Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
When Isaac Met Rebekah
This week’s Torah portion opens with Sarah’s death. After Abraham mourns her, he sets out to accomplish his last fatherly duty before he, too, makes his transition: finding a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his most faithful servant back to the city of Nachor, his hometown, to find Isaac a spouse from his clan.
As the servant arrives at the well of the city, he begins to verbalize out loud–talking to God–the mental picture he created about how meeting the right woman for Isaac would unfold, down to the specific behavior she would have to display for him to know she is the one. As he prays for success, he repeats time and again the word chesed (loving-kindness):
“Act in chesed with my master Abraham.” [Gen. 24:12] “Through her I will know that you have acted in chesed with my master.” [Gen. 24:14] And when he is finally certain he’s found the one in Rebekah, he bows down and cries: “Blessed is the Eternal, God of my master Abraham, Who has not relinquished His chesed from my master.” [Gen. 24:27]
For our rabbis, Chesed is the quality associated with Abraham. Throughout his life, they affirm, Abraham embodied loving-kindness in his actions and his level of faith. But as Abraham’s days now come to an end, there is a fear that, perhaps, this quality was slipping away from him as these verses from his servant seem to indicate. Some commentators suggest that since the Akedah–the near sacrifice of Isaac–God had stopped talking to Abraham. It was even an angel, and not God Himself, that intervened in-extremis to stop Abraham from killing his son. Perhaps in finding Rebekah, the servant is seeking to either compel God to bestow chesed upon Abraham once again, or to be reassured that, despite the episode of the Akedah, God still holds his master in loving-kindness.
But there is another possibility. The servant’s proof that God is acting with chesed lies in the quality of the woman he is looking for. She is the one to embody this loving-kindness; the one, according to his prayer, that will give him water from the well and will spontaneously offer to water his camels too. And Rebekah fulfills his prediction exactly. God might not restore Abraham to his former status; instead he might be transferring onto Rebekah–as the new heir to His Promise–the continuity of this quality of chesed. And Isaac needed to bring chesed into his life. One of the consequences of the Akedah is that Isaac comes out of the ordeal embodying the qualities of restraint (of one’s impulses,) of strict justice, and of righteous power. Isaac, our rabbis say, symbolizes the quality of gevurah (judgment,) the opposite of chesed. Opposites may or may not attract but they need one another. Isaac finds in Rebekah the energies, the qualities that balance out his own. She not only consoles him after the death of his mother but keeps alive in his life, his father’s energies as well.
So what are our dominant character traits? What unique qualities do we embody? Which are the ones we are proud of and which are the ones we are embarrassed about? The Torah is teaching us that we are to look for these behaviors that are, still, stumbling blocks in our lives, and practice their opposite. That to find healing and balance in our lives we are not to attempt to kill our inner Isaac, but to seek instead to make more room for, and nurture our inner Rebekah. And as we do so, we might be blessed with leading a more whole and peaceful life; a life of Shalom.