Boruch M. Boudilovsky
Rabbi of Young Israel of North Netanya

Rembrandt on the Parsha: Chayei Sarah

On the third and top floor of the magnificent Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, some of the finest paintings by Rembrandt van Rljn (1606 – 1669) are exhibited. As I and many others marveled at the beauty on display, one particular painting, called ‘The Jewish Bride’, caught my attention. Interestingly, experts have differed on the identity of the two figures featured in the painting. Nevertheless, for the brief description of the painting, the museum chose the interpretation identifying the characters portrayed as the biblical Isaac and Rebecca. The brief explanation displayed by the museum reads as follows:

It was common for people to have themselves portrayed as historical personages. This man and woman chose the loving biblical couple Isaac and Rebecca. Rembrandt veered from the conventional by representing the pair in an intimate and private moment, and by using a thick, impasto manner of painting. He subsequently worked the paint with a palette knife to create a glittering, scriptural sense of relief.

I do not know what inspired Rembrandt to specifically choose Isaac and Rebecca as a ‘loving biblical couple’, to paint ‘in an intimate and private moment’. Perhaps it is because they are seen by King Abimelech when engaged in intimacy (Genesis 26), a scene also captured by Rembrandt in a different painting. Nevertheless, the choice is validated by a beautiful commentary contributed by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg[1], known as ‘the Seridei Eish’, a responsa he authored.

In the context of Rebecca and Isaac’s yearning for children, the Torah states, ‘Isaac entreated God opposite his wife, because she was barren’ (Genesis 25:21). The word ‘opposite’ is the common translation used for the biblical word ‘lenochach’. This translation is based on the Midrashic idea that Isaac and Rebecca both prayed opposite or across each other, as opposed to together. However, based on a different Midrash, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg suggests another possible translation. The rare biblical word ‘Lenochach’ can also mean ‘focus’. This translation suggests that Isaac prayed for children having particularly Rebecca in mind. Isaac did not only pray for children. Rather, Isaac prayed that he should have children specifically with Rebecca, and that only she would be the mother of his children.

Indeed, the Torah itself attests in this week’s Parsha to the special relationship which Isaac and Rebecca enjoyed. ‘And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] into the tent of Sarah his mother; he married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her; and thus was Isaac consoled after his mother’ (Genesis 24: 67). Isaac is unique among the three founding fathers of our nation in that over the course of his life he remained married to Rebecca only.

It seems that Rembrandt’s choice to portray Isaac and Rebecca as a ‘loving biblical couple’ was indeed a good one.

[1] Born in Poland, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) served as Rabbi of Pilvishki and later as rector of the Hildesheimer rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. In 1934, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz offered Rabbi Weinberg the position of head of the London Beth Din. Rabbi Weinberg turned down the offer, preferring to stay with his students in Berlin. After surviving the war despite being trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Weinberg lived the rest of his life in Montreux Switzerland, where he authored much of his prominent works.

About the Author
Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky was born in Israel and grew up in Scotland and New York. After graduating high school in Denver Colorado, Rabbi Boudilovsky moved back to Israel where he studied at Yeshiva, served as an IDF combat paratrooper, and completed his Rabbinic training. After working in Israel as both a formal and informal educator in various exciting environments, Rabbi Boudilovsky was appointed in 2010 as Associate Rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue, the largest Orthodox community in the United Kingdom. During his years in London, Rabbi Boudilovsky led a successful startup Synagogue and community in South Borehamwood, and completed an MA at King’s College London in the department of Religion and Theology. In the summer of 2016, Rabbi Boudilovsky moved back to Israel with his family to accept the position of Rabbi of Young Israel of North Netanya.
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