Rabbi David Walk
You don't have to be Dr. Sigmund Freud to recognize the special relationship which exists between mothers and sons. Even though I'll leave the connection between fathers and daughters to others (maybe my daughters), I don't mind admitting that much of my life I behaved and thought in terms of 'what would my mother make of that.' I truly believe that her values have been a critical moral compass for me. Her love of books and knowledge always inspired me to want more erudition. It was her sense of fair-mindedness which often informed my relationships. Thank God her voice still resides within my brain. I feel like my mourning for her has been replaced by a celebration of her character, intelligence and wit. She never learned how to tell a joke (often the punch line preceded the set up), but she was regularly funny. Our Torah reading presents a totally different picture. It's at least three years after the death of Sarah and Yitzchak is still in mourning for his beloved mother. The climactic moment of our parsha is when he finally emerges from this grief.
Most of this week's reading is taken up with the search for a wife for Yitzchak. This enterprise is so important to the story of our people that the normally taciturn Torah spends 60 precious verses describing the endeavor. I'm sure all those details are important to understanding the importance of finding the right life partner, and these facts inform the complex interactions between Rivka and Yitzchak which we read about next week. But right now I'm interested in the few (5) verses which record the meeting between the couple. So much is packed into this short space that it's very hard to parse it all. Yitzchak is coming from Be'er Lachai Ro'I which is perhaps where Yishmael and Hagar lived, he's holding a conversation (praying?) in the field, and then he spies the caravan coming from far off parts of the Fertile Crescent. Rivka sees him as well. Her reaction is very modest. She descends from her camel and covers herself in the presence of her future husband. It is apparently this unassuming and reserved behavior which inspires Yitzchak to immediately install her in his mother's tent.
This brief description of their encounter ends with the significant statement, 'and he was comforted after his mother (Genesis 24:67).' His three years of mourning have ended. What was there about Rivka which allowed Yitzchak to move on from his grief? The mystical answer is really quite simple. Rivka was Sarah. The tradition is that Rivka was three years old when betrothed to Yitzchak, who was forty. These numbers are significant, because they point to the fact that Rivka was born as Sarah was dying, which means that as Sarah expired her soul migrated to Rivka as she emerged into this world. Yitzchak sensed that. Since I find this view point to spooky to contemplate, I'll present another.
There is an equally famous Rashi which describes another set of circumstances which drew Yitzchak out of his long funk. Here's Rashi's comment: He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; that is she became the likeness of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed (Gen. Rabbah 60:16). This explanation by Rashi concerned the Maharal of Prague (Reb Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1520-1606) in his super-commentary called Gur Aryeh. His complaint was that Rashi left out one of the wonders of Sarah's tent. The Midrash also mentions that the tent remained open on all sides. So, the Maharal must explain why Rashi didn't include that fact. He claims that Rashi only mentions these wonders because they are referred to in the Mishna: Women succumb to the dangers of childbirth as a consequence of three sins: because they are not observant of the laws of niddah, hallah [the portion of the dough separated to be given to the priest], and the kindling of the Sabbath lights (Shabbat 2:6).
I would to suggest an alternate approach. I think that the tent door's status was unnecessary to mention, because this was an aspect of hachnasat orchim (hospitality) and that already covered in the issue of the dough, which was miraculously sufficient for whatever number of guests appeared. The three phenomena listed represent the three essential Jewish categories of Torah, avodah (Divine service), and g'milut chasadim (acts of kindness). These basics of Judaism didn't disappear totally from the camp of Avraham but they were no longer observed in miraculous proportions. Everything was low key without the dynamism of Sarah's presence and character. But now Rivka's personality and presence have brought these values back to the level of the 'good ole days.'
But what really bothered Yitzchak? Yitzchak looked around at the world and noticed that the relationship between his parents was unique. He thought that their partnership in fulfilling God's mission was unique and couldn't be duplicated. Abram couldn't become Avraham without Sarai becoming Sarah. Rabbi Soloveitchik called that a covenantal marriage which replaced the earlier marriage model called the biological marriage. Yitzchak knew that he was supposed to succeed his father in leading this movement, but could he do that without a Sarah at his side? No, he realized that he could not. And then along comes Mary, or in this case Rivka, and the empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch.
Now we know the truth that what Avraham and Sarah had doesn't have to be unique. Once we have the paradigm we can strive to replicate it. We need a sense of mission and partnership to accompany love and attraction. Yitzchak's eventual comfort through his new relationship gives us all hope that we can find it, too. We are all searching for our Rivka, who is attainable if we're all willing to put effort into the relationship. Dedicated to my Rivka.