Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)
When Love is Not Blind
Most of this week's Torah portion is devoted to the story of the marriage between Isaac and Rebecca.
There are several questions that present themselves as one reads through this very detailed account:
- Why is it important for us to have all this detail?
- Why was it so important that Isaac not leave Israel and that, instead, his bride should be brought to him by Abraham's servant Eliezer?
- Why was Isaac – who was nearly 40 – not consulted at all about the proposed match?
THE MEANING OF "EVERYTHING"
In order to understand all the factors involved in this story, we have to understand the meaning of "everything."
Now Abraham was old, well on in years and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything. (Genesis 24:1)
Rashi informs us that because Abraham had everything, and all he was lacking was grandchildren, the idea of arranging Isaac's marriage formed in his mind. But, of course, a person with a forty-year old unmarried son who is making no move in the direction of getting married and providing him with grandchildren does not have everything. Abraham was hardly the kind of shallow person who believed that he had everything just because he was blessed with wealth.
A father with a forty-year old unmarried son who is making no move toward marriage does not have everything.
By this point in time, Abraham had already lost his wife, had driven away his son Ishmael, and his remaining son Isaac seemed at a dead end. For a person that devoted his entire life to the establishment of relationships – with man as well as with God – this hardly seemed like "everything."
Nachmanides explains this "everything" with the aid of a Midrash:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked Rabbi Eliezer bar Rabbi Yosi: "Did you possibly hear an explanation of the following verse from your father? Go forth and gaze daughters of Zion at King Solomon, adorned by the crown that his mother fashioned for him on his wedding day, the day of the rejoicing of his heart. (Song of Songs 3:11)"
He said yes ... He told him [that his father] explained it in terms of the following parable: "The king had an only daughter that he loved more than was proper and he called her 'my daughter.' He loved her even more and he called her 'my sister.' His love did not waver until he finally called her 'my mother.'
"Similarly at first God loved Israel and called Israel 'My daughter,' as it is written, Hear O daughter and see and incline your ears. (Psalms 45:11) God did not waver till He described Israel as His sister, as it is written, The voice of my beloved knocking on my door, 'Open up my sister, my beloved.' (Song of Songs 5:1) God was steadfast in His love for Israel till He called it 'my mother,' as it is written, Pay attention to me My people, My mother ... (Isaiah 51:4)"
Rabbi Shimon rose and kissed him on the top of his head. He told him, "If I had come to earth only to hear these words it would have been worthwhile." (Shir Hashirim Rabba 3,21)
Let us try and bring these lofty ideas down to earth in steps. What does it mean that Israel is described as God's daughter, or sister, or mother?
IN THE IMAGE OF GOD
God describes man at the time of his creation as having been formed in God's image. The name that He selects to convey this idea is the holy name Elohim – i.e. Adam was created in the image of Elohim.
Explains Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in his work "Nefesh Hachaim" (Gate 1) that the concept of "image" does not mean to indicate any essential resemblance; God is infinite and has no image, and thus it is impossible to look like Him. The concept is intended to portray a resemblance in attributes or characteristics.
The human attribute that permits man to be described as having something in common with God falls under the umbrella of Divine Attributes specifically conveyed by the holy name Elohim.
The Tur Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim,5) explains that the holy name Elohim represents the idea that God is the master of all the energy in the universe.
Rabbi Chaim explains this with the following metaphor. When a person constructs a building out of wood, he does not form the wood itself at the time but uses materials that are already at hand. Moreover, when he finishes arranging the materials into the desired pattern, and he withdraws from the construction site, the building will continue to stand erect and can endure indefinitely without further input from the builder. God builds differently.
When God created the world, He first had to manufacture the materials out of which the universe is constructed.
When God created the world, He first had to manufacture the materials out of which the universe is constructed; this he accomplished by transforming a part of his own Divine energy, as it were, into the desired materials. This is the first difference between God and the human builder.
The second major difference: the universe can only endure as long as God – Elohim – continues to supply the energy of creation. As the universe is constructed out of Divine energy, it is actually not there except for the tiniest blink of an eye at a time. It takes constant, never ceasing fresh inputs of Divine energy to keep the universe going.
To clarify the idea somewhat, we might imagine a heavy ball that is kept suspended in the air. Obviously, this state of suspension can only last as long as there is a force being applied to the ball to offset the force of gravity. Gravity would force the ball to descend to earth the instant the counter-force ceased to be applied. In the same way, it takes constant input of Divine energy to serve as a counter-force to the basic state of non-being in order to keep the universe suspended in the state of being.
But there is more to the story.
