashi, Isaac had gone to Be’er L’Chai Ro’ee to bring Hagar back to Abraham, now that his own mother Sarah was deceased, so that Abraham would not be left without a wife. Propitiously, G-d brings a wife to Isaac as a reward for his kindness to his father.

Isaac goes out to meditate in the field before evening, perhaps to daven, lifts up his eyes and sees camels coming. Verse 64 is very revealing, ” Va’tisa Rivka et ey’neh’ha, va’tay’reh et Yitzchak, va’tipol may’al ha’gamal.” And Rebecca raised her eyes and saw Isaac, and fell off the camel. She asks the servant Eliezer: Who is that man coming before us in the field? Eliezer answers that it is our master, Isaac. Rebecca promptly takes a veil and, in modesty, covers her face. Eliezer proceeds to tell Isaac of all the fascinating things that had occurred to him and how he came to choose Rebecca. Scripture states that Isaac then brings Rebecca into the tent of Sarah his mother, takes Rebecca as a wife, loves her, and is comforted after his mother.

What we see here in this first encounter between Isaac and Rebecca is a bride and groom who carry much baggage with them. It could very well be that Isaac is still recovering from the trauma of the Akeidah, of the binding. He is constantly praying, trying to do good deeds, to justify the fact that he was saved from almost certain death. Isaac has scaled new heights on the spiritual ladder, prepared to give up everything for the sake of heaven without protesting. Rebecca, on the other hand, is but a young child who comes from Aram Na’harayim, a decadent idolatrous background, and although she is related to Abraham’s family, her parents and siblings are nothing to write home about. Given this background, and the stark contrast with Isaac’s noble background, Rebecca feels wholly inadequate. So when she encounters the great spiritual man coming from prayer before evening, she falls off the camel and covers her face. While Isaac loves Rebecca, it seems to be a relationship between polar opposites.

Perhaps this explains why Rebecca resorts to deceiving her husband and having Jacob dress up as Esau, when she fears that Isaac is prepared to give the blessing to Esau. Why does she not speak with him? Why doesn’t she confront him directly? Perhaps because the same feelings of inadequacy that she had when she first encountered this great spiritual man have come back to haunt her. How can I, Rebecca, the sister of Laban, the daughter of Bethuel, born in the den of iniquity and idolatrous decadence, confront my husband, Isaac, the son of the great spiritualist Abraham, who was prepared to give his life on the Akeidah for G-d? Instead, she resorts to a deception.

Oftentimes we tend to idealize the stories of the Bible, and without question, the characters of the patriarchs and matriarchs are truly and fully exalted, but the Torah also tries to teach us how human they were, and even underscores the daily human challenges that they faced. Our patriarchs lived in a world that was in turmoil. There were many negative influences assaulting them from all sides. The challenges that they faced were certainly as great as the ones that we face today, perhaps greater, because they were alone in their struggle to live godly, ethical, and moral lives.

While we each face challenges, we can learn from the challenges that our matriarchs and patriarchs faced. For after all, despite all the negative factors, the patriarchs were ultimately successful in nurturing 12 disparate tribes and melding them into one Nation of Israel, notwithstanding their radically different personalities and characters. We can learn much from them as we study the insights of our Bible in detail.

May you be blessed.