Eliezer & Rebekah at the Well: The Significance of Marrying Isaac | Aleph Beta

Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection

Eliezer And Rebecca At The Well: The Deeper Significance

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Parshat Chayei Sarah tells the tale of Abraham’s servant (presumably Eliezer) and his search for a wife for Isaac – but hidden within this account is a series of words and phrases whose echoes we find, almost word for word, elsewhere in the Torah.

At face value, this 'other' story seems to have little to do with the story of Eliezer finding Rebekah by the well: It’s about the selection of one of Israel’s national leaders, not about finding a wife.

But in this video, Rabbi Fohrman suggests that the two stories have quite a lot in common indeed – and that the Torah is showing us the common thread that links Isaac and Rebekah's marriage with the idea of kingship. This video pushes beyond the obvious answers and offers a novel idea about what makes nations rise and fall, and what makes marriages succeed or fail.


Hi everybody! This is Rabbi David Fohrman and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Chayei Sarah.

How many beings would you say are there in a marriage? I mean, there’s a man and a woman. If you are really religious about it, maybe there’s God too.

But let's keep things simple. I mean, there is a man and a woman – so, there's two beings, right? No, I still say, wrong! There's something else, too. And our parsha, I think, reveals them in a very interesting kind of way. Let me take you on a little journey here.

Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well

In this week's parsha, Abraham dispatches his trusty servant Eliezer to his original homeland, Charan, to try to find somebody suitable for Isaac to marry.

Eliezer gets to Charan and settles on a test. He prays to God and says that he is going to kind of stand by a well, and the woman that offers his camels to drink and offers him to drink, that's a kind woman, and that's the person that God has chosen for Isaac to be a wife.

God sort of plays, as it were, and Rivka comes along as soon as he's finished talking and does what it is that the servant anticipates – offers his camels to drink, offers him to drink. Eliezer presents her with beautiful bracelets, says 'Have I got a man for you!'

She runs and tells her family; they bring him in, they offer him food. He says, 'No, before I eat, I want to tell you what it is that God has said – the divine sign.' And he repeats the whole thing over. And this really is the kind of courtship story, as it were, of Rivka through the agency of Eliezer.

So, I want to point out a curious thing to you. This story seems to reappear later on in the book of Samuel. It's not that there's just a couple of words here and there in the book of Samuel that remind you of the story. There is event after event; each one of these events happens in order.

Let me sketch out the elements of Genesis. For those of you who are familiar with the book of Samuel, you can try to guess what story is it that I'm thinking about.

Connections to Eliezer and Rebekah's Story

Okay, so here is the first element. Eliezer comes to town, right? He's there by the well: 'u’b’not anshei ha’ir yotzot lishov mayim,' 'and the women of the village were going out to draw water from the well.' That exact phrase appears in the book of Samuel and nowhere else in the Torah, besides Genesis.

But it's not just that phrase. Immediately after that, 'terem kilah l’daber,' 'just as he was finishing.' The Hebrew word terem appears not just in Genesis, but then again in this other story in the book of Samuel.

And right after terem, 'hinei rivka yotzeit' – 'and behold, Rivka was going out.' In that story in the book of Samuel, 'Behold!' Someone else was going out – the same words, hinei, yotzei.

And then right after that, Rivka goes to the well. 'Va’timaleh kadah,' she fills her jug; 'va’ta’al' – and goes up. 'Going up' is the next element in the book of Samuel.

You go a little further in the Genesis story, Rivka goes in and tells her family about this. The man from the family comes out, Laban, and says, 'Hey! Why are you standing outside? Come inside and come to eat.' Except that, the person being invited says, 'No, no, no. I only want to tell you about the Divine secret that just happened.'

Well, that same thing happens in the Book of Samuel. What story has all of these elements, every single one, in order, in the Book of Samuel echoing the Book of Genesis?

Eliezer and Rebekah... and the Book of Samuel?

It's the selection of Saul as the first King of Israel.

Here's the story: Saul’s just a regular, everyday guy. And his father has dispatched him to look for these donkeys. And he is going around with his servant and he is searching for these donkeys. They can't find them. The servant says, 'Hey, I hear there is a prophet in the next town over. Let's ask the prophet; maybe he can tell us where those donkeys are.'

So they're looking around and they can't find the prophet. But, 'heimah matzu na’arot yotzot lishov mayim' – 'they found these girls that were going out to draw water from the well.' They asked the girls, 'So, where is this prophet?' They say, 'He's in the town.' And he goes out on this stage – on this altar – to offer offerings publicly.

'B’terem ya’aleh habamatah,' just before he goes up on the bamah, 'Behold! Samuel goes out to greet them.'

