Isaac grew up. He made it to adulthood, and it was time to get him married off.
Abraham had tasked a servant to go find him a suitable bride from among his kinfolk back in the home country. So the servant did, and came up with a whole Kindness Test for how he’d know who to go for when he got there—the first woman to not only provide him water, but to offer to water to his camels would be the one. Which… you know, honestly, matches have been made on less.
So, lo and behold, here comes Rebecca, and does the camel-watering thing, just like that. He gives her an awesome gold nose ring and some bracelets (actually; Genesis 24:22) and asks her if she’s up for an adventure, willing to travel to new lands to meet and marry a total stranger. She is, indeed—hey, why not?
So the servant and Rebecca travel back to the land of Canaan, where Abraham and Isaac are, and there’s this lovely, romantic scene that unfolds, cinematically, over a few short verses—the rest of the Torah passage that I quote in this post is from Genesis 24:61-67.
So first we see Rebecca setting on the journey:
“Then Rebecca and her maids arose, mounted the camels, and followed the man. So the servant took Rebecca and went his way.”
Next verses—scene change!
“Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negev. And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening.”
I’ll pause for a second here to note that the word I’m translating as “walking” could also translate as “meditating”, and is interpreted by the Rabbis (Genesis Rabba 60:14, e.g.) to mean that he was praying. In any case, we have this image of a man, off in solitude, towards evening—not in the evening, but towards evening; one imagines that it’s twilight, that time when everything feels heightened, not-quite, both-and. One pictures him in out in this electric time, out in nature, tapping in, connecting to God or the universe or the Big Bigness or whatever words make sense to you.
But he’s out there, in the field, in this state, at this exquisite, intensified time, in a state of profound connection, senses tingling,
“and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.”
And there she is. The text doesn’t tell us, even. We know.
Cut back to her.
“Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, ‘Who is that man walking in the field toward us?’ And the servant said, ‘That is my master.’ So she took her scarf and covered herself.”
So, first of all, JPS wants to translate her coming off the camel as “alighted,” other translations choose “descended,” but if you want to get technical about it, that Hebrew word means “fell.” She literally fell off the camel when she saw Isaac. (Insert all your “falling in love” jokes here.) This is how powerful and primal the impact seeing him was on her. When she saw him, she fell off her camel.
Second of all, yes, a normative reading might be that she covered herself with her scarf out of modesty and as part of ancient Near Eastern gender expectations, but there’s another reading that I much prefer.
The 16th c. Italian Torah commentator Sforno likens her veiling to Moses’ fear of looking too closely at the Burning Bush in Exodus—the sense that she has encountered something so holy, so awe-inspiring that it brings her more than a moment of pause.
And, indeed, if we’re going to make Moses analogies, the obvious one would be Exodus 34:30-35—after Moses comes down from his extended coffee date with God at the top of Mount Sinai, his skin is so radiant that it literally shines with divine glory, and it’s a bit much for the people to handle, so he takes to wearing a veil so as not to make the Israelites too uncomfortable. Moses’ veiling or concealing himself is in the face of divine power, or in the aftermath of it—either way, we see echoes of it here. Something big and extraordinary, something sacred and profound has happened to Rebecca, and it demands not only emotional but physical response.
Isaac had been in a profound state of spiritual connection, and what he saw in that state was... her.
And when Rebecca saw him, it was an encounter with the sacred.
Now, there are plenty of things we can say about love at first sight (does it happen, does it not, I don’t know, I certainly won’t weigh in on that here) or a myriad of other things in these passages, but I want to point at this, this thing:
The ways in which love can be, in itself, a manifestation of the divine.
And that, even, the work we do to love one another is holy work.
Which does not mean that—even though Rebecca and Isaac are serving us serious Rom-Com Crescendo here—offering and receiving love is a simple or straightforward. (One only need look at their own relationship as it unfolds over the course of Genesis to know that.)
Love is hard. Love is a painful mirror for our imperfections. And, most importantly, maybe, love isn't a single, fixed state. It's an action, or a series of actions. It is work, active work. The Black feminist theorist bell hooks cites author M. Scott Peck's definition of love, based off the work of the philosopher Erich Fromm. Love is, she claims, the
"will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."
"The will to extend yourself": To stretch and extend, because someone needs you to, so that they can grow. (Note, this does not mean the abrogation of your own boundaries, or harming yourself. It means manufacturing patience when you have run plumb out because a child needs you to model calmness; it means holding your peace even though you really don’t want to because your spouse needs time, or pushing into difficult-for-you conversations because someone you care about needs support. Extending does not mean breaking.)
Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, said once that "to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Here and now. And as Rogers notes, loving is about a striving to accept, not in the completed act of acceptance. This striving is also a kind of an extending of the self. And the choice to accept someone, no matter who and how they are—well, there’s nothing more conducive to their spiritual growth than that.
And it might even be that when we let ourselves go down, deep down into that love, that we can meet the transcendent there. As Maimonides, the 12th century philosopher and legal scholar, wrote:
"What is the way to love and be in awe of God? … As the Sages said regarding love, through this you know the One who spoke and [created] the Universe.” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 2:2)
That is, we know God through love. Our acts of love are the path in.
Whether or not Isaac and Rebecca always related to one another with that extending of the self for the other’s growth (spoiler: they did not), we see the possibility here, and the opportunities for us all.
We can reach out to find one another, and to find the Big Holy Bigness in the process, too.
And, indeed, from Rebecca’s willingness to say yes to this strange, unexpected thing to their mutual encounter with the holy and one another, there was love—and, for a grieving Isaac, finally, this offered him the possibility of something new.
“Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
In one another’s arms, some healing could happen.
And some possibilities for finding the holy in one another.
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