Rivkah Had a Great Fall
By Rav Uri C. Cohen
I give it all, I trip and fall for you
– He Is We, “Give It All,” Old Demos
The Hebrew word “nofel” can mean “to descend” or “to fall.” But there’s a big difference between the two — is it intentional or not, and is it slow or fast? “Descend” sounds like choosing to go down gradually (as in an airplane starting its descent), while “fall” sounds like losing one’s balance and plummeting (as in Humpty Dumpty’s great fall).
Which one is meant by “vatipol,” which is what Rivkah did when she saw Yitzchak? Here’s the context of the pesukim:
Yitzchak went out to the field at evening time to meditate… Rivka looked up and saw Yitzchak, and she fell (alighted?) from the camel. She asked the slave, “Who is this man in the field approaching us?” “It is my master,” replied the servant. She took the veil and covered herself (Bereisheet 24:63-65).<1>
The answer to the question of what Rivkah did may very well depend on how we understand the mood of this entire incident. To put it in contemporary terms, if you were filming this scene, what kind of music would you use for the soundtrack? Would it be elegant and refined? Tense and suspenseful? Heartfelt and romantic? Let’s examine these three possibilities.
The first option is that Rivkah descended from the camel because of her refined character traits. Rashi paraphrases “vatipol” as “hishmitah atzmah,” she lowered herself.<2> Radak elaborates that when the servant told Rivkah that the man was Yitzchak, she descended from the camel in order to put on her veil, and then she got back on the camel. Why? According to Radak, “This story teaches manners (derekh eretz) and modesty (tzniut), that it is appropriate for a woman to be shy in front of her fiance and to avoid showing her [face] to him until she marries him.” This would seem to be the precedent for our minhag of bedeken, in which a bride and groom reenact Rivkah’s veiling right before their chuppah.
A variation of the middot approach without tying it into marriage appears in the Hertz Chumash, which was once the Chumash used in most American Orthodox shuls. Rabbi Hertz, who was Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, comments here:
“Alighted from.” A mark of respect; cf. Joshua XV:18; 1 SamuelXXV:23. In the East men and women dismount on the approach of a person of importance.
“Took her veil.” Rebekah again acted in accordance with Eastern etiquette. It was not necessary for her to have her face veiled in the presence of Eliezer, since he was only a servant.<3>
In other words, Rivkah’s actions were respectful, following theminhagim of the time to show kavod. Interestingly, Seforno thinks that “vatipol” refers to her head, not her body: Rivkah lowered her head out of respect for Yitzchak.<4> This approach would call for an elegant and refined soundtrack (perhaps Mozart).
The second option is that Rivkah fell off the camel out of fear. On the words “She saw Yitzchak,” Rabbi Chiya in Bereisheet Rabbahcomments that “She saw him majestic (hadur), and she was dumbfounded in his presence.”<5> Seforno suggests that Rivkah veiled herself because she was afraid to look at Yitzchak’s face, the same way that Moshe hid his face from the burning bush because he was afraid to look (Shemot 3:6).<6> While these opinions do not directly address “vatipol,” the Netziv does:
“Rivka looked up and saw Yitzchak”: while he was in prayer. He looked like an angel of God, fearful in appearance.
“And she fell off the camel”: from fright! She did not know who he was.
“She covered her face with a veil”: From fear and embarrassment, as if with a realization that she was not worthy to be his wife. From that moment on, there was always a sense of trepidation in her heart. Her relationship with Yitzchak was very different to Sarah’s with Avraham or Rachel and Yaakov. With them, if there was a problem, they would not be afraid or apprehensive to talk it through. This was not the case with Rivka.
This story is the prologue to the story in Parshat Toldot where Yitzchak and Rivka have very different opinions. Rivka could never bring herself to talk to Yitzchak about the truth she felt regarding Esav. The same was true about the bestowing of the blessings …<7>
In other words, Rivkah’s actions were involuntary and out of shock. This approach would call for a tense and suspenseful soundtrack (perhaps Hitchcock).
The third option agrees that Rivkah fell off the camel out of shock — but it was romantic shock. After all, there is a parallelism between two consecutive pesukim in this story:
[Yitzchak] lifted up his eyes and saw — look, there are camels coming (verse 63).
Rivkah lifted up her eyes and saw Yitzchak, and she fell off the camel (verse 64)
The Tzror HaMor suggests that this parallelism is to teach us that Yitzchak and Rivkah were soulmates.<8> It’s the exact equivalent of the romantic cliche that “their eyes met across the crowded room.” While this opinion does not directly address “vatipol,” the journalist Avirama Golan does:
It is possible to view this differently, as a fateful encounter. A powerful connection of two people who were drawn together, each one to the other’s pain, with a tremendous power over which the two of them had no control. If he was praying, his prayer stopped the moment he saw her. Assuming that her falling off the camel wasn’t a charming feminine trick intended to draw attention, she was — as he was — struck with a lightning bolt of bedazzlement. “Who is this man walking in the field toward us?!” she asked Eliezer, after traveling silently the entire time. And when she found out who he was, she right away “took the veil and covered herself.” Was she that modest? Perhaps. That is, at least, the version of most commentators, and that’s what generations of religious girls have been taught. But perhaps the girl, seated by herself high on the camel’s back, became agitated and confused and didn’t know herself, out of great fear and joy and a pounding heart, all of which hit her upon seeing the man who was her intended. Suddenly, at the very moment that their eyes met and he impressed her so much, she found out that this was the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life. She lost her balance and fell from her seat.
Afterwards, embarrassed and blushing, she covered her face and head. For generations afterwards, brides have covered their heads with a symbolic veil. Generation after generation, people have recited for grooms the story of Yitzchak’s match, the most romantic story in Tanakh. Rabbenu Bechaye writes that the custom is intended “to remind the people that a man must be careful, in getting married, not to choose a woman for looks or money” (strange — Rivkah was very beautiful). But grooms can also learn, from the story, something about love.<9>
In other words, Rivkah’s actions were involuntary, but in a good way. The story of “When Yitzchak met Rivkah” was one that the two of them could later look back upon fondly. This approach would call for a heartfelt and romantic soundtrack (perhaps Titanic).
The Torah goes on to say that Yitzchak married Rivkah and that he loved her (verse 67). True, it doesn’t state explicitly that she loved him. Let’s just say she fell for him.
1. Translation from Rav Alex Israel, “Toldot 5760.”http://www.harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=810
2. Rashi on Bereisheet 24:64, s.v. vatipol. He cites Targum Onkelos, who thinks that Rivkah inclined or tilted herself toward the ground, presumably to slide off the camel.
3. Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946), The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino, 1936), p. 87 (on Bereisheet 24:64-65).
4. Rav Ovadiah Seforno (1470-1550) on Bereisheet 24:64, s.v.vatipol.
5. Bereisheet Rabbah 60:15. Also cited by Rashi on Bereisheet 24:64,s.v. vatere. Translation from Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), p. 142.
6. Rav Ovadiah Seforno on Bereisheet 24:65, s.v. vateetkas.
7. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (“Netziv,” 1817-1893), Ha’amek Davar on Bereisheet 24:64-65. Translation from Rav Alex Israel, op. cit. For an elaboration on the Netziv’s idea, see Dr. Zornberg, pp. 142-143.
8. Rav Avraham Sava (1440-1508), Tzror HaMor on Bereisheet 24:64,s.v. vatisa.
9. Avirama Golan (1950-), “Your Curse Will Be Upon Me, My Son” (Hebrew), in Ruthie Ravitzky, ed., Kor’ot MiBereisheet (Yediot Acharonot, 1999), pp. 197-198. Translation is mine.