Let us now suppose that I were a rich man who wanted to give away a large sum of money. Instead of listening to all the petitioners myself, I might hire somebody I trusted to distribute the money for me. All petitioners would then turn to my appointee as if he were really the rich one, not I. For there is no money to be had by petitioning me. The money may all be mine but I appointed someone else to hand it out. Theoretically, I could even set this up in such an air-tight fashion, that when I myself wanted to channel some sum to a particular address, I would also have to turn to my own appointee and petition for the money like everyone else.
Explains Rabbi Chaim: it is in this sense that man is described as having been created in the image of God. When He created man, God made a policy decision to give him free will. Free will does not simply mean that man has the ability to disobey God's orders. On a deeper level of meaning, free will allows man to have exactly the world he desires. This results from the fact that in granting man free will God put man in charge of distributing the Divine energy of creation.
Instead of God Himself making the decisions regarding the allocation of the Divine creative force, these decisions were left to man. In certain portions of the universe, which certainly include man's own world, both spiritual and physical, it is not God who distributes the Divine creative energy represented by the holy name Elohim, but man.
The Divine energy of creation can be employed to form a universe that is full of holiness and is attached to God in all aspects. The same energy can be employed to construct a universe that is totally detached from the source of all this energy and is impermeable to His presence. As man is in charge of the allocation of the Divine energy of creation it is he that decides which of these two universes will be formed at any moment. More precisely, as both of the extremes are presently impossible [the reasons for this are lengthy and not germane to the present discussion] he sets up the equilibrium between the holy and the unholy in the universe he occupies.
THE POWER OF "EVERYTHING"
Armed with this information, let us now consult our metaphor of the rich man once again. Such a person would certainly not appoint just anyone to hand out his money. He would have to get to know and trust someone quite well before he could allow him to wield so much power over his assets. In the same way, although God made a policy decision to give man free will and place him in charge of the Divine energy of creation, He was not about to hand over this "everything" power to just anyone. He would obviously have to know and trust the human being given such incredible power at least as much as the rich man of our analogy. This is where these ideas of daughter, sister and mother come in.
Following Adam's fall, human beings only possessed free will in terms of their own behavior. Although God wanted to hand over the "everything" power subsumed under the name Elohim to man, man had to first prove himself trustworthy.
After ten trials, God felt secure enough to appoint Abraham to be the distributor of the Divine energy.
Until Abraham came along there was no suitable candidate that was even worth testing. When Abraham came on the scene, God did not jump to take him either. God tested Abraham ten times culminating with his greatest test the Akeida. Only after all these trials, did God feel secure enough to appoint Abraham to be the distributor of the Divine energy.
In effect He placed Abraham in charge of the holy name Elohim, which is the name of God used in creating the universe. In other words He gave Abraham "everything." At this point man could be described again as the "image of Elohim," a title that had lost its significance since the fall of Adam.
But even then, God went about this cautiously, in deliberate steps. First, he gave man this "everything" power as you would give it to a daughter. A daughter is almost totally under her father's control. In the next generation God went further. To Isaac, He gave this "everything" power as you would to a sister, someone who is much less under your control. Finally, in the next generation, He gave Jacob the "everything" power as you would to a mother, someone who you cannot control at all, and who on the contrary, generally has a great deal of control over you.
Since the time of Jacob, when God wants to accomplish something in the world, He Himself must draw the power to do so from the descendants of Jacob who are collectively in charge of the Elohim power. According to Rabbi Chaim, this is the meaning of the verse:
Give invincible might to Elohim, Whose grandeur rests upon Israel, as His might is in the skies. (Psalms 68:35)
God needs Israel to make Him mighty.
We mention this connection between the Patriarchs and the "everything" power each time we recite the grace after meals:
The compassionate One! May He bless ... all that is ... ours, just as our Forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were blessed in everything, from everything and with everything.
The three expressions, each indicating that no necessary measure of goodness is lacking, are used respectively by the Torah in referring to the patriarchs. The Talmud, (Baba Basra 16b) derives from these verses that the patriarchs were granted an inkling of the world to come, and that the evil inclination had no dominion over them, for the word kol, "everything," implies perfection, a total unflawed blessing. (Artscroll Sidur)
THE SEARCH FOR A WIFE
The timing of Isaac's marriage now becomes clear.
As soon as Abraham felt that he had been granted the "everything" power, he began to search for a wife for Isaac. Had Isaac married before and had children, they would have been ordinary children, not the inheritors of the "everything" power, lacking the completion of being in the "image of Elohim."
Abraham had to finish fully acquiring his own "image of Elohim," comparable to "daughter," before Isaac could begin to build on his achievement and climb to the next level of being the "image of Elohim" on his level, comparable to "sister."
