At the end of Parashat Vayeira, after the binding of Isaac, the story concludes, “Then Abraham returned to his servants …” and no mention is made of Isaac! The father and son arrived together and then only Abraham returned. The sages, of course, question this and wonder whether Isaac was estranged from his father. The Kotzker Rebbe (R’ Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk (1787–1859)) taught that although it was hard for Abraham to bind his son on the altar, it was also hard for him to release him because he knew that Isaac would always remember that his father had come close to killing him.
In his book Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz describes both Isaac and Rebekka, who came from such contrasting backgrounds.
Isaac, he points out, was nurtured and prepared for his task of continuing Abraham’s spiritual legacy by his mother and father. (Sarah, for example, sent Ishmael away to shield Isaac from what she perceived to be his negative influence and Abraham complied. ) Isaac was a passive personality: he did not go to find a wife – she was brought to him; he did not go to war – the fighting was all done for him; and even when he prayed for his sons and for the future, it was Rebekka who engineered it.
In contrast, Rebekka’s outstanding quality was her resoluteness: her certainty and her commitment to whatever she believed to be right. She is also portrayed as generous and open-hearted in her encounter with Eliezer at the well.
In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt speculates why Rebekka was so unhesitating when asked whether she would go with Eliezer and wed Isaac: maybe like Abraham and Sarah she was willing to be a pioneer and go out into the desert; maybe she was tired of her scheming materialistic brother and sought a more meaningful existence; or perhaps she was simply a young girl happy for the chance to leave her father’s house and spread her own wings. In any event, Rebekka was as proactive as Isaac was passive.
Rabbi Steinsaltz says that the two were actually complementary. For all her determination, Rebekka made no effort to dominate Isaac. It was clear to her that he was saintly and righteous, but that his blindness was not only physical. She tried, therefore to ensure that the right son received Isaac’s blessing. Whereas Isaac grew up as the child of righteous parents, Rebekka was raised in an unsavory family and she was thus a far better character judge than Isaac.
Rabbi Steinsaltz concludes, “Isaac knew evil only from afar, Rebekka from close up. Her life was a personal victory over her environment…she who knew the pain and ugliness of evil would have to be the one to manifest her own personal victory of light shining through the darkness.”
The Torah describes the meeting: Isaac had gone out to walk in the fields in the afternoon. The Talmud (Ber. 26a-b) interprets “walking” as “praying”. Rebekka approached on a camel. The text, using identical phrases for both Isaac and Rebekka, conveys an impression of simultaneity: each looking up and “recognising” the other. In Rebekka’s case, the account is expanded: that she slipped down from her camel and covered herself with her veil. The Midrash asks how she perceived him and answers that she was in awe when she saw him praying to his invisible God, which was very different from her idol-worshipping family. In her book The Beginning of Desire, Avivah Zornberg suggests that Rebekka was suddenly aware of Isaac’s suffering and donned a veil as if to shield herself from it.
The Torah tells us that Isaac brought Rebekka into his mother’s tent and he loved her and found comfort after his mother’s death (Bereishit 24:67). This is the first reference in the Torah to love between spouses. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) tells of a light shining over Sarah’s tent throughout her lifetime, which disappeared after death, but returned when Rebekka arrived.