Chayei Sarah: Lifting One’s Eyes

Rebecca’s lofty vision.
Was it love at first sight?

Table for Five: Chayei Sarah

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching. And Rebecca lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac, and she let herself down from the camel.

-Gen. 24:63-6

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Author, “Why God Why”

The phrase “lifting one’s eyes implies seeing beyond the immediate. In relating the first shidduch (arranged marriage) in the Torah, both Isaac and Rebecca “lifted their eyes” to see G-d’s Divine plan taking shape. The Midrash fills in some background: Three years earlier, Abraham bound Isaac in the ultimate test of faith (the Akeida), right after which Sarah died. For three years Isaac studied in the Yeshiva of Shem in Jerusalem, and now, at age forty, was ready to get married.

However, he was concerned about his widowed father being alone when he married, so he went north to Abraham in Be’er Sheva and proposed Abraham marry Ketura, (Gen. 25:1) who was Hagar, Abraham’s once wife. At this visit Abraham told Isaac that his shidduch was in the works.

Isaac was now ready to meet his destined one. Their encounter took place in Hebron where Sarah was buried, since it is customary to visit the grave of one’s parents before marriage. He also stepped into an orchard to pray for his future. When he saw a caravan approaching, he lifted his eyes* and intuited that this was G-d’s synergy coming together, it was his past’s closure and his future’s beginning. Rebecca, upon seeing this dignified man with an aura of holiness about him leaving the orchard, also “lifted her eyes” to see not only her betrothed but also her past’s closure and her future’s beginning. She then humbly descended from the camel to meet her husband-to-be.

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, Congregation B’nai Torah

The Hebrew word used for “let herself down” is “vatipol” which can mean to fall or to simply lower oneself down in a controlled manner.

Several Midrashim indicate that what transpired was in-between, not that she fell off, but that Rivkah let herself down quickly upon seeing the man coming towards them, who was Yitzchak. This sudden move, according to many, was because she sensed that this dignified and holy person approaching her was her husband-to-be and she let herself down to greet him.

We ask, why would she assume this? There were many people in Canaan going from place to place all the time! She only confirmed it was Yitzchak after she let herself down and asked Eliezer. It would seem that this experience parallels that of Eliezer; he first saw her kindness in watering his camels and assumed that she was the right spouse for Yitzchak, and only then affirmed this by asking her who she was. He then discovered that she was indeed of Abraham’s kin – from whom he was supposed to find a wife for Yitzchak. Her character spoke for itself and affirmation followed.

So too, Yitzchak’s demeanor and spirituality was obvious to someone of Rivkah’s lofty vision – she merely needed confirmation of that which she was already aware of by her own apprehension. This is a great theme in Genesis – that good character speaks for itself, and that is where our primary focus needs to be, and all other factors are subordinate to it.

Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Composer, Pray-er, Meaning-Seeker

Sometimes we get lost in the noise of the world around us. This is especially true when we’ve been through something traumatic. Prayer allows us to tune our frequency to what is happening within and open up our hearts to possibility and hope. We don’t know how much we need this. When Isaac goes out to pray in the field, he is in a state of shock. The last time we heard from him was when his father Abraham was about to sacrifice him. Since that time his mother Sarah has died and now he is alone. He goes out into the field filled with heartbreak. I imagine him sitting amongst the tall grasses, humming to himself, searching for comfort.

But perhaps he was not completely alone. The word “su’ach”, “prayer/conversation,” can also be read as “si’ach” “shrub”. Rebbe Nachman teaches that Isaac’s prayer was accompanied by every bush and shrub in the field, waving and swaying and giving strength to his prayer.

Only when Isaac felt that strength and support elevating his prayer was he able to lift up his eyes and see what life could look like beyond the pain of his mother’s death and the trauma of being bound. As Rabbi Naomi Levy writes, “But prayer is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. An opening up.” What would it look like for us, like Isaac, to awaken our prayer and the prayers of those around us as a vision of hope for the future?

Dini Coopersmith, Teacher, Trip Coordinator, www.reconnectiontrips.com

The Netziv in his commentary addresses the unusual relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka that might have been rooted in this verse: “When Rivka saw this holy man praying in the field, looking like an angel, she was intimidated and awe lodged itself within her heart so that she never felt comfortable speaking openly to Yitzchak, like the other matriarchs did with their husbands.”

This first impression of Yitzchak praying in the field made Rivka feel inferior and insecure, and as a result, even more than 20 years later, she didn’t want to tell him about the bizarre battling in her womb, the prophecy she received regarding their 2 sons, nor to oppose him directly regarding Esav’s evil and receiving of the blessings. Perhaps she felt she needed to protect him from any painful information, and just took care of things to the best of her ability.

For Yitzchak’s part, it is clear he loved Rivka unequivocally, and considered her his ideal partner and matriarch to parent a nation. He prayed that she would be his only wife, differently than the other forefathers.

It’s interesting to learn that our matriarchs and patriarchs are human, can have insecurities, triggers and emotions like we do. This marriage is certainly not typical of our forefathers and foremothers. Yet, even with their seeming lack of communication, a culture and age gap, there was also deep love and a certain partnership between them that worked to fulfill their mission in life to create a Jewish nation.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU

Some moments are so extraordinary that we are forever changed. So, what’s so important about this one? Isaac goes “lasuach” (to walk?) in the fields. He looks up and sees Rebecca on the camel. Rebecca looks at Isaac, and falls off the animal. Learning who he is, she covers herself in a veil.

According to the rabbinic midrash, lasuach — a verb that appears just this one time in the entire Bible — means “meditate” or “talk.” In other words, the first moment Rebecca sees Isaac, he is talking, meaning he is praying. As a result, Rebecca loses it. So caught up in the moment, their eyes meet, and she literally falls for him. This is the first time the Hebrew word for love is used and perhaps the origin of “love at first sight.”

Another interpretation suggests that Rebecca was taken with what she witnessed in Isaac, a man who “walked among shrubs.” In the words of songwriter Naomi Shemer’s “Song of the Grasses”:

Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.

Know that each and every grass has its own song.

And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made … And from the song of the grasses, the tune of the heart is made.

In that moment, Rebecca and Isaac both understood that nature inspires prayer. And that prayer inspires connection to God and to others. In that one, indescribable, shared experience, they saw and knew that love linked their destinies forever.

With thanks to Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Dini Coopersmith, Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe and Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Image:  ‘Isaac and Rebecca,’ by Friedrich Bouterwek, 1840

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