The Torah’s Slip of the Tongue
There’s a certain delight in catching a person in a “slip of the tongue”, a so-called “Freudian slip”. Unintentionally, the person speaking has let us into his inner thoughts and revealed a concealed, sometimes profound, perception. In our Torah portion this week, we seem to be privy to just such a slip of the tongue – or slip of the text, in this instance – and it leads us to profound insights about the nature of human relationships.
Parshat Hayyei Sarah is consumed with the search for a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. The story of Abraham’s servant faithfully seeking and finding Rebekah, in far off Aram-Naharaim, is told engagingly and romantically, and we are delighted when she consents to be Isaac’s wife. When Isaac and Rebekah actually meet – toward the end of the parashah – they seem to be quite taken with each other; he lifts up his eyes from “meditating” in the field, and she seems to fall off her camel when she spies him! And then the Torah tells us: “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67) This (JPS) translation of the Hebrew text is suggestive enough; we get a sense of Isaac’s grief over the loss of his mother, and we learn that Isaac loved Rebekah and she brought him deep comfort. But the “Freudian slip” in the original Hebrew is even more suggestive – for it tells us that Isaac brought her ha’ohela Sarah imo – ” to the tent, Sarah his mother.” Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, citing a midrash, comments: “literally, he brought her to the tent, and she became Sarah, his mother – that is, she became like Sarah, his mother. For as long as Sarah was alive, there was a lamp lit from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, and there was blessing in the dough, and a cloud attached to the tent [as a divine protection]. When she died, they ceased; and when Rebekah came, they returned.”
Was Rebekah really Sarah come alive again, filled with Sarah’s piety and warmth? Certainly Rebekah was capable of deep kindness – she had provided water for Abraham’s servant and for his camels, out of the goodness of her heart. But what is essential in the Torah’s “slip of the tongue” and Rashi’s insightful commentary is this: Isaac needed Rebekah to be like his mother. He brought her to the tent of his mother, hoping that she would fulfill the hole in his heart that had existed since Sarah had passed away. The medieval commentator Radak furthers our understanding of Isaac’s anguish. In explaining the odd wording of the end of the verse (literally: “and Isaac found comfort after his mother”) Radak says: “this is after he had already mourned for her. For even though three years had passed since his mother had died when he took Rebekah, he was still mourning for her, and he was comforted by the fact that “Rebekah was good, as his mother had been.”
Isaac had a complex childhood and young adulthood. He was born to his parents in their very old age, after they had despaired of ever having a child. It’s clear from the Torah text that his mother was very protective of him – she had his half- brother Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hagar banished from the household to guard Isaac’s status and perhaps his morals. Though this is unstated explicitly, Sarah must have lavished enormous love on Isaac as a child. He was her first, her only, her longed-for son. The bonds between the two of them must have been terribly strong. Complicating the matter, Isaac’s father – though he had prayed and longed for a son to continue his line – chose obedience to God’s command over protection of his son. After Isaac’s “binding” by his own father as an “almost sacrifice” Isaac can only have had a strained relationship with his father (even if he understood the importance of the test God had given them both). Perhaps they had no relationship at all. When Sarah died, Isaac’s world caved in on him. Midrash Hagadol on our verse tells us that: “Every time he entered her [Sarah’s] tent, he would tear his hair.” He was bereft. His father had tried to kill him, and his mother was now dead. To whom could he turn? With whom could he find comfort?
He found comfort, and he found love, in Rebekah, and the Torah’s “slip of the tongue” is profound indeed: “Isaac then brought her into the tent, Sarah his mother. “ Rebekah was for him everything that his mother had been for him. She was someone who loved him, and whom he could love wholeheartedly in return. She was someone he could trust, someone who would take care of him and protect him. She was a presence in his home, and indeed created that sense of home, a sanctuary, a refuge for him. Though it was not to last, and life with Rebekah would grow more complex as the years went by, at this point in Isaac’s life – when he was so vulnerable and in such grief – Rebecca was a lifeline to him, bringing him many of the same comforts Sarah his mother had blessed him with.
May we in our lives find the same depth of comfort and love from our partners as our forefather Isaac found in his bride Rebekah.