A Word of Torah - Parashat Hayyei Sarah
My Jewish upbringing was entirely cultural, not religious. Yiddish aphorisms did more to shape my identity than any biblical story. For a long time I missed the irony that, though raised an atheist, I was taught to believe that certain things were basheyrt - meant to be. Certainly the Torah wants us to understand the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac as basheyrt.
That seems to be the import of Rebecca’s birth providing the coda to the Akeida. That seems to be the sense we are to take from her anticipated appearance to Abraham’s servant. And that seems to be the feeling conveyed by the story of Rebecca’s and Isaac’s first meeting. That story has a luminescent quality to me. It glows with the fading sunlight of a field at the end of day. The scene seems to be filled with humor - Rebecca falling from her camel - and pathos - Isaac wandering, alone in his grief. We feel a fulfillment of destiny as they come together for the first time. The one discordant note for me has been its ending - with Isaac taking Rebecca into Sarah’s tent and there finding comfort for his mother’s death.
And yet, as I think about it, this discordant note too points toward the basheyrt character of Isaac’s and Rebecca’s relationship, for it reminds us that he, far more than his father or his son, is dependent on the women in his life. Both Abraham and Jacob are great religious innovators; the former as the initial recipient of God’s covenant, the latter as the one who shapes that covenant into one of mutual dependency. As religious innovators, their relationship with God is their primary relationship; the one whose parameters define all others. Certainly in the case of Abraham, we sense that obedience to God’s will trumps care for his son. This may well have made the bond between Isaac and Sarah all the closer. Thus the mourning and thus the comfort in seeing Rebecca as his mother’s successor.
Isaac is not intended to be an innovator. His role is to preserve what his father has created and transmit it to Jacob. In accomplishing this task, his primary relationship is not with God, but with his wife. Indeed, Rebecca seems to understand and appreciate Isaac’s role more keenly than he does.
Isaac and Rebecca present us with an out-of-fashion picture of an ideal marriage. In our modern conception, marriage is the coming together of two people for love, support (emotional and/or financial) and companionship. As such, marriage is really about the relationship between individuals. To the extent that they subsume their individual identities behind a common purpose, they do so for the sake of raising children (though this is not always the case).
But Rebecca and Isaac share a common purpose. Indeed, one might argue that God communicates that purpose more directly to her than to him. After all, it is to Rebecca that God reveals the startling news that “the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Her purpose seems to be the fulfillment of his purpose and he seems incapable of fulfilling it (or perhaps even understanding it) without her. Because the bond between Rebecca and Isaac is one of purpose rather than relationship, she can deceive him in the service of that purpose without threatening the bond. And oddly enough, their relationship seems to flourish on account of that purpose. I love, for instance, how Isaac, unlike his father, cannot stay away from Rebecca long enough to pull off the “she’s my sister” ploy.
Which leads us back to the question, what exactly does it mean to be basheyrt? In Parashat Bereishit we are told that “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). From a modern perspective, we may be tempted to read this passage as both sexist and heterosexual-centric. But I do not think either of those limitations impact its main point. That main point is of two people becoming one. They are one not just as lovers or supporters or companions, but in sharing a common purpose in life; a purpose that neither could attain without the other. Unlike any other couple in Torah, Isaac and Rebecca are truly one; one in intention, one in purpose, and because of that, one in relationship. As such, they represent for us the purest example of what is basheyrt - what is meant to be.