Sandwiched between the deaths of our first matriarch and our first patriarch, we witness the choreography of a dramatic, divinely directed love story between Isaac and Rebecca. How does this powerful connection come to be? What internal qualities or practices were active in the Rebecca and Isaac story that allowed them to be open to what poet Mark Nepo calls the “exquisite risk” of an open heart?
Two middot (internal qualities), chesed and vulnerability are essential ingredients of this love story.
Isaac’s love for Rebecca is clear and unequivocal: “And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother.” (Genesis 24:67)
Does Rebecca love Isaac? The text is less clear, but something powerful happens to her when she sees Isaac for the first time: “And Isaac went forth to meditate in the field toward evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching. And Rebecca lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac, and she fell down from the camel. And she said to the servant, ‘Who is that man walking in the field toward us?’ And the servant said, ‘He is my master.’ And she took the veil and covered herself.” (Genesis 24: 63-65)
Rebecca’s kindness and generosity upon meeting Abraham’s servant at the well is as abundant as the water she pulls up to quench the thirst of the man and his camels. Aviva Zornberg writes “as she runs back and forth at the well, eagerly providing for the needs of the servant and the camels, she resembles Abraham welcoming his angel-guests – impatient, energetic, overflowing with love (chesed).” In fact, the text uses the word chesed four times in the space of two chapters, underlining the trait in relation to Rebecca. Chesed is also the trait most commonly associated with Abraham.
Rebecca’s chesed should not be considered simply being nice. Chesed in the Torah can be defined more accurately as a profound generosity of spirit. Alan Moranis writes that chesed involves acts that sustain another. She gives from a bottomless well (pun intended) of this sustaining love and kindness.
Why does this make Rebecca particularly open to receiving love?
One possibility is that chesed works directly to counteract the scarcity mentality, i.e., “I don’t have enough myself, how can I give generously to others?” Chesed abides by its own rules – generating love even as it “spends” it. As Shakespeare’s Juliet says, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.”
Emily Esfahani Smith, writing about this topic for the Atlantic, cites recent research that underlines this point. She writes, “the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.” Rebecca has this kindness orientation, and, from this space, her heart is primed for an intimate connection with Isaac.
Rebecca humbles herself before Isaac at the moment they first see each other in the fields (either “falling” or “descending from” her camel, covering herself with her veil). Isaac brings Rebecca to his mother’s tent – his place of deepest suffering and grief. The first explicit love story in the Torah reverberates with vulnerability from both of the protagonists, which perhaps is the most important requirement for love.
Brene Brown says, “there can be no intimacy – emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy – without vulnerability... . It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and, asking for what we need. Vulnerability is a glue that holds intimate relationships together.” When Isaac and Rebecca fall in love, they meet each other fully as they are: raw, unfiltered, with a generous, open and vulnerable heart.
Our challenge is to meet the world with the same.
RABBI ALAN FLAM is the executive director of the Helen Hudson Foundation for Homeless America and senior Fellow at the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University.