Over the summer, I took my kids to the shore with my friend Mia and her children. At a beachside café, I explained to my 5-year-old son, Jeremy, what was on the children’s menu.
“You can have macaroni and cheese,” I said. “Yay!” he said, jumping up and down. “Or you could have a grilled cheese sandwich…” “Wow! I love grilled cheese!” “Or you could have pancakes…”
Again, Jeremy raised his hands and exclaimed, “Yay, pancakes!” as if he were cheering for the home team at a football game. My friend Mia noticed how excited Jeremy was about each of the options. After lunch, we walked to the beach, and Jeremy and the other kids ran and leapt with delight at seeing the ocean. As Mia and I trailed behind, she nicknamed Jeremy, “Mr. Exuberance.”
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of someone who exhibited such exuberance: Rebecca. The parsha is called Chaye Sarah — the life of Sarah — because it begins by recounting Sarah’s death. However, most of the portion recounts the first love story in the Bible, between Isaac and Rebecca. Prior to this, Genesis retold the story of many couples: Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, and Sarah and Abraham. But the story of Isaac and Rebecca is the first time the word “love” is used in the bible to describe the relationship between spouses. This word shows that Isaac and Rebecca shared something special, something beyond what their parents and grandparents experienced.
When Rebecca saw Isaac for the first time, she had a dramatic reaction. She was riding to meet Isaac. When she saw him, she literally “fell off her camel.”
The word “love” is used later in the bible for the relationship between Jacob and Rachel. In that story, Jacob also has an intense reaction to seeing his beloved for the first time. The bible recounts that when Jacob saw Rachel, he kissed her and wept.
The actions of these biblical characters are intense by modern standards. Try to imagine any man today who would cry over a first kiss. Or a woman who would be moved by this response, rather than alarmed, or even scared off.
Children are known for extreme reactions — leaping with glee or sobbing uncontrollably. However, as adults we’re taught to dull our emotions. We try not to cry too much, even when we’re grieving. We rarely jump for joy. (The photographer at my wedding staged a picture of my husband and I jumping for joy, but I can’t remember the last time I spontaneously leapt with delight.) When my husband comes home from work at night, my children sprint to the door and jump into his arms, whereas I tend to stay seated and calmly say hello. Having blunted our responses, we then wonder why we seem to have lost our lust for life.
This week’s parsha reminds us of the inextricable link between emotion and passion. Genesis teaches that to experience love, we have to be open to overwhelming feelings, even when they embarrass us or throw us off balance. In this way, we too can become exuberant.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.