The Torah’s First Love
A newspaper reader knows from the headline what the topic of the article will be. Not so with the Torah. The title of each parashah is its first significant word; whether that word tells what will follow is somewhat up to chance. In Parashat No·ah, the title does tells us who will be the central focus of the narrative. In this week’s parashah, the title Hayyei Sarah seems to be irrelevant, misleading and yet, perhaps, fraught with meaning.
Hayyei Sarah means “the life of Sarah.” It is thus a strange introduction for a series of events that begins with her death. The opening verse of the parashah reads, literally, “Sarah’s life was one hundred twenty-seven years” (Genesis 23:1). It then goes on to tell of her death and burial. The rest of the parashah describes the recruitment of Rebekkah (Rivkah) to be Isaac’s wife, her return to Canaan with Abraham’s servant and her marriage to Isaac. If Parshiyot were given a title corresponding to their central character, this one would be Hayyei Rivkah– (“the life of Rebekkah”), not Hayyei Sarah.
Toward the end of the parashah, Sarah does reappear — not in person, but as a memory. We are told that after Isaac meets Rebekkah, he:
“… brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent and took Rebekkah and she became his wife and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67).
This is the first instance where the Torah notes that someone loved someone else. No such mention is made of the feelings between Adam and Eve, No·ah and his (unnamed) wife or Abraham and Sarah. Why then, would Isaac’s feelings be mentioned here? Nahmanides explains that the Torah hints that Isaac was greatly sorrowed by his mother’s death and that comfort was distant from him until he was consoled by his love for Rebekkah; what other reason is there that the Torah should tell of a man’s love for his wife? He loved her and was comforted by her because of her likeness to Sarah in righteousness and altruism.
Nahmanides appears to be saying that Isaac loved Rebecca not so much for herself as for her moral resemblance to his mother. It is as though he was comforted not by a flesh-and-blood person, but by an idea of a person; Isaac was in love with what Rebekkah represented. One might object to Nahmanides’ explanation; is this not taking a simple expression of love and emptying from it any romance? And yet, the Torah itself encourages this conclusion by reintroducing Sarah in a later scene that features Isaac and Rebekkah.
My student Sally Magid suggests that the type of love Isaac felt toward Rebekkah was the root of their future family problems. He admired her, which was different from loving her in the way a wife wants to be loved. The result was an overall incomplete communication flow between the two and a lack of agreement on how to raise their twin sons. We learn in the next parashah that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekkah loved Jacob; instead of agreeing on which son to bless, Isaac makes a unilateral move toward Esau and Rebekkah thwarts him by arranging for a disguised Jacob to get the blessing.
Perhaps Hayyei Sarah is, after all, a revealing title for this parashah. It might be that for Isaac, Sarah is not really dead. Her character is reincarnate in Rebekkah. If this is so, we can sympathize with Rebekkah, excuse her for arranging Isaac to be tricked in the matter of the blessing and maybe even applaud her for it. It is hard to be the object of a certain kind of admiration, where the admired one is just that — an object. A better kind of admiration is that which develops from reciprocity and a healthy relationship. From this parashah one can draw the lesson that even God does not crave an admiration so strong that it blinds the admirer to the desires of the admired.
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer