The Akeda (Binding of Isaac) is sometimes mistakenly called “The Sacrifice of Isaac”. Of course Isaac wasn’t actually sacrificed. Yet in one limited sense the term is apposite. Midrash Rabba 65:10 (cited by Rashi) relates that when Isaac was bound on the altar the angels on high saw and were weeping. Their tears dropped into Isaac’s eyes. The effect, one might say, was to render those eyes “angelic”, unable to discern earthly failings. This may help to explain Isaac’s ‘blindness’ to the turpitude of his older son Esau.
It may also provide a clue as to why the prophecy of “the elder (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob)” (Gen. 25:23) was revealed to Rivka and not to Isaac. For Isaac such a prognostication could have resulted in a degree of cognitive dissonance with which he would have been unable to cope.
Significantly, Rivka chooses not to reveal this prophecy to her husband. The Torah does not indicate that she was forbidden to. But nor does it say she was bidden to. It is highly likely that a woman of Rivka’s sensitivity and wisdom would have understood that this information would not have helped Isaac in the least, quite the opposite.
But there may have been another reason too. Had Rivka told Isaac, she would also have had to reveal her Divine source. Whether as a result of such knowledge an angelic-eyed tsadik like Isaac would have felt even a scintilla of jealousy that he had not been informed is moot. What is important is that Rivka took into account even this unlikely eventuality. She was determined that shalom bayit (marital harmony) should reign at all costs in her home.
What must this have done to Rivka? Ideally there are no secrets between husband and wife. Certainly no major secrets. And having to harbour this classified knowledge tight inside her and seeing Isaac blind to Esau’s faults and having eventually to resort to deception in order (as she saw it) to prevent an overturning of the Divine Will (Gen. 27:15-17) must have caused this tsadeket unfathomable pain. But for Rivka it is all worthwhile. Shalom bayit reigns supreme in her marriage.
There is a revealing moment in the Avimelech episode which illustrates the extent of Rivka’s success in this mission. Avimelech, the smug Philistine king, in an act of despicable voyeurism, peers through the window of Isaac and Rivka’s dwelling “and behold Isaac was sporting (metsakhek) with Rivka his wife!” (26:8). As Abarbanel explains, they were savouring the sort of light, intimate moment a husband and wife enjoy when at home with each other (and this intimated to Avimelech that Isaac and Rivka were not brother and sister as he had been led to believe).
Let us reflect for a moment what skills and resourcefulness Rivka needed to develop in order to bring about such moments in her marriage. Isaac’s overriding mida was gevura, restraint. He was the most introspective and reserved of our Patriarchs. Yet k’shmo ken hu, a person’s name also has a bearing on his nature. The name Yitschak (Isaac) denotes ‘laughter’. Isaac’s eshet chayil, his devoted wife Rivka alone was able to coax this hidden facet of Isaac’s personality to the surface. Isaac “sported” with Rivka his wife. For Rivka, this was a way of enhancing the marital harmony she was determined to maintain despite the mountainous secret she harboured which she could not share with her husband – to her immense chagrin.
At the very moment when the weight of guarding that secret was finally lifted, when the prophecy was fulfilled, when Isaac’s eyes were at last opened to Esau’s perfidy – and, by the grace of G‑D and the dexterity of Rivka, shalom bayit continued to reign in the marriage – a new trial beckoned. Rivka had to bid farewell to her beloved son Jacob, a fugitive from her other son Esau’s murderous hatred. She was never to see Jacob again. At least Isaac was to experience that eventual joy.
Is it not highly appropriate, therefore, to speak of “the sacrifice of Rivka”? The entire life of this remarkable Matriarch was one huge selfless offering