Abraham, who first encountered love in the most unexpected circumstances, bequeathed it to his son, Isaac, who in turn shared it with his wife, Rebecca. Thus, the first love between a man and a woman in the Torah was born, and here too, it did not come about in the way we would “expect”, but then, why would it.
Isaac, whose Hebrew name means “he will laugh”, is not an obviously funny character, but rather pensive and thoughtful. Some describe him as withdrawn or even depressed, stricken by PTSD from the knife hovering over his eyes, but Jewish mysticism ascribes to him the quality of strength – not the strength of loud wars and noisy fist fights, but a quiet, solid, measured kind of strength. He is the embodiment of gvura, whose counterpart is chesed, kindness. The latter is the quality most often associated with Abraham, but also – with Rebecca.
We know the story: Abraham, after the binding and Sarah’s death, calls his trusted servant and sends him back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac. Isaac, by the way, at that time was already 40 years old, and yet he is not the one rushing from home to find her. In fact, he’s not rushing to do anything. That too is part of his quiet strength.
The servant heads north with 10 camels, arriving at the well. Beautiful maidens come and go. How will he know the right one? He asks for a sign, and utters what must be one of the first – if not the first – prayers of supplication in the Torah: “G-d… please, cause this happenstance to occur” (Genesis 24:12)… but how can one ask for a chance meeting?? If it’s a chance, then doesn’t it just happen by itself? And if it’s planned – by humans or the Divine – then why would it be called a chance?
19 century Rav Hirsch connects the root used here, k.r.h. (happen, chanced) and k.r.a (to call on someone), saying, that when someone speaks of the things that “happened” to him, he actually refers to things that he did not “call”, but rather, they (these events) “called” him to them, by a Higher Power. If we mix the Hebrew letters of the word “mikre”, chance, you can get “rak meh(ashem)” (only from G-d”), and coincidentally, we can also get the word “karma”. So which way is it? Chance or Pre-destiny? Yes. Absolute order leads to determinism, while absolute happenstance leads to fatalism, illusions and inability to plan anything. It must be both. Chance needs some anchors. Careful planning needs room for G-d.
The sign that the servant decides on, is also telling. I’m reminded of my teens years, when we used to count red cars. Then, the next boy who will speak to you, that’s a sign… We could count all we want; we could change the count, ‘actually, that one was dark red motorcycle so actually it doesn’t count’… But the servant’s sign is very clear: she must be kind, not only to a rich traveler who bears gifts of a golden nose ring and bracelets, but to animals too. And by the way, though camels must have been the choice travel mode of back then, the fact that there are exactly ten of them, like the ten bracelets and ten other things in the Torah, and that the Hebrew word for camel, gamal, shares its root with gemilut chasadim, doing acts of loving kindness, emphasizes this quality of chesed further.
But chesed alone is insufficient. Unlimited kindness can be harmful to the giver and the receiver. It needs its counterpart. Rebecca must have known that, and so when asked whether she would go, she says yes.
The text tells us, in what to us might be an unusual order of verbs, that after they met, Isaac “brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother. And he took Rebecca (some translate here “and he married her”) and she became his wife, and (then) he loved her, and (only then) Isaac found comfort after his mother(‘s passing).” (Genesis 24:67). Not like they didn’t have a romantic 1st meeting before, with him walking meditatively in the field during sunset, and her “falling off the camel” as soon as she saw him, even before asking the servant who was this man. But love meant purpose and partnership, and love took time.
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I get up early to write but Zoe decides that if I’m already up at this hour, I should really check out the starry sky. Just before dawn, an amazing canopy spread over me. A bright moon shines in the southeast, accompanied by Mars and Venus. I bundle up for the morning air, and find, there’s always some surprise in last year’s pocket.