A Remarkable Love Story

One of the loveliest and most affecting scenes in the Bible is Jacob’s first encounter with Rachel.  It takes place at a well just as had the first meeting of Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, with the servant Abraham had sent to find a wife for Isaac.

We must ask: what’s the deal with meeting at wells? Was it just that they were common meeting places? Was it simply a coincidence? Or is there something extraordinary about the ignition of love and family at a primary source of both physical and spiritual sustenance for all life?

There’s a beautiful and telling pun in the account of this meeting of Jacob and Rachel that may instruct us in this matter.  When Jacob first sees Rachel he removes the stone that covered the well and waters her family’s sheep. And then he kisses Rachel.

The task of removing the stone from the well to water the animals was daunting to others, but it seemed effortless to Jacob. His initiative certainly had the immediate effect of nurturing and providing life sustaining support to the sheep.  But his decision and power to do it also owed a great deal to feeling and showing a  powerful love, a love for his future wife and our great matriarch, Rachel.

The verbs to describe “watered” and “kissed”  suggest that both actions were linked. The Hebrew word for watered here is vayashq. And the Hebrew word for kissed is vayishaq. Both words are so close to each other that they have the exact same consonants.  The watering that sustains life and the kissing that births a sustaining love – now and into the future – are interwoven threads in this wonderful narrative.

As it was true  for our ancestors, so it is true for us.

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Was Isaac Really Deceived?

The conventional reading of Chapter 27 in Genesis is that Rebecca devised, and Jacob implemented, a plan to deceive Isaac into giving the blessing that was intended for Esau to Jacob.

Is this so? Maybe, and maybe not.

The case that it was is frequently made and apparent from the surface.

Here’s the case for “maybe not:”

1. We learn in the last verse of Chapter 26 that Esau’s marriage to both Judith and Basemath was “a source of bitterness,” not only to Rebecca but also to Isaac.

2. While Isaac had poor eyesight in old age, he was keen at other senses. Could he not distinguish the voices of his two very different sons?

3. When Isaac asked Jacob (disguised as Esau) how he had succeeded so quickly, presumably at preparing the desired meal, Jacob said, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.” Esau never would have said this, as Isaac would have been more than well aware.

4. When Isaac asked Jacob (disguised as Esau), “who are you, my son?”, was he really uncertain of his identity, or was he really asking, “what kind of person are you?”

5. When Isaac was confronted by Esau for having having blessed another (Jacob) and not himself, did Isaac make any effort to withdraw the blessing or at least curse the deception or even express serious remorse? It is possible that a blessing, once given, is lodged with God, so to speak. But, Isaac showed no regret, but rather total acceptance with what had been done.

6. In verse 33, Isaac was seized with trembling at having blessed another instead of Esau. But was this rage at deception, or was it rather partly a display in front of Esau, and largely an emotion based in concern and sadness at the likely “war” ahead between the brothers?

I submit that Isaac was a man who was weak of eyesight but strong of vision. He wanted to bless Esau to restore him to God. I believe he knew and accepted Rebecca’s vision from God that Jacob would be the son to carry on the covenant. He likely understood that the older son would serve the younger, but he wanted the younger to respect the older and he wanted the two to be reconciled.

Though lacking in charisma and originality, Isaac was a sustainer of the covenant and a peacemaker. He understood the problems in his family. He was no fool.

For all the stories of how Isaac got his name, none makes more sense than that the merit of true laughter is earned by one who seeks peace in his family and hope for all its members.

It’s About Loving Kindness

Abraham sends his servant out to look for a wife for Isaac. After a long journey, the servant arrives at a well. He finds a woman who not only brings him and his camels water but also keeps bringing water until they finish drinking.

At that moment, the servant knew he had found the right woman. Why?

The woman (Rebecca, our matriarch) had shown “a quiet act of kindness buried in humility,” which, as the Tanya says, “ignites an explosion of Godly light.”

The servant, grateful for finding Rebecca, expressed gratitude to God, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His steadfast kindness from my master.”

So, it is loving kindness that is central to our covenant with God. In the circle of the community of our story, we see kindness infused throughout.

God shows Abraham steadfast kindness. Abraham seeks kindness in the marriage partner for his son (and ultimately the matriarch of all people of the covenant). The servant shows duty to Abraham in looking for and finding  kindness in the woman he sought. And the servant praises God for being steadfast in kindness to Abraham.

The tie that best binds us to God and to each other is surely Chasdo v’amito – steadfast kindness.

It’s About Partnering With God

According to the conventional reading of Genesis 18:16-33, God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their pervasive evil. In response, Abraham is said to have stepped forward to argue with God, that is, “to argue with Heaven for the sake of Heaven,” to insist that God refrain from such action if a minimum number of righteous people could be found in the cities. While this account is certainly plausible, I do not believe it to be the right or best understanding of the text.

It does seem clear that God was deeply perturbed by the cry of evil in the cities. The work of the angels God sent to the scene seemed to include imposing consequences on the cities. Further, God had action in mind, pondering, “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I will do?” (18:17).

But the text says more. God suggests that Abraham should be in on the decision because one day he will be a great nation, be blessed, and charge his children so that “they shall keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” (18:19).

Further, God discloses in front of Abraham that the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and the sin grievous. But the Divine does not act immediately to destroy the cities. God says instead that “I will go down and see; if they have done according to the cry that has come to me – destruction! And if not – I wish to know.” (18:21).

Abraham stayed in the presence of God, came close, and responded to God’s statement. With the noble words of a person entrusted by God to carry forward the principles of righteousness and justice, Abraham asks the God who is open to knowing: “Will you really sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” (18:23)

God wanted Abraham to know of the cry He had heard and to react and respond appropriately.

And hoping that Abraham would live up to His expectations, God wanted a reaction, not so much in the form of an argument, but rather a case made with ethics and facts on how to deal with the problem. Abraham gave it to Him. And, as the Divine Source for righteousness and justice, God found favor with the terms for judgment proposed by His partner on earth.