But these two levels were still short of finality. As long as the level of "mother" attained by Jacob was still missing in the world, the grip on the "everything" power was still only tentative. It was only on loan, as it were, while the Patriarchs were in God's own house, the Land of Israel. It could not yet survive being transported to Laban's house, where Abraham's servant Eliezer found Rebecca (Laban's sister) as a wife for Isaac. Later, Jacob traveled to Laban's house and took the two daughters of Laban – Rachel and Leah – as his wives.
About Laban it is written, An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather (Deut. 26:5)
The Haggadah we recite on Passover Seder night explains this passage:
Come and see what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our forefather Jacob. Pharaoh only wanted to kill the Jewish males, but Laban wanted to uproot "everything," as it is written, An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather.
When Jacob attempted to leave Laban's house after 14 years of hard labor and return to Israel, Laban resisted. He said I have learned by divination that God has blessed me on account of you (Genesis 30:27)
When Jacob finally left, he literally ran for his life. To keep the blessing of the "everything" power in his house, Laban was willing to destroy his own grandchildren. If the Patriarchs were "the image of Elohim" who could be entrusted with the "everything" power, Laban was their direct opposite. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Abraham did not want to send Isaac to Laban.
THE WISDOM OF ELIEZER
Finally we are ready to appreciate the great wisdom of Eliezer in how he chose the wife for Isaac.
The Talmud tells us about Eliezer (Yuma 28b) that he was the one who ladled out Abraham's teaching to the world, and that he had a full mastery of all Abraham's wisdom. If Eliezer would have gone about searching for Isaac's wife in the ordinary way, that is to say, first locate Abraham's family, look over the suitable candidates, select the most suitable, and negotiate the marriage contract, he would have been no less convinced that the marriage was arranged by heaven.
In Abraham's belief system, which Eliezer fully shared, the maxim – "Forty days before the birth of a child there is an announcement in heaven, 'so and so's daughter is destined to marry so and so'" (Talmud Sota, 2a) – is the principle applied to all marriages. No matter how hard the parties search and negotiate in the end they believe that it is all arranged by heaven. So why did Eliezer devise the test at the well?
Eliezer understood that if he sat down to negotiate with Laban, Laban would demand Isaac come to Rebecca.
The answer is that he knew Laban the Aramean. He understood that if he sat down to negotiate with him in the ordinary way he would inevitably demand that Isaac come to Rebecca. He wanted the "everything" in his possession to manipulate. If Eliezer were to succeed in his mission and bring Rebecca to Isaac, he had to present the marriage as a given in so powerful a way, that even Laban would understand that there was nothing to negotiate. Thus he devised the test of the well and conveyed it so successfully that Laban was momentarily overwhelmed and totally forgot to negotiate. By the time he caught himself the next day it was too late. By then it was up to Rebecca who demonstrated her spiritual greatness by unhesitatingly agreeing to travel to a strange land with a total stranger that she had only met the previous day to marry a total stranger. She realized what was at stake.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A MATE
In the world inhabited by those who are in "the image of Elohim" only couples are complete.
So God created man in His own image, in the image of Elohim He created him, male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27)
A person without a mate is not fully human (Talmud, Yevomat 63a).
Abraham was better qualified to find the perfect mate for Isaac than Isaac himself. The person who looks for his own counterpart is too sidetracked by earthly consideration to consider the proposition of marriage through the window of the best way to become the "image of Elohim." In contrast, parents who are such people themselves, automatically adopt this consideration as their primary focus.
Whatever happened in the lives of the Patriarchs is a lesson for us to learn from and as a guide to our future. (Tanchuma, Lech Lecha, 9) And a choice of a mate determines that future to a large extent – a home that is designed to contain "everything" is a very precious resource.
But does this mean that we have to give up romance in favor of pre-arranged or "rationally" arranged marriages? What would life be without romance? Judging by the overwhelming role romance plays in our culture – dominating most popular songs, movies, and literature – life would not be worth living without it. Do we have to give up everything to gain "everything"?
Not at all. We are all aware that it is possible to develop romantic feelings towards more than one person. Indeed this is why romance is the cause of most of the emotional anguish in the world just as it is the source of the greatest joy. In a sensible world that is run by the Divine Intelligence, is it reasonable to suppose that the most suitable candidate for supplying the missing half of "the image of Elohim" would be a person toward whom one could not develop such feelings? On the contrary, such a person would be the most likely one to stimulate the strongest romantic impulses in his or her Divinely designated mate.
The genius of the Jewish people turned the hunt for a mate into a spiritual quest. There is no need to pursue romance. It was programmed into our psyche in any case, and it will certainly occupy its proper position in our lives even if we do not search for it.
Our search needs to be focused where, through the gift of free will, we embody the "image of Elohim" – in the area of spirituality.