This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins by telling us that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebecca, but soon found out that his wife was barren. Despite this, Isaac did not lose hope, nor did he allow it to ruin his relationship. He could have followed the route of Abraham, who had a child through his wife’s maidservant Hagar. Or, he could have done what his son Jacob would later do, shouting at his wife in frustration that he was powerless to do anything (Genesis 30:2). Isaac did neither of these things. Instead, the Torah tells us he prayed on her behalf, together with her, and she immediately conceived. This is something that no other forefather was able to accomplish. There was something absolutely unique about the connection between Isaac and Rebecca. A careful study will reveal the answer: the love between Isaac and Rebecca was a perfect one.
Back to the Garden of Eden
Early in the Torah we read the narrative of Adam and Eve. The second chapter of Genesis describes the very first marriage, and naturally contains the secrets to a healthy relationship. The text states that initially man was created whole, with both female and male aspects in one body. Then, God split this being in two, forming a separate male and female half. It is concluded that therefore a man “shall cleave unto his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) The idea is that they began as one flesh, as a singular, unified being, and it is their destiny to return to this state of oneness. No person is complete without their other half.
Perfect Love & Intimacy
Isaac and Rebecca embodied this unity. Whereas Abraham and Jacob both had multiple wives, Isaac had just the one. He was the ideal monogamist. And his love for Rebecca was perfect, too. This can be proven with a very simple Torah principle. It is said that whenever a concept first appears in the Torah, the context of that verse signifies the very essence of that concept. So for example, if we wanted to learn about the very essence of love, we would have to find when it is first mentioned in the Torah. We see that the very first time that the Torah mentions love between a man and a woman is when it states: “Isaac brought [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he married Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her.” (Genesis 24:67)
We read later on in the parasha that Isaac and Rebecca lived in the land of Gerar. Like his father before him, Isaac told the immoral locals that Rebecca was his sister so that they wouldn’t try to kill him in order to abduct her. The Torah then tells us that one day the king of Gerar, Avimelech, was passing by the home of Isaac and Rebecca. He happened to look through their window, and lo and behold, he saw Isaac “entertaining” his wife (Genesis 26:8). Avimelech is horrified, thinking for a moment that he was witnessing incest, then realizing: “She is your wife! Why did you say ‘she is my sister’?” (26:9) This short passage is often overlooked and forgotten, yet it happens to be the only narrative in the whole Torah that explicitly mentions an act of sexual intimacy, and not just in the sense of procreation, but simply for pleasure!
Very little is said of Isaac and Rebecca in the Torah (the least of all the forefathers), yet it seems like everything that is said points to the fact that Isaac and Rebecca shared a perfect, wholesome love. What was their secret?
The Torah tells us the secret to a successful marriage right from the start: a husband and wife are not two entities, but one. It is only when a couple sees themselves as totally united that their relationship can flourish. In the same way that a person would do anything for themselves (and not think twice about it), they must be willing to do anything at all for their partner, no matter the difficulty involved or patience required. In the same way that a person always forgives themselves very quickly, they must be willing to forgive their spouse just as fast. In the same way that a person always thinks about what’s best for themselves, they should be constantly thinking about what’s best for their other half. If a couple can weave this approach into their relationship, they will surely enjoy a “Garden of Eden” as God originally intended.
This is precisely what Isaac and Rebecca did. And the proof is in the numbers. Though some people are quick to disparage the Jewish numerological practice of gematria, it is at the very least a “condiment to wisdom” (as the Mishnah in Avot says) and often illustrates things quite beautifully. The numerical value of Isaac (יצחק) is 208, while the value of Rebecca (רבקה) is 307. Together, they make 515, which is exactly the value of the Torah’s command for a husband and wife to become “one flesh” (בשר אחד). This is the key to perfect love and marriage.