'Behold! Here comes Rebecca' – 'Behold! Here come Samuel.' It's the moment right before the meeting of these two special people. In this case, Samuel and Saul. There, Eliezer and Rivka.

And then, just on cue, 'la’alot habamah' – where is Samuel going? He is going up on the stage. Remember how Rivka was going up? Picking up her jug?

The book of Samuel then says that God has told Samuel the day before that God wants Samuel to anoint, as king, someone from the tribe of Benjamin. And now God tells Samuel, 'That's the one! Right over there!' Samuel invites Saul to go up on the stage and eat with him, and then says, 'Hey! I want to tell you this divine secret!' He tells him that he is to be the first king of Israel.

So, it’s really quite remarkable. I mean, we’re not just talking about a couple of words here and there; we're talking about one event after another event, after another event, after another event – that same word.

And the question is, why is the Book of Samuel echoing the Book of Genesis here? What does the author of the Book of Samuel want you to understand?

Connecting Kingship to Isaac and Rebekah's Marriage

The most obvious connection between these stories is that someone special is being selected. In the case of Genesis, it is Rivka being selected as a wife for Isaac; in the case of the Book of Samuel, it is Saul being selected as the king for Israel. Both of these selections happened through a kind of partnership between God and people.

There’s a chosen person being selected for a job, but what kind of job? I mean, here, it's almost as if the comparison breaks down. Because in the first case, she is selected for marriage. In the second case, he is selected for kingship. Is there some kind of connection between marriage and kingship? The two aren't really the same.

But I think that there really is a kind of very commonsense kind of connection between kingship and marriage. Kingship and marriage are really about the formation of a new kind of entity.

In marriage, who are the participants? A man and a woman make a marriage. So, there are two persons that you always have to think about in marriage. The man has to think about himself, but also has to think about his wife. The wife has to think about herself, but also has to think about her husband.

That's true, but that's not the whole truth. There's 'he,' there's 'she,' and there’s 'we.' The 'we' is a real entity, too. Together, they have created a new being, a nascent family.

It's actually the same thing with kingship. In Lech Lecha, Abraham gets a strange promise. We talked about this in last year's Lech Lecha video. The promise is composed of three parts. The first is, 'You'll have lots of children.' The second is, 'Your children will become a nation.' The third is, 'Kings will come from you.'

So, the kings at first glance just sound like a cherry on top. But it's just not the cherry on top. It is a direct line that connects all three of these promises. They are all about the formation of a ‘we.’

Having lots of children does not a nation make! God says, 'Not only will you have lots of children, but they're going to come together into a nation.' But a nation isn't really a nation until it has some sort of a form of government.

'Kings will come from you!' – that will really coalesce them into a nation. Because what do kings do? What is the job of a king? To look out for that third entity which is so easily ignored: Not just the 'he,' not just the 'she,' but the 'we.'

I remember recently when the three boys were kidnapped in the West Bank, and ultimately murdered, Racheli Frankel – the mother of one of these children – was asked by a rather insensitive reporter, before it was found that the children were murdered: 'Which do you want – the Prime Minister to swap hundreds of thousands of Palestinian militants for your son?' And she said, 'It may be something that I, as a mother, would want. But I don't think the Prime Minister of Israel should be setting policy for his country by asking mothers of kidnapped victims what it is that they want.'

She was saying a deep and abiding truth. Every citizen of the country would think first of themselves. And after themselves, they would think about other citizens of the country. But it is the job of the leader to think about the 'we' – the collective 'what's best for the nation as a whole.'

It's the existence of the king, the chief executive, to hold the nation together that makes it into a 'we.' If you look at Shakespeare and how Shakespeare describes the kings, he describes them by the name of the nation. This is how you talk about the king; the king embodies the community.

The Lesson Behind the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah

What was the very first 'we' that was created once Abraham got the promise that he would be the 'father of a great nation'? The very first coming together of the individuals to make a 'we' was the marriage of his child, Isaac, with Rebecca.

Through that marriage, the beginning of a promise of children would come to Abraham. That promise culminated with the gift of kings to Israel; through those kings, a national ‘we’ would be created.

Another sanctified entity would come into being, also inspiring great joy – the celebrations of coronation, which the Book of Samuel talks about. It's like marriage on a national scale. It's the great macrocosmic 'we' that comes into being.

When individuals enter into a 'we,' the challenge is for them to take that 'we' seriously. You see, individuals are tangible. It is easy to see another individual, to worry about 'my needs,' 'your needs.' The 'we' is abstract.

The challenge of a king, the challenge of a leader, is to make the 'we' happen, to worry about it. The challenge of a man and a woman who unite in marriage is to make that 'we' happen too.

Through their united action, they bring a new entity into being, an entity that they must take seriously, and not discard easily. A sanctified 'we' that is their marriage and that is their family.

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