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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister, and Kosher Incest?.
When you’re a couple, one of the most common icebreakers or conversation topics that you are likely to encounter is the ol’: “How did you guys meet?”
It’s a great question, because it provokes shy smiles, nostalgia, warmth, and a good topic that will undoubtedly lead to others, resulting in great conversation and a good time for all.
And that’s because the way we first met our spouse/partner is highly significant in our minds. The first moments of our interaction with the person who will choose to share our lives; those first glances, sensations, impressions, feelings, scents, memories – all occupy a very prominent place in our psyche. Of all of the experiences that we may subsequently share with our spouse, few can we recall in as exquisitely rich detail as our first meeting.
So, how did Abraham meet Sarah?
We have no idea. Presumably, as she was his niece, they met pretty early on at family get-togethers. But what was the event at which they made the decision to marry, to spend their lifelong journey together? Torah apparently did not consider those details important enough to relate.
How interesting it is, then, that when it comes to the union of Isaac and Rebecca, the story of how their match was arranged is related in painstaking detail, in a manner quite uncharacteristic for the Torah, which typically employs an economy of words in describing even the most significant events. In Parshat Chayei Sarah, however, virtually the entire Parsha is consumed with the tale of Abraham’s instructions to his servant, Eliezer, to find a bride for Isaac; how Eliezer faithfully carried out those instructions; and how fate led Eliezer to Rebecca’s family. Then, once Eliezer meets Rebecca’s family, Torah repeats the entire story again in Eliezer’s own words from his perspective. Ultimately, Rebecca leaves with Eliezer, meets Isaac, gets married, and they live happily every after. Sixty-seven verses! That’s a lot of verse!
The events that brought Isaac and Rebecca together are arguably not the most romantic of tales, as Abraham and Eliezer plan Isaac’s marriage with very little input from the groom himself. Still, the fact that the Torah spends an entire portion relating how this marriage came to be is an anomaly worth exploring.
So what is it about Isaac and Rebecca?
Isaac and Rebecca, we are told, represent the first “Jewish” marriage. In other words, this is the first marriage which is built upon the foundations of monotheism, and imbued with an awareness of Jewish destiny. Abraham and Sarah met and married when they were still Abram and Sarai – before Abraham set out on his divine journey, before his circumcision – and perhaps even before he discovered monotheism. Isaac, on the other hand, was the first child to be circumcised at eight days old; and he was the first child born to a “Jewish” family. Rebecca, a distant cousin, is described as a “rose among the thorns.” Already at a tender age (more on that later) she possessed character traits that were well-suited to Isaac’s household and life-mission. Indeed, it was these very traits – gratuitous kindness, compassion and generosity – that confirmed for Eliezer that she was the right one for Isaac. She goes out of her way to ensure that Eliezer and his men – strangers – are immediately provided with water, and that their camels, too, are able to drink their fill. The Torah is careful to note that Rebecca was a virgin, and that “no man had been intimate with her.” Genesis, 24:16. Rashi explains that to mean that Rebecca had not succumbed to a common practice among Canaanite girls to guard their virginity by protecting their hymen, while secretly engaging in anal sex. According to Rashbam, it means that Rebecca had never even made out with another man due to her modesty.
Regarding no other biblical bride do we find such a focus on her character. Not Sarah, not Rachel, not Leah, not Yocheved, not Tzipporah. Back then, when being “Jewish” meant embracing monotheism and a lifelong commitment to morality and kindness, the Torah emphasizes that Rebecca was definitely Jewish.
Hence, our first Jewish wedding.
And there are some other telltale signs that this marriage was special.
For the very first time in the Torah, the word “love” is used. “And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her.” Genesis, 24:67. We know that Abraham had tremendous respect for his wife, Sarah, and we know he found her to be exceedingly beautiful – and he probably loved her – but the expression “love” is only first used when Isaac marries Rebecca.
Unlike his father Abraham and his sons, Jacob and Esau, Isaac never takes a second wife. Even when Rebecca proves to be just as barren as Sarah had been, or as Rachel would be, there is no talk of “sleeping with the maidservant,” as every one of the other three matriarchs proposed to their husbands. Isaac and Rebecca were entirely monogamous; and while they prayed very hard for children, they did not consider breaking that monogamy as an acceptable price.
Finally, in next week’s Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca move to G’rar, in the land of the Philistines. There, Isaac borrowers from a page in father’s book, and announces that Rebecca is his sister, not his wife. Unlike Sarah, however, Rebecca is not abducted, and she and Isaac are able to settle in the land, unmolested. One day, however, “Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, looked through the window, and he saw, and behold, Isaac was playing with Rebecca his wife.” Genesis, 26:8. There are a couple interesting aspects to this.
First, the word used for “playing” – “Mitzachek” – is a euphemism for sexual intimacy. (Rashi.) In virtually ever other place in the Torah where the same word is used, it is used to connote something very negative. For example, when Sarah sees Ishmael “playing” in VaYeira (Genesis, 21:9), Rashi immediately suggests that it could be a reference to idolatry, to murder, or to illicit relationships. Similarly, when the Israelites got up to “play” after the golden calf was forged, Rashi again notes that “play” is, in addition to idolatry, a reference to sexual immorality and bloodshed. Exodus, 32:6. Conversely, when sexual intimacy is described, “he knew her,” “he came to her,” and “he lay with her.” However, Isaac and Rebecca are of a different mold. Their sexual congress is playful, merry. Their intimacy requires that an exception be made, and that a word that ordinarily has only sinful and immoral connotations is used to describe the nature of their sexual interaction. For, notwithstanding its ordinary use, it really is the perfect word to describe Isaac and Rebecca’s light-hearted and fun sex life.
Second, did you read the part about them having sex in front of the open window? Scandalous! How carefree must they have been, to be making love where they could be watched – and by King Abimelech no less! This too suggests a far more fun and frivolous attitude towards sexual intimacy than we are used to hearing in the Torah.
So this week, let us celebrate the first Jewish wedding, and the first romantic relationship recorded in the Torah, and let us consider what it is that made Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage such a success. More on that next week.