By Shlomo Riskin
A fascinating aspect of the strife and the strivings of the familial development of the house of Abraham and Sarah is the stark contrast between the courtships of Isaac and Jacob. Isaac and Rebecca were brought together by a most remarkable, resourceful and faithful shadchan (marriage broker), Eliezer, who calculated that the primary criteria for the daughter-in-law of Abraham were loving-kindness and hospitality – extended to a servant and his camels, to the “lower vessels” of that society (Gen. 24:42-44). Jacob, on the other hand, found his beloved Rachel in a romantic glimpse of love at first sight and was “smitten” until death did they part. For this commentary I would like to analyze the second relationship; that of romantic love, as seen through a reading of the biblical text and the commentary of Rashi.
Love empowers – Jacob arrives in Haran, sees how the various shepherds are gathering with their herds of sheep, and quickly learns that all the shepherds are necessary together to remove the heavy boulder atop the well so that each can water their respective flock. Then comes a seemingly innocent verse which reveals a depth of passion that can move mountains: “And it happened that when Jacob looked upon Rachel, the daughter of Laban, the brother of his mother, and the sheep of Laban, the brother of his mother, that Jacob drew near [to the well] and single-handedly removed the stone from atop the well; he then watered the sheep of Laban, the brother of his mother” (Gen. 29:10).
One can picture young Jacob on the very first day of his exile taking a good look at a most attractive woman whom the shepherds have already identified for Jacob as Laban’s daughter – a girl from the very family his father had adjured him to marry into. Jacob must have stolen a second glance to ascertain that the nubile maiden was also looking at him; then I can see him removing his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, perhaps shyly flexing his muscles, and, without waiting for the usual helpers, alone lifting up the stone and chivalrously watering his uncle’s sheep! Apparently love – even love at first sight – empowers the young lover to rise to unexpected heights of physical prowess. Love can even transform time and bestow almost superhuman patience in the mind of the lover; as the Bible testifies: “And Jacob worked for Rachel’s hand for seven years; but they were only as a few days in his eyes because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20).
After Jacob removed the stone and watered Rachel’s sheep, the Bible records: “And Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted up his voice and wept.” What made Jacob weep? Rashi cites the Midrash Genesis Raba (ad loc.): that he wept because he had no gifts to present her with.
It must be remembered that the Hebrew word ahava (love) is built upon the two letter root verb hav, give; the true lover is heaven-bent on giving to his beloved, whom he sees as an inextricable part of himself. A true test of love is the extent to which one desires to give to, rather than take from, the other.
But love comes at a tragic price: The Midrash cited by Rashi gives yet another reason for Jacob’s tears: “Jacob envisioned through the Holy Spirit [a form of prophecy] that Rachel would not enter into the grave together with him.” This phrase is usually interpreted to mean that Jacob would be buried in Ma’arat Hamachpela (“The Cave of the Couples” in Hebron), whereas Rachel would be buried on the side of the road in Bethlehem on the pathway to Efrat. Their burial places would be separated.
However, I believe that the words of the Midrash have a much deeper existential significance than the mere geographical distance between the two graves. After all, built into the nature of things is the usual occurrence that two individuals – who, through the years, have come to see themselves, as a single unit, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” will leave the world of the living at different times, causing agonizing loneliness in the part of the one left behind. Does not the Bible describe the marital one-ness as the highest expression of marriage? “Therefore shall a person leave his/her father and mother, cleave [become joined together with] his/her spouse, and they shall become one flesh” (one persona) (Gen. 2:24). The deeper the love, the more difficult the separation.
Nevertheless, I believe that most would agree with the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” And hopefully to the extent that the lover and beloved truly merge as one, the most important part of the one remains indelibly tied to the other for as long as the other lives.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.