Rabbi David Walk
Finding a spouse is a big deal, and not a simple task. So, I guess, that we shouldn't be surprised that the longest chapter in all of Genesis is dedicated to the search for a life partner. In this case a wife for Yitzchak. Of course, those of you familiar with the story are aware that Yitzchak had no participation in this process. Arranged marriages have been common through most of human history, and were the norm in Western society until the eighteenth century. Worldwide today they are still the majority (a 2012 study showed that 53.25% of marriages are arranged) of all marriages. And before we knock the practice, we should note that societies with a high rate of arranged marriages have the lowest rates of divorce. I'm not advocating, just reporting. But if you're goal is to stabilize society, you might opt for pushing the shadchan business. Under all circumstances we should be careful when choosing spouses. It was said best in Fiddler on the Roof, 'playing with matches, a girl (or guy) can get burned.' So, with that caveat in place, let's take a look at the process in this week's Torah reading.
At the outset, I must point out that Rivka alone of all the Matriarchs has her marriage process clearly laid out for us in the text. We know nothing about the courtship of Sarah, and Ya'akov chooses Rachel quickly after being smitten at the well by 'love at first sight'. But with Rivka we have this long description, but what's most interesting to me is that the rules of engagement (Don't you love that pun?) keep changing. The expectations of the various participants are totally different.
After Avraham has buried his beloved wife, Sarah, he instructs his servant (Midrashic lore, of course, identifies the 'servant' as Eliezar, but his name never appears in the text) to travel to Aram and find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham's criteria are very specific, but very negative. There are only two stipulations: 1. She must not be from Canaan, and 2. Yitzchak must not leave Canaan. There are no other requirements. But he's truly adamant about these two points and administers a solemn oath to his factotum. He does add his own faith that God would guide this holy endeavor.
The servant, on the other hand, although sharing his master's faith in Divine Providence, has his own criterion, which he clearly sets out: And it will be, that the maiden to whom I will say, 'Lower your pitcher and I will drink,' and she will say, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master (Genesis 24:14). The servant, who has observed Avraham over time, decides that he understands the needs of his master's family and his sole requirement is chesed (kindness). He understands that to become a member of Avraham's household there must be a commitment to chesed, especially hospitality. And he recognizes this quality when he sees it, and immediately latches onto Rivka, as the one designated by God. It's clear, by the way, that Rivka's family also recognizes the Divine nature of the encounter, as it says, 'And Laban and Bethuel answered and said, "The matter has emanated from the Lord. We cannot speak to you either bad or good (verse 50).'
What about Yitzchak? What are his expectations for the shiduch? No one seemed to have bothered to inquire about his wishes, but, I think that the text amply provides it. His desire was something which, I believe, neither Avraham nor the servant had the chutzpah to expect. He wanted the reincarnation of his mother. I mean that metaphorically, but there are mystical sources which claim that Rivka was, indeed, born the moment Sarah expired, and was her soul reunited with another body.
Here's the text: And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Yitzchak was comforted for the loss of his mother (Genesis 24:67). Yitzchak wanted a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad. And he got it! But what did he see in her after he settled her into his mother's tent? Rashi, based on the Midrash explains: He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., 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 events ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they resumed. Rashi lets us know that the atmosphere around the camp recognized Rivka as the heir to Sarah's mantle.
Yitzchak got what he wanted. Yitzchak is a hard character to read. When he and Rivka have been childless for 20 years, it's recorded in next week's Torah reading, that he prayed for a child on behalf of Rivka. Did he want a child? Don't know. But he did want a replacement for Mom. He took her in marriage, lived with her and loved her, because she provided the ambience he needed. She supplied Torah scholarship (symbolized by the candle), kindness (the dough), and spirituality (the cloud). Now his world was restored.
We also would like to have what Yitzchak got. We want a home with all the attributes of that famous tent. We want a mate from the tribe, as Avraham stipulated. We want a partner with positive midot (character traits), as the servant sought. But here's the difference. Rivkas, who instantly provide kedusha, don't grow on trees or hang around fountains anymore. They must develop over time. The Torah, chesed, and sanctity we want in our homes are a result of both spouses working hard to create that atmosphere over time. Unlike Yitzchak's situation, achieving that kind of home today requires years of hard work. But it's worth it.