Shabbat candles: 5:42 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1:1-31
Havdalah: 6:41 p.m.
Editor’s Note: 5774 will be a special treat for online readers of “Sabbath Week.” The Jewish Week is thrilled to bring our weekly Torah commentary together with artist Archie Rand’s “Chapter Paintings:” one accompanies, illustrates and illuminates every Torah portion. The art will be available first on the Jewish Week’s homepage slide carousel, and then on our Arts page carousel… that is, until the next week, when the next portion, painting and dvar Torah take their turn. Read more about the artist and his work here.
In every life there is some moment of decisiveness, of significance, that changes both the events that come after it as well as the perception of what came before. In the life of Rebecca, it is the moment she chooses to veil herself when seeing her husband for the first time.
Why can’t she see him — or won’t she see him? In the moment Rebecca first sees Isaac [Genesis 24:63], he is in a moment of prayer, according to the rabbinic lens on the tale, though the verb “la’suah‚” which can mean “meditate” or “talk” or “walk among shrubs‚” according to scholar Nahum Sarna. What really is prayer and what might Isaac be doing? Prayer is an attempt to reframe reality, both to change how the one praying sees the world and to have our desires come into consonance with the world around us. The spot where Isaac goes to pray is Be’er-Lehai-Roi, the place where his father Abraham’s concubine Hagar thought that she was going to die of thirst and exposure until an angel called to her and told her to turn around [Gen. 16:7-16]. The second time Hagar is expelled from the house of Abraham, and again thinks she will die, God opens her eyes and she perceives a well of water where she had not before [Gen. 21:19]. Prayer is a call to openness and possibility, that though reality can’t change, eyes can be opened like Hagar’s so it can be perceived differently.
By veiling herself at the moment of their meeting, Rebecca removes herself from the world of Isaac and his values, choosing to remain as she was in Paddan-Aram. Rebecca grew up in a house where rigidity ruled. At the moment when the servant of Abraham retells his story of what occurred when he first saw Rebecca, the reaction of her father and brother is the “matter is from God, we can’t speak of it for good or for bad” [Gen. 24:50]. This idea, that something emanating from God does not provide choice, is the view of the house of Laban, not the rest of the Torah.
And Rebecca, in choosing to veil herself, to close herself away from Isaac, is presaging the rest of their marriage, particularly the moment when she chooses not to share the divine oracle on the fates of her sons. Had Rebecca let Isaac know the information that she did, and had they discussed the fate of their children, Rebecca would have realized that she and Isaac actually agreed on which son was fit to receive the covenantal blessing. If we examine the substance of the blessing Isaac gives to Jacob when Isaac knows who he is, it is apparent that the patriarchal blessing had been intended for Jacob all along. Isaac tells Jacob, “May he grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham [Gen. 28:4]. Rebecca’s actions to ensure the proper blessing for Jacob were wholly unnecessary to the fulfillment of God’s plan.
In parshat Chayei Sarah, when we first meet Rebecca she is a capable and strong young woman. She gives water to the servant of Abraham and his camels [Gen. 24:45-46], a scene written with a series of linked verbs that make her more active than other biblical women. She is important enough to God that he speaks to her directly, something even Sarah did not experience (she was only able to overhear).
The Midrashim say that this week’s portion opens with the death of Sarah [Gen. 23:1] because even though Isaac was not killed when he was bound on the altar [Gen. 22], the shock to Sarah of learning (and not from Abraham) that her only son was about to be killed by his father, did Sarah in.
Rebecca had greater knowledge of the world than Sarah, through the direct message she had from God about the fate of her sons. Why couldn’t Rebecca have seen that she had the power of blessing herself? She could have articulated the message to Jacob and actually given him a bracha of her own in her own words, or gone to Isaac, told him what she knew and helped him give the right blessing to the right son. Rebecca could have stood with Isaac then as a collaborator, not an opponent. Isaac had the power of prayer at the moment he and his wife met and later the power of blessing. Had Rebecca chosen to be open to both prayer and blessing rather than veiling herself off from the world and closing herself into a one dimensional worldview, they could have together created a home with appropriate blessings for both their sons, instead of driving them both away, Jacob back to Paddan Aram and Esau to the Canaanite women.
It would have all been so different if Rebecca had been able to meet Isaac from the same place of openness he was in, praying in the fields of Be’er-Lehai-Roi.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of “Reading Genesis” (Continuum Books, 2014), an anthology of writing about Genesis by Jewish academics in various fields. She has taught Hebrew Bible, English literature, writing